Advent 2b, December 7, 2014

December 8, 2014

The Road to Regeneration
Isaiah 40:1-11

40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

It wasn’t easy for me to get a preaching grip on this Isaiah passage until my friend Gerald Cound insisted that I take a look at an article in his favorite magazine, Resurgence. I only gave the article a superficial reading at that moment, but what the writer was talking about put me in touch with the prophet Isaiah. I begged Gerald to lend it to me so I could read and digest the article, and it’s a powerfully prophetic piece of journalism. He’s not quick to let go of his new editions of this magazine because he doesn’t always get them back as quickly as he would prefer, but he recognized my desperation and let me have it. This magazine isn’t a religious publication, but the article dealt with what I believe to be the earthly manifestation of our belief system – the economy. It may be a bit of an overstatement to describe our economy as the manifestation of our true beliefs, but I don’t think it’s far from the truth.

What we think of as the economy is a vast and complex structure that no one group or agency controls. And it’s not like any of us have much input on how our economy operates, but I think it’s helpful to think of our economy as the creature that best represents what we believe to be true. The writer of the article, Dr. Herman Daly, is an economist who worked for the World Bank in the late eighties and early nineties, and is currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. The article he wrote was entitled, Why we need a Steady-State Economy, and while I don’t fully understand much of what he had to say, what I do understand him to say is that our current perpetual expansion and utilization of resources is unsustainable.

And I find in his words a call for us to examine what we believe to be fundamentally true about our way of living on this planet. His article calls in to question how well we are caring for creation, and I believe that reflects our understanding of God.

I’ll say a bit more about this in a moment, but for now I want to shift attention to the prophet, Isaiah. I’ve actually experienced another one of those cosmic convergences this week – this same passage from Isaiah (which is one of the recommended readings for this second Sunday of Advent) was included in the material we covered in the daytime Disciple Bible Study group this week. Nobody arranged for this to happen – as I say, it’s a cosmic convergence. I think that has happened one other time over the past few years, but in addition to this remarkable coincidence – these words from Isaiah also inspired some of the music Diana had already arranged for the choir to sing this week. It’s not my intention to induce the rapture this morning, but we’ve got some powerful forces coming together today.

Like many powerfully poetic words, these words from Isaiah aren’t easy to comprehend, but they’ve had a powerful impact on people over many centuries. What we know of as the Book of Isaiah was actually written over the course of about 200 years – beginning in the middle of the 8th Century BCE and concluding in the early 6th Century BCE, so what we have are actually the words of more than one person who carried on the message of Isaiah. It’s sort of incomprehensible to us that someone would write a book without getting all the credit, but that was a different day, and a different economy. The people of Israel were much more communal than we are. They had a greater sense of community prosperity and community failure. Certainly they also understood individual achievement or debacle and individual fortune or misfortune, but they had these national trends, policies, and practices that either put them in good standing or set them on a course for disaster.

The prophets were those who could see where the nation was heading and they provided an interpretation of why they were going there. This prophet Isaiah spoke out against the extent of injustice within the nation of Israel and the folly of creating unholy alliances with neighboring pagan states. Isaiah called for people to be faithful to the God of Israel, but they didn’t do that so well, and when they were overrun by the Babylonians Isaiah helped them understand that to be a consequence of their unfaithfulness.

Many of the Israelites were sent in to exile in Babylon, and then when Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, it was Isaiah who identified that as an act of God that would enable the Israelites to return to Israel and to restore Jerusalem. That is the context for today’s passage. These words of comfort and restoration were for the people who had been in exile and who were being provided a way to return to the land they called home.

To study the book of Isaiah is to try to get your mind around the faith and the politics and the economy and the sociology of people who were living in the middle east about 2600 years ago. It’s not easy for us to understand, and it’s not entirely obvious what bearing those words have on our lives today, but they serve to remind me how connected we also are to the fate of our larger community.

