Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 21, 2014
Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 1:26-38
I have a confession to make this morning. It is not something I have ever admitted in public, but here goes. I miss some of the political advertisements. There I have said it and I feel better for it. Now let me be clear I do not miss the attack ads; those that tried to imply that whoever the candidate’s opponent was regularly had lunch with Satan. No, the ads that I miss are those that were so absurd that they ended up being, well, silly. To be sure you know what I am talking about let me give you a couple of examples, from both sides of the isle. In all of these please notice the “I”, what I will do. “I will make congress quit fighting and get back to work.” “I will secure our borders.” “I will balance the national budget” “I will put Michiganders back to work.” I will restore the cuts made to education, remove the tax on retirees and make Michigan work again.” If you and I were to take a deep breath and actually think about these statements rather than tuning them out we would see just how silly they were, and are. No one person, not even Jesus, could accomplish these things. And, just as a final observation, no first term congressperson or governor could do them either.
So why do I miss them? I miss them because they are reminders of humanity’s desperate need for hope. How so? They demonstrate this need because regardless of how silly these promises are, we still turn out and vote. That’s right we get up on the First Tuesday in November, stand in line and cast our ballots for people who have made silly promises; yet in the end promises we hope they can keep. My guess is that we hope that there is someone out there who can get congress to quit fighting, act like grownups and do what is best for the nation. And I believe that is so because hope, the hope for a better today and tomorrow, is hard wired into the human psyche. It is often said that when we have our health we have everything. I’m not sure that is correct. I would argue that as long as we have our hope we have everything. I say that because as long as we have hope we can endure almost anything. The flip side is that whenever people abandon hope, it is as if death has arrived. They slip away one piece at a time. So we human beings need and long for hope.
Hope is something that God understands. I say this because this book (the Bible) is a story of hope. Throughout it, when God’s people have found themselves in tight places; places from which there appears to be no escape, God offers a word of hope. These words of hope are at the heart of both of our stories this morning. The first, from Isaiah, concerns a moment in time when it appeared that all was lost for the nation. The nation was rotting from the inside and was under siege from the outside. On the inside the powerful had used their money and power to gain control over the people in such a way that for the ordinary citizen there was no justice and no future. From the outside the great nation of Assyria was literally at the gates planning on the total destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. Yet the Prophet Isaiah brings a word of hope. He tells the people that God will send a king who will change all of this. This king will bring justice and usher in a new age in which people will not only live peacefully with one another but with creation itself. It is one of the most profound statements of hope in all of the scriptures.
Our second story arises in the midst of a time which, though not quite as dire, was also one in which the ordinary citizen was oppressed and helpless. As we have talked about on other occasions, the time in which Jesus is born into the world is one in which Rome and her minions exercised great control over virtually every aspect of everyday life. Now, to be fair, the Jews had more freedom than virtually any other religious group within the Empire. Nonetheless, Rome heavily taxed the people by taking both money and crops, encouraged the creation of larger and larger landholdings in order to maximize production, and projected not only their military might, but their cultural values on a Jewish nation who found them abhorrent. In a sense hopeless was on the horizon. So into this situation an angel appears to a young peasant woman in Galilee. The angel has an amazing message for her. She will bear a son, name him Jesus and he will reign over a kingdom that will have no end.” This was the sign. This was the one who come from the stump of Jessie (remember Isaiah?) and bring about justice and equity on the earth. This was the word of hope for which not only Mary, but all of Judea, had been waiting to hear.
The only problem with these promises was that they appeared to be as silly as those made by the politicians for whom we vote. What kind of a promise tells the people that the Assyrians who have demolished cities and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people could be turned away by Jerusalem’s walls or Judah’s decimated army. What kind of a promise tells a young, peasant woman living in the back-water burg of Nazareth that she would be the mother of a king who would rule an eternal empire and bring justice to the world? These are the kind of promises that make people not vote; that make people not want to believe. Yet the people believed. The people of Judah chose not to surrender even in the face of almost certain death. Mary believed the angel. Mary believed enough to say to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In a sense, these people believed enough to vote; to vote for God’s radical, absurd, impossible words of hope. They voted for them not at the ballot box, but with their lives. They voted by acting upon the promises trusting that they were true. And they were true. The Assyrians, returned home, leaving Jerusalem intact. Mary gave birth to the messiah of the world, who continues to usher in a new world order of justice and compassion.
