Death Moving in Reverse: Bremen 1st Presbyterian Church

I’ve recently had the opportunity to preach a few Sundays at a small church in Bremen, GA to a congregation of less than 30 people.  They are wonderfully welcoming and intelligent people who need a full-time pastor, but in the mean time are incredibly gracious and grateful to even have a 1st year seminary student.  This is a transcript (loosely) of my sermon from the first Sunday in Advent.

1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house [will] be established as the highest of the mountains, and [will] be raised above the hills; all the nations [will] stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that YHWH may teach us the ways of GOD and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4YHWH shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; [and] they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD::

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

So, just a brief historical background for this text: Israel has divided into two kingdoms, north and south, and Isaiah is a prophet in the southern Kingdom of Judah, whose capital is Jerusalem.  Right around the time that Isaiah would have begun his prophetic career, Israel is conquered by the nation of Assyria.  Now, Assyria in the 8th century is the world’s superpower and is creating the largest empire the world has ever seen … So the small little nation of Judah, you can imagine, is simply waiting for the massive army to march south and conquer them, just as they have conquered Israel.

Its important to understand that to be conquered by a foreign nation is to lose all certainty.  You may be exiled to another land, you may lose the freedom to worship your God … or you may simply be killed.  No matter what it ends up looking like, though, its not going to be good.

Now, I want you to keep Keep that history in mind as we listen to these word from Elie Weisel’s Night:

ILLUSTRATION OF EXPECTANT WAITING

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the same day, as usual the bell summoned all the heads of the blocks to go and report. They came back shattered. They could only just open their lips enough to say the word: evacuation. The camp was to be emptied, and we were to be sent farther back.

Where to? /// To somewhere right in the depths of Germany, to other camps; there was no shortage of them.

“When?” /// “Tomorrow evening.”

“Perhaps the Russians will arrive first.” /// “Perhaps.” /// We knew perfectly well that they would not.

The camp had become a hive. People ran about, shouting at one another. In all the blocks, preparations for the journey were going on. I had forgotten about my bad foot.  A doctor came into the room and announced: “Tomorrow, immediately after nightfall, the camp will set out. Block after block. Patients will stay in the infirmary. They will not be evacuated.”

This news made us think. Were the SS going to leave hundreds of prisoners to strut about in the hospital blocks, waiting for their liberators? Were they going to let the Jews hear the twelfth stroke sound?

Obviously not. /// “All of the invalids will be summarily killed,” said the faceless one. “And sent to the crematory in a final batch.”

“The camp is certain to be mined,” said another. “The moment the evacuation’s over, it’ll blow up.”

As for me, I was not thinking about death, but I did not want to be separated from my father. We had already suffered so much, borne so much together; this was not the time to be separated.

I ran outside to look for him. The snow was thick, and the windows of the blocks were veiled with frost. One shoe in my hand, because it would not go onto my right foot, I ran on, feeling neither pain nor cold. /// “What shall we do?”

CONNECT TO TEXT

This is one of the milder scenes from the novel and yet, it conjures up the depths of human fear and anxiety in a way that may help us feel the weight of what Israel and Judah were going through when Isaiah comes on the scene.

A few comparisons: In Auschwitz there is the threat of evacuation :: in Judah there is the threat of being conquered and exiled, while in Israel, those things have already happened. /// In Auschwitz, there is a faint hope that; a waiting; a life and death need for the Russians to show up and liberate the captives :: in Israel that same hope and waiting and need is put on YHWH. /// For Weisel, above all else, he is afraid of being separated from his father :: and at the heart of the fear of exile from Jerusalem is the fear of being separated from the Temple and from the Promised land … these things are the identity of the Jewish people and to be separated from them is to be separated from YHWH … from their father… It can leave you numb, only able to ask the question “What shall we do?”  “What CAN we do?”

CONNECT TEXT TO PRESENT

Now, in the Christian church, we believe that the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is holy scripture and therefore we should be able to glean wisdom from these stories … and yet, it can be incredibly difficult to relate … right?  We are not living in, or even under the threat of conquest and exile.  I doubt if any of us in this room have endured the conditions that were endured by Weisel and his father, who was eventually beaten to death, in Auschwitz … and I actually think that it would be wrong to assume that we can fully understand their perspective unless we’ve actually been there ourselves.

