Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Words of the Prophets

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian

During Advent, we hear the words of the prophets used in new ways—admittedly, we probably hear them used in ways that the prophets themselves couldn’t have imagined. When Isaiah wrote, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,’” he was writing about the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, through the wilderness … and by extension, the return of the glory of God to the people of Israel. But that doesn’t mean it was inappropriate for the author of Matthew’s gospel to hear Isaiah’s words as referring to John the Baptist, a prophet crying out “in the wilderness.”

The wonderful thing about the prophets is that their words transcend time and even situation. They apprehend a world in which God is honored not only as the creator, but also as the sustainer of all that is, in every new time and place. Through John the Baptist, also, the glory of God has returned to the people of Israel. Through John, the way is being prepared for an even more incredible understanding of God’s love in Jesus.

The earliest decades of the Christian church were a time in which Christian Jews combed the words of their ancient writings to try to make sense of the shocking reality of the risen Jesus. In today’s reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul quotes King David, the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and the Prophet Isaiah in quick succession. He hopes to demonstrate that God’s plan all along was to use the Chosen People, the Jews, to reach out and include everybody else on earth in God’s plan of salvation. He uses words familiar to his Jewish audience, words they have lived and breathed their whole lives, to make his case for preaching to the Gentiles—to demonstrate that the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was not just for Jewish ears and hearts, but for the entire world. In fact, this passage we hear today is a preface to Paul’s main point in the letter: to ask his readers for money to fund his planned mission to Spain. It may have been on his way to Spain, in Rome, that Paul was martyred.

The most famous image Paul uses in this passage is one he pulls from our Isaiah reading, the “Root of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of King David, a man who was and is central to the golden age of the nation of Israel. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels tell us that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was descended directly from David. You may have come across the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree, a graphic representation of Jesus’ lineage. This all ties in with God’s promise, recorded especially by Isaiah, that although the people of Israel might be punished for their sins, someday there would once again be a descendant of David on the throne. First Paul, and then Matthew and Luke latched onto this promise and held up Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as the ultimate descendant of David and heir to the throne of Israel.

The voices of the prophets continue to resound in our own day as well. A prophet’s words can be misused, of course, but they can also be used in creative, constructive ways to illustrate what God is doing in our world today. On Tuesday of this week, we will mark the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a good time to take stock: how well has our nation done in upholding the principles of this document we have signed?

Article 5 of the Declaration of Human Rights states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This may be the article our nation most consistently fails to uphold. We have all heard about the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The evil of torture is that treats human beings as a means to an end—as a tool to get at information. While the information we seek may be used to save lives—putting aside for a moment the question of whether information obtained through torture can ever be reliably trusted—the very method of obtaining it is destructive of life and human dignity.

But even more immediate is the situation of our domestic prisons. When one third of black men in the United States can expect to be involved in the nation’s prison system, what explanation can there be but systemic racism? When the U.S., containing 5% of the world’s population, also contains 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, can we all agree there’s a human rights problem going on? When 25,000 Americans are being held in solitary confinement, and nearly half of them have a severe mental illness, outrage is the most logical response.[1]

Here’s a story to further illustrate the point. In May of this year, two former Pennsylvania judges were sent to prison. Their crime? They accepted more than one million dollars each in kickbacks from privately owned prison facilities for convicting young people accused of crimes, some of them as young as ten years old. What were some of these kids’ crimes? Mocking a principal online … trespassing in a vacant building … shoplifting DVDs. Does the punishment of juvenile detention fit these crimes? Yet these two judges accepted money to convict and sentence kids and to fill up the local detention centers. When the judges were finally convicted for their flagrant abuses of human rights, four thousand convictions were overturned, all of them dating from five short years. It has become known as the “Kids for Cash” scandal. The judges were convicted and are serving time, yes, but the for-profit juvenile detention centers implicated in the scandal, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, have avoided prosecution.[2]

And so we see that we still have a long way to go. As a congregation, we at Ascension have rallied around causes of human rights and have stood against torture. The first time I visited Ascension was on Human Rights Day two years ago today, and ever since, I have been impressed with our congregation’s dedication to these causes. It is not enough to leave the souls of inconvenient people to God. We need to take to heart the warning of John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” We are not a planet of solitary individuals, each trying to eke out our own place in the world at the expense of others. We were made to be a worldwide community, created, loved, and sustained by God. Repentance means stopping dead in our tracks, apologizing, turning, and going in a new direction.

Whatever efforts our nation may make toward repentance and justice, the words of the prophets can come to our aid. This week Nelson Mandela went to glory, a prophet who stood up for human rights in South Africa and around the world. He had choice words for our country as well as his own! Isaiah speaks of a time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb”—when the powerful and the weak, the dangerous and the innocent, will have no need to fear each other. Isaiah goes on to say, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” So according to Isaiah, knowledge of the Lord makes pain and destruction obsolete. We cannot make Isaiah’s vision happen in our world—only God can do that. But neither can we just sit back and wait for God to act. The waiting of Advent is not mere spectatorship, but active engagement to realize God’s promises.

Furthermore, John the Baptist proclaims, “Every tree … that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And Isaiah writes that God, “with the breath of his lips … will kill the wicked.” There are consequences to standing in the way of justice and compassion. But if there is deathly punishment to be dealt out, it is God’s right and not ours. While God’s justice may look nothing like we might imagine, it may also feel like vengeful destruction at the time, as God destroys our very wish to hurt each other. We are all slated to stand trial … to have our chaff burned … and to grow more like God as a result.

When we hear Paul’s talk of “Jews” and “Gentiles,” it is appropriate for us to hear them as “insiders” and “outsiders.” Jesus has come, and Jesus is coming, to shake up the insiders and to bring in the outsiders. If we’re not anxious, we should be. And if we are anxious, we needn’t be. Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the kind of unquenchable fire that judges, cleans, and purifies, like sterilizing a needle, or like burning the dead branches from a newly pruned tree. It will hurt, and it will heal. So in this Advent season, while we wait together for the coming of our Lord, let us heed the warnings of the prophets and bear fruit worthy of repentance. Amen.

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