The question before us this morning then is are we ready to vote for the word of hope that comes down to us? Are we willing to believe that God is still at work in the world in such a way that our future can be better than our present and our past? We are living in a moment of great pessimism. Following the last election 48% of Americans said that life would be worse for future generations than it is today. Only 22% said that it would be better. It is easy to see what people feel this way; a transforming economy, the loss of low-skilled well-paying jobs, the crisis in pension funds, the massive debt held by cities and states. The list goes on. It would be easy for us, as the church, to throw up our hands and give up all hope. Yet that is not the task to which we have been called. We have been called to be a people of hope. We are the inheritors of the promises to Isaiah and Mary. We are those who follow the one who has initiated a kingdom in which love, compassion and justice are not merely dreams but possibilities. We are those who follow the one who gave his life that we might be new people capable of carrying out his hopeful promises. We are the followers of the one who called us to be those who make hope our aim.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we are called to be people of hope. So here is my question for you, “How am I voting for hope with my words, my deeds and my beliefs?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 30, 2014
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:1-2, 24-37
They were the most frightening words the disciples could have heard from Jesus’ mouth; that the Temple would be destroyed and there would not be one stone left upon another. For you and I those words might have simply sounded like an interesting but not necessarily disturbing comment. Yet for the disciples it brought back images that haunted every Jew in the time of Jesus. I say that because the Temple in which Jesus and the disciples were standing was not the first Temple…it was the second. The first Temple had been built by Solomon more than eight hundred years before. It had been the center of Jewish religion and life for more than three hundred years before it and all of Jerusalem were completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. While you might say, John, that was almost six-hundred years before the coming of Jesus, how could that frighten them? The answer would be that the Babylonian destruction and subsequent exile were events which forever shaped the Jewish people. Any mention of it brought back tears and fears. Yet, even though it was a frightening reference, it was one that they disciples completely understood.
The disciples understood the reference because the issues that caused the destruction of the First Temple were at work in the era of the Second Temple. These events were that the people refused to listen to and to follow the way of God. Granted this explanation seems a bit cryptic but let’s return for a moment to the era of the First Temple. In that time, the people had forgotten what God had commanded them as to how they were to act toward the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the vulnerable. The people ground the poor into dust, cheated the powerless and abused widows and orphans. The people also trusted their political allies for salvation rather than trusting God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had told them to wait and God would send a savior. They forgot these things and thus their doom was sure. In the time of the Second Temple, Jesus’ disciples could see the sameproblems. All that mattered was wealth and power. People were cheating small farmers out of their land. Employers were refusing to pay the wages they owed the working poor. And once again there was a growing independence movement that believed armed rebellion against Rome was the way out. Jesus’ comment about the destruction of the Temple seemed pretty realistic and ultimately proved true when less than forty years after Jesus’ death the Temple was once again destroyed.
We might wonder then how this could happen. How could a society repeat such a disastrous failure? How could a people risk the possibility of a second destruction? The answer is that they could do so because they were spiritually sleepwalking. When people sleep walk they often go through the same routines through they do if they are awake. In some ways sleepwlking is similar to our having arrived at work or at school and suddenly realizing that we have no idea how we got there. We were on autopilot; we were sleepwalking behind the wheel. This is where the Jewish people of the Second Temple period found themselves. There were certain narratives, buried deep within their culture which drove their actions. They did not stop and ask if their actions were right or wrong. They did not wake up and say to themselves, “Hey, wait, we are not treating the poor and oppressed the way we ought to be treating them.” Or, “Hey, you know the Roman Empire is the most powerful empire on earth, what makes us think that we could defeat them?” But it didn’t matter, the narrative had not changed: we are God’s people. We have the Temple. God protects us. So we can do whatever we want and it will still be OK. They were sleep walking through life.
It would be very easy for us to go, tsk, tsk and say, “Isn’t it a shame that those people, did that thing.” Thank goodness we are not spiritually sleepwalking like they are. Yet the reality is that we do the same. Each of us is in some measure possessed by narratives of which we are unaware and yet which cause us to see the world and all that is in it in certain ways. Before we go further, I want us to set Ferguson aside for the moment. The issues and evidence are too complex and responses are too emotional in that case. That being said, in light of all that has happened over the past week throughout this country, I want to offer one narrative that shapes us; and this is it, black men are dangerous. Again I say this not because of what happened in Ferguson, but because of what has been and continues to happen on a daily basis in this country. From the initiation of slavery and the fear of the slave owners which caused them to brutalize their slaves, through the post-Civil War era and the rise of the Clan to protect women from black men, through Jim Crow which tried to emasculate black men, and into the history of Detroit itself.
This narrative can be seen in an excerpt from The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugure. In this portion of the book he writes of a 6th grade teacher in an all-white Detroit school in the 1940’s who asked her students to write an essay on why they liked or did not like Negros. The answers were almost all about not liking them. The reasons blacks were not liked were that they were mean, they were scary, they put people in their cars and killed them, and that they started riots (remember that there was a large race riot in 1943 in Detroit). The fascinating thing about these answers is that few if any of those sixth-graders had ever met a black person.
Unfortunately this narrative is still at work. I will offer two stories to illustrate my point.
The first is of a young African American seminary student I got to know years ago in Richmond, Virginia where I received my theological training. One of the things he and his classmates had to do was to buy a clerical collar and wear it for a month. At the end of the month the students were to reflect on their experience. Many of the white students talked about people kind of moving away from them as if the people were too afraid to be near God. But this young man said for the first time in his life he could go into a convenience store and not have the eyes of the clerks follow him around the room as if he were going to steal something. He said it made him feel almost white. The second story is from my hometown of Houston. Three young black men were driving a nice BMW through one of the toniest neighborhoods of Houston. A white police officer spotted them and decided that he needed to follow them. Then when the young men pulled into a driveway, the officer quickly pulled in, leaped from his car, drew his gun and yelled at them to stop. The driver of the car, startled, turned around and was shot. He was shot in the driveway of his own home where he lived with his father and his mother.
What I would argue is that the clerks in those stores would claim that they were not prejudiced and treated every person the same. I would argue that the police officer probably had black friends, many of them on the police force, yet the reality is that this powerful narrative runs through our society, along with dozens, if not hundreds of others; narratives about the rich and the poor; about men and women; about north and south, east and west; about innumerable things. And so the question arises, “How do we wake up and stay awake as Jesus asked his disciples to do?” The answer is confession.
Confession is caffeine for the spirit and soul. Confession wakes us up. It wakes us up because it rouses us from sleep and causes us to face those moments when we have allowed our cultural narratives to dictate our thoughts and actions. Confession forces us to mine the depths of our hearts, souls and minds in order to see what lies behind our actions and opinions. That is why we include confession in every Sunday morning worship service. It is not there to make anyone feel badly. It is there to help us open our eyes so that we can begin to see where we have missed the mark God set for us in Jesus Christ. John Calvin almost included confession as a third sacrament because it forces us to confront the choices we make and the reasons we make them. So we begin this advent season with confession because by allowing it to live and work within us, we become more and more capable of being followers of the one whose birth we are about to celebrate.
So here is my challenge for you for this week to ask yourselves this question, “How am I making confession a part of my daily life in order that I might wake up and stay awake in order that my life more fully reflects that of Jesus the Christ, who gave himself for me?”