I think that there is a common Christian understanding that defines Advent as the season in which we remember our understanding of this part of the story … In other words, Advent is remembering Israel, or even the world, as it waited on Jesus.  And while that is true in some ways, it would do us well to remember that the Jews weren’t waiting on Jesus … they were waiting on the day of the Lord … the day when all things would be made right and humanity would live in harmony with creation and creator, and that’s not how Jesus showed up!  At least not yet.

It’s difficult for me to believe that an understanding of Advent that is only about what has already happened sometime in the past isn’t also an understanding of the scriptures that doesn’t give its stories any freedom to speak into our lives today.

Maybe we think this way because we’ve been told that Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of the race and that our waiting is over … or maybe we just don’t like waiting and its easier to pretend we don’t see the unfinished, unacceptable state of the world in which we live.

But I believe that it is fair and true to say that we are still living in a world that exists in painful need of redemption.  In many parts of the world, genocide is still a reality; children are dying simply because they can’t get a clean drink of water, or enough food.  War continues to plague this planet, and that one starts to touch home.  We’re still in Iraq, and regardless of your political ideas about that war, I doubt that anyone would argue against the claim that war is not a good way of life … necessary or not … war is a way of death.

Let’s bring it even closer to home; according to the CDC, the divorce rate for the US in 2009 was exactly 50%.  Half of the relationships that come to life on account of love end up falling apart … end up dying.

Beyond that, 1 out of 10 persons over the age of 18 in the US suffers from some form of depression … that means this one touches someone in this room.

And I’m sure you’ve seen it in the news recently, that in the month of September 2010 alone … one month … at least six gay youth — all of whom endured a relentless stream of taunts and oppression by their classmates — ended their own lives.

I could go on and on, but there’s no need … the glaring, obvious truth of our current situation, is that SIN is still very alive and extremely powerful throughout our entire world … and we live in captivity to it.  We still live as exiles from the garden.

State the Problem

Life as we know it is not as it ought to be … it is incomplete; and just like Israel waited on the day of the Lord, and just like the Jewish prisoners of WWII waited on their liberators—so we still wait!  For much of the world—even for privileged us—life isn’t even the right word.

In the second half of John 10:10, Jesus is quoted as having said “I have come that they might have life…” – in Greek the four English words “they, might, have, life” are expressed in one word, and it is in the subjunctive case, meaning “not yet & not definitely.”  In other words, Jesus recognizes that incarnation doesn’t yet make real life a reality for humans.  And as the first church new and we just re-stated, neither does resurrection immediately fix things.

Our reality is still waiting.  And in the narrative that we’ve been given as Christians, what we are waiting for is heaven, right?

“For Israel, thought they may have used slightly different language, their reality is our reality … waiting on the day of the Lord.

It is in the midst of this waiting that Isaiah speaks these words … of imaginative, expectant hope—of advent—expecting the day of the lord … imagining heaven. But Isaiah doesn’t use the same kind of language we do to talk about heaven, does he?

I don’t know your experiences with conversations about heaven, but in my own experience and observation, we think about, and talk about, and even expect heaven in really intangible ways … and that’s not a bad thing, because I think it represents the truth that heaven is beyond our comprehension, but I want to read a couple of descriptions of heaven that I found online, and you tell me if they inspire you;

From GodANDScience.org – “The characteristics of the new creation tell us that it will be vastly different from what we are used to on earth. Probably the most noticeable difference will be the lack of gravity. The New Jerusalem is described as a 1,500 mile cube. Structures of this size would automatically become a sphere in this universe, because of gravity. Therefore gravity will either be absent or significantly reduced in the new creation.

Not very exciting; not very imaginative; who cares? I personally don’t find any value in this kind of description of heaven.

From CBNHeaven is where God is. He is the light of heaven, the joy of heaven. As you mature in your understanding of the Bible, you realize there is no material concept of heaven that will do it justice. The Bible talks about streets of gold as clear as crystal and walls made out of precious stones (see Revelation 21:18-21). All sorts of images immediately come to mind when we mention heaven. More than anything else, heaven is a spiritual condition where one spiritual being is in touch with another spiritual being, and there is total communication and fellowship.  Whatever we consider to be a joy here on earth will be heightened millions of times beyond anything we can conceive when we get to heaven. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).