Certainly we all have our individual issues, and most of us are trained to become entirely focused on the details of our individual lives. How well we are doing as individuals is far more important to most of us than how the national economy fares. Where we are headed isn’t nearly as important to most of us as where we are right now and how things look for the immediate future.

And I think this reflects one of our corporate or communal beliefs. I think we believe God is more attentive to us as individuals than to the world in general. I don’t think we are inherently unfair people. I don’t think any of us want to prevent anyone from acquiring wealth, but I don’t think any of us really want to think about what the world would look like if everyone in the world had as many cars and drove around as much as most of us do. I don’t think we want to imagine what kind of pressure it would put on our natural resources if everyone in the world lived in homes as large and as well heated and cooled as most of us have. I don’t think any of us want to limit the comforts of the millions of people who live in squalor across the globe, but the truth is we can’t drill deep enough to run all of the power plants and to fill all the tanks of the cars if everyone had what most of us have.

Our economy seems pretty stable. Most of us don’t anticipate that it’s going to crumble anytime soon. In fact many of us who are the beneficiaries of it’s good fortune trust it to take care of us, but when I read this article about the unsustainable nature of our global economy I felt like I was reading something that could have been written by the prophet Isaiah. And not the one who spoke of comfort, but the one who warned of looming exile. It reminded me that while we all operate our own little enterprises and maintain our own personal financial portfolios with various degrees of success – we are all citizens of the same planet – and there are no borders when it comes to environmental collapse.

Now, I know we’re approaching Christmas. It’s the season to hang lights, eat large, and max-out the credit card. I don’t mean to play the role of the Grinch who stole Christmas. In fact I probably love the extravagance of Christmas as much as anyone, but I’m also troubled by our corporate unwillingness to engage in serious examination of where our economic policies are leading us. And I’m not just talking about the failure of any one political party to see where we are headed. The truth is the global economy is unsustainable. We assume there will always be more of what we need, but the earth is only so big, and the bubble we call our atmosphere is actually very thin. God’s not making any new water, and we can’t send our toxic waste to the moon. We know what we have to work with and we aren’t doing a great job of managing it.

I’m no prophet. I’m not an economist either, but I believe the people who are doing the math and telling us that we need to find a new way to live together on this big round ball we call home. What I do know is that this world is a beautiful place to live in so many ways, and I believe there are currently too many people who aren’t able enjoy it’s fruits and if we aren’t careful there won’t be much left for those who have not yet arrived.

I don’t just believe we are headed for doom. I believe I don’t know what the future holds. I also believe our chances for a vibrant future are greatly improved if we will make more room for Jesus in our hearts. I don’t believe Jesus is going to magically prevent us from experiencing any kind of environmental, political, or economic disaster, but I do believe that if we will seek to be near to Jesus, and to trust in his abiding presence we will be more equipped to deal with the challenges that face us as the human family.

I believe it’s people who truly love Jesus who are the most likely to push to find new and better ways for us to live together on this planet. We need good scientists in this world who can do the math and study the data, but I believe it’s going to be the people who love God and who love their neighbors as themselves who will have the courage to let go of old patterns of behavior and embrace the new world that we are approaching.

We aren’t in charge of this planet – we’ve just been invited to stay here for a while, and we need to be as hospitable as possible for everyone involved. That’s the kind of economy Christian discipleship demands.

As I indicated earlier – I enjoy this overindulgent season as much as anyone, and I’m probably not going to do anything differently than I have in the past, but I’m also trying to think about the future, and how to find this illusive path to global regeneration. Individually we are sort helpless to bring about the kind of changes that our world is crying out to experience, but there are ways that we can be more helpful than hurtful, and we need to be in search of those opportunities.

Wise investments take on a whole new meaning when you take the words of Jesus to heart, and when you think of the Kingdom of God as being your dream community. Don’t think of Advent as just the beginning of a new religious cycle of events – think of it as the beginning of a new way of living on earth – I believe that is the kind of conversion God most desires.



Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: