Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent – December 4, 2011
May the world be restored to hope, the heavens sing aloud with the promise of good to come, and God: Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit be with us in each moment. Amen.
On this Second Sunday in Advent the prophets come to visit us—well, at least two of them: Isaiah and John the Baptist, and they are big names in religious history.
Isaiah is the first book containing the writings of the prophets of the Bible. And the author, Isaiah, who is called the Prince of Prophets, shines above all the other writers and prophets of Scripture. His mastery of the language, his rich and vast vocabulary, and his poetic skill have earned him the title, “Shakespeare of the Bible.” He was educated, distinguished, and privileged, yet remained a deeply spiritual man throughout his 60 year ministry as a prophet. Isaiah’s calling as a prophet was primarily to the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom) and to Jerusalem, urging the people to repent from their sins and return to God. He also foretold the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of the Lord.
John was an itinerant preacher and a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism. John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces his coming.
What exactly is a prophet? The word is derived from the Greek προφήτης (profeetis) which means “a foreteller,” an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by God, and serves as an intermediary with humanity, delivering some specific message to people. The message that the prophet conveys is called a prophecy. Prophets are regarded as having a role in society that promotes change due to their messages and actions. Prophets are “truth tellers” and usually their message is one that brings some level of discomfort and points us in an entirely new direction from the way we are going.
It is curious that in the late 20th century the appellation of “prophet” has been used to refer to individuals particularly successful at analysis in the field of economics, such as in the derogatory “prophet of greed”. Alternatively, social commentators who suggest escalating crisis are often called “prophets of doom.”
At our weekly conversation about the Sunday readings, our Tuesday morning “Looking for the Good News” group, I posed this question: “Who are the contemporary prophets? Our Prophets in this time and place?” The list we developed is not a pretty one: politicians, news pundits, and the leaders of radically fundamentalist religious groups rose to the floor.
However, we were also very clear that we did not think of these characters as true prophets but rather loud, often obnoxious voices, who repeat an untruth again and again and again until the gullible come to believe it. The message is typically intense. The question people often fail to ask is “Is it true?” What is the basis for their conclusion? Whom does the message, the warning serve—the audience or the messengers? Have we become a nation of factious, outspoken, polarized groups whose mantra is “Don’t bother me with the facts. My mind is made up!”
In last Sunday’s New York Times, Op-Ed Columnist Bill Keller’s column The Politics of Economics in the Age of Shouting addresses this kind of ethos. He quotes Bill Adair the editor of PolitiFact. “The talking points drive the discourse. They repeat the talking points so often I think they start actually believing them.” Turning his attention to our limping economy, Keller asks the question: “So what’s the problem? Why is our system so fundamentally stuck? Partly it’s a colossal, bipartisan lack of the political courage required to tell people what they sort of know but don’t want to hear. Is this, perhaps, a prophetic idea?
According to Keller the easiest way to stand out in such a vast crowd of microbroadcasters, is to be “the loudest, the angriest, the most outrageous.” If you want that precious traffic, you stake out a position somewhere in oh-my-God territory and proclaim it with a vengeance. “In vanquishing the conventional wisdom,” he writes, “sometimes it seems we have vanquished wisdom itself.” Wisdom. Again, the realm of the prophets.
Certainly there are prophetic voices among us that are too often unheard or muzzled or just not taken seriously. In fact, the temptation to just dismiss a difficult truth we need to hear may be a clue that we are listening to a prophesy. Maybe we need not look for prophets in our time and, instead, just listen to the message of time-tested ones like Isaiah and John offer us. What do they have to say to us today? Will we listen to their message?
Be prepared. If they are doing their job, they are going to make us somewhat uncomfortable because they will be pointing us to and challenging us to face what may be a difficult truth. Does that sound like “good news?” Probably not. In our culture, “good news” is winning the lottery or not being audited by the IRS on deductions that you think were “iffy” at best.
But in God’s style, really good news sometimes arrives only with an honest, searching, sometimes difficult look at the truth of ourselves and our situation and, hard as it may be to admit it and, even harder to welcome it, good news usually follows that thing we so love to experience: change. Isaiah’s prophetic message calls out for huge change where highways appear in the barren desert, valleys are lifted up, and mountains are flattened. John proclaims a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There’s a hard truth. “Yes,” says John. “something is wrong and needs to be made right.” Does that at all ring true for our world as it looks today?
Where do we go with all this? Perhaps it begins with our really listening to the loud voices of the self-proclaimed “prophets” that surround us, taking the time to sort through and discover the realities, the facts, the truths, and forming our own decisions—not just buying the intense, repeated gobbledygook but using the gifts God has given us to discern where the truth lies and what we need to do about it.
Closer to home and on a more personal way, might we take honest inventory about where we need to face truth about our relationships, our mindsets, our faithfulness to God, our level of commitment to this community, our generosity—or lack thereof—in the use of what God has given us? What valleys need to be lifted up and what mountains made low? Where in our day to day comings and goings do we need to change direction, get on a different footing?
We’ll never get to the “good news” unless we are willing to face the “bad news.” We won’t have a restored life without telling the truth about our present life. That goes for you and me, our economists, news pundits, politicians, and the entire world.
There is one hard and fast certainty to which we can hold on: God loves us enough to gently carry us—like a shepherd who gathers lambs into his arms—through the bad news chapters of our life and into a different tomorrow. By God’s grace, we can change and grow and discover a better way, a more godly way, a healthier way of making our journey through this life, one through which the dream of God for this world might in some small measure be born just as God in Jesus was born to us on Christmas. That’s the good news you can take home with you today. Very good news, indeed.