To me this is vague – veiled in Christian language that sounds good, but what does it mean?  This kind of description may be of value, but still is not imaginative … there is no expectation of anything tangible, and so it is hard to find any real hope in these types of descriptions of heaven.

Walter Brueggeman, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, says that “it is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order … because we are energized not by that which we already posses, but by that which is promised and about to be given.”

I believe that this is precisely what Isaiah is doing in this passage.  Let’s look at it again to see what Isaiah imagines for the communities in Jerusalem and in exile … and, as we’ll see, for the whole of humanity.

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house [will] be established as the highest of the mountains, and [will] be raised above the hills; all the nations [will] stream to it.

YHWH will teach us the ways of GOD so that we may walk in God’s paths.” Out of Zion will go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4YHWH [will] judge between the nations, and [will] arbitrate for many peoples; [and] they [will] beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation [will] not lift up sword against nation, neither [will] they learn war any more.

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

BIG IDEAIsaiah’s response to a world of war, and uncertainty, and exile … is to imagine, expect, and proclaim a day in which YHWH, the one, true God, will undo those things that hinder and destroy life, and do something altogether new!

This is a specific, poetic, imaginative expression of a new reality that challenges the current way of existence, and I, like a good Presbyterian, think that Isaiah challenges the old order in three ways:

  1. 1. Wherever there is feared and realized separateness -> All Nations will stream to God’s House
  2. 2. Wherever there is injustice -> YHWH will teach us the ways of God & will judge between nations
  3. 3. And finally, wherever there is violence & death  -> the new reality is that “they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation [will] not lift up sword against nation, neither [will] they learn war any more.”

To me, the end of verse 4 is the climax of this passage and the statement that ties it all together.  It is the most poetic and the most totalizing statement that Isaiah makes here; and in a beautiful metaphor Isaiah says this:

All of the things that once promoted violence, the very instruments of death, will not be cast off into non-existence, but will actually be transformed into instruments of life; plowshares and pruning hooks are farming tools that allowed people to eat from the ground … specifically to eat food that doesn’t have to be slaughtered.  Isaiah’s imaginative vision of the day of the Lord /// is a vision of death moving in reverse.

It’s an incredibly powerful vision, especially in light of the idea that the words life & death encompass far more than physical existence and a pulse.

If death is separation and injustice, the lack of love and grace … if death is believing that you are better than someone else, or if it is self-hatred, then what does Isaiah’s vision do to those things?

What parts of your life aren’t life at all, but are actually shaped by the instruments of death?  And are you able to expect a day when those things are totally reversed? That is the kind of advent that we are invited into!  Not just a wish or desire, but a real vision; real belief, in the midst of uncertainty and exile …

Isaiah does not offer Israel a solution, but rather, in advent, offers an energizing vision of the future that has been promised. Advent is hopeful, expectant, imaginative waiting on the day of the Lord, and IT IS OUR REALITY!

Embrace it!  Learn the art of imaginative Advent, because anything less is simply waiting for death to finish its work!

PAUSE ///

It’s worth noticing the last verse of this passage.  This is the genius of Isaiah:  He doesn’t paint this vision of the day of the Lord and then move immediately into the berating that will come in the rest of chapter two, but instead realizes that the vision of God’s future is one that has the power to energize people … to energize nations!  And so, at the climax of the of imaginative vision … at the point where he says, DEATH WILL LITERALLY START GOING BACKWARDS AND REAL, TRUE, AUTHENTIC LIFE WILL EMERGE INTO A TOTALIZING REALITY, he inserts a simple invitation: 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

“I know you’re scared, I know you’re not living the life that you were created to live and that sin has its claws in you, but it won’t always be that way—these are the ways of the Lord—now COME … let’s start living them!”

PAUSE ///

You see, the thing about imaginative advent is that it energizes people to “live into reality” the new creation that has been promised and made known to them.  For Israel, their reality was a world of war … of swords and spears; a little imagination turned those weapons into farm tools and invited a better, fuller way of life.

What’s your reality?  And what will you do with just … a little … imagination?

Advertisements

~ by Will Norman on November 28, 2010.

One Response to “Death Moving in Reverse: Bremen 1st Presbyterian Church”

  1. Willy, what are you going to do in a few years when you turn 30 years old? Change the name of your blog?!?! Everyone will be so confused.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: