We are waiting. We are waiting in anticipation and hope for the coming of the infant Christ, “God in the manger” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, and we are waiting in anticipation and hope for the saving grace of Jesus to renew and restore all of creation and all of us. And today, we have two texts in particular to help us with this waiting.
The first comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, writing about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises in light of the horrors of the Babylonian exile. In the late 500s BCE, the Jewish people were utterly defeated in war by the Babylonians, their holy city of Jerusalem destroyed and their temple reduced to rubble. As was typical in that time, the elite of their society — the political, literate, artistic, and construction elite – were dragged into exile in Babylon, so that they could not rebuild their community and its life. Exile was their destiny for the next sixty years – three generations of Jews. Many born in Babylon would never see their homeland.
But Isaiah speaks a message of hope, a message of hope in God’s salvation, a message which we read as hope in the Messiah coming to us at the end of Advent. And Isaiah’s hope encompasses all that is broken – the earth itself, and the people who live here. Isaiah proclaims that God promises streams of water and blooming flowers in the desert, and healed human beings – the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the lame leaping.
Our gospel text, reiterating some of Isaiah’s words, is from Matthew: a text from the gospel readings for this new lectionary year which tells us that Jesus is the one. It’s not John the Baptist, it’s not any of the other prophets wandering around Israel – Jesus who is the one who has come to save the world. Jesus is the one who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
And here’s something you should know about Matthew as this church year begins: Matthew is very much focused on the kingdom of God, the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God – already among us in the person of Jesus Christ, but not yet fulfilled, as we can easily tell by looking around or watching the news. Already underway but not yet fully realized.
So, in this world of Advent 2017, in which we long for the fulfillment of the promises we hear in Isaiah and Matthew, where do we look? I want to tell you about two possibilities in which I engaged last week-end – possibilities open to you as well
Last Friday I “attended” a webinar produced by Interfaith Power and Light. For those of you who maybe aren’t familiar with the term webinar, it means an online presentation, which you “attend” by sitting in your office or home or local coffee shop, and watching and listening on your computer.
For those of you who don’t know what Interfaith Power and Light is, it’s a faith-based organization whose mission “is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.” Some of you may recall that Rev. Drew Genzsler, the Director of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, preached here at the beginning of this year, and that his wife, Alycia Ashburn, who works for the Ohio chapter of Power and Light and used to work for Lutherans Restoring Creation, spoke as well. And last summer Bethesda on the Bay joined Power and Light, and immediately proceeded with an energy audit of our building, which we hope will help us make more informed choices and decisions about energy in the future.
Now, you may be thinking, here we go, veering into politics. Not sure I like this. And indeed, the webinar I attended was about politics, urging us to make contact with Congress, with the in-coming administration, and with the media on matters of climate change and energy conservation.
But it was also about education – always the first step in decision-making. I will tell you honestly that I don’t know a lot about climate change. I do know that the vast majority of scientists believe that it is taking place. I know that many people question whether it is caused by human beings, but I’m not sure of the significance of that – humans don’t cause cancer, either but we certainly try to address it. And I know that one of the first things that the Bible tells us is that God has made us stewards of creation — the caregivers, the lovers, and the defenders of our beautiful planet and universe.
Isaiah’s text today begins with God’s restoration of creation – a critical component of what will happen when Christ comes again. An essential task for us as we seek to build the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. There can be no question but that work done by organizations like Interfaith Power and Light represent streams in the desert – streams of hope and life in the desert of destructive forces damaging our earthly home.
So that was Friday- a creation-focused day. On Saturday –a people-focused day — I spent the morning with a Northeast Ohio Synod discussion group on race and culture at New Covenant Lutheran Church in East Cleveland. Similar gatherings have been occurring about once a month as an outgrowth of initial conversations at the Synod gathering in Akron back in May. A couple of us attended one of those meetings at the Synod event, and came away renewed in the hope of Bethesda becoming part of a long-term inter-racial and inter-cultural conversation among Lutherans here in northeast Ohio.
The morning’s pattern was simple and easy to follow. Some instructions, two brief presentations, and an hour discussion around a table, based on a Biblical passage – or not. One of our presenters was Rev. Charles Eduardos, whom I know from our mutual interest in health care and spirituality, and whom many of you know as the pastor of All Saints in Olmsted Falls. Pastor Eduardos talked about racial prejudice as he has experienced it, starting with his high school years in which as a bright student he was discouraged from participating in Cleveland’s elite academic programs because he was a young man of color and thus considered not capable of the work – a young man who would eventually go on to study engineering and theology.
Our other presenter is a seminary student in Chicago, Mexican by heritage, who is active in the Decolonize Lutheranism effort. What does that mean? you might be asking. Well, the Lutheran Church is no longer home solely to people of western European descent. It no longer encompasses solely the descendants of European colonial powers. Today Lutherans can be found all over the world, people of all colors and ethnicities. The goal of Decolonize Lutheranism is to pursue “a strategy toward authentic diversity in the ELCA.”
Does that sound scary to you, or does it sound exhilarating? If you attend – or perhaps host – one of these events – you will like find the discussion to be both scary and exhilarating. At my table we talked openly about the election, but mostly we talked about the challenges of talking with people with whom we disagree and who disagree with us — which means that we talked about the challenges of listening and hearing what others have to say. Our Biblical text was Jonah – fresh out of the whale and headed to the city of Ninevah to warn the people there of God’s coming judgment. Now, you may recall that God sent Jonah to Ninevah, but Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t appreciate God’s love for a people whom Jonah thought should rot in hell, and he wasn’t about to preach God’s love to them. So he hopped on a ship to another city, hoping to escape his call. But a big storm tossed the ship about and tossed Jonah into the belly of a whale – after which dreadful experience he reluctantly agreed to follow God’s instructions and go to Nineveh – a place to which he did not want to go, and where people did not want him to come. And that story – of speaking and listening despite many challenges – was the jumping off point for our table’s discussion – and we did have a scary and exhilarating morning.
I would call it a morning on which the desert bloomed in East Cleveland, exactly as Isaiah promised it would. The desert of prejudice and fear and apprehension bloomed into flowers of conversation and hope.
It’s Advent, my friends. God promises the restoration of the desert – and we see that restoration beginning to take place, in the efforts of people of faith to care for the earth and to care for one another. The kingdom of God is among us – Jesus IS the one – and joy in the form of a baby on a manger nudges us to set aside our doubts and fears and open our hearts to a world in need of our faithful presence. Amen.