Dreaming and Living a Dream in Peace Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44 November 27, 2016
Another Advent is upon us. The stores are decorated and preparing for the big sales events. House are beginning to be decorated. We think of past Christmases either with fondness, sadness, or lingering anger and disappointment. On Wednesday morning I saw the C.E.O. of Target Stores on CBS This Morning talking excitedly about what a fine holiday tradition of getting up from the table and going to Target to shop. It was a great family activity for togetherness. Contrast that with the report by their medical reporter to take it easy on the holiday meals so we do not over indulge. In stark contrast to those pieces were the reports that were disheartening.
There were the ongoing struggles of the victims of Hurricane Matthew trying to recover not knowing if they could go home, get help or rebuild. Hope is in short supply. The end of the year holiday season is nothing more than a bleak looking reminder of loses sustained and a slow recovery process.
This makes another holiday season when we have American military personnel overseas in war zones far away from home. Just this week I saw that a large group from Fort Bragg are getting ready to leave for several months of separation from home and family. Then there is the challenges that are just coming to the surface.
There is frightening possibility of requiring Muslims to register much like Hitler required the Jews to register leading up to World War II. There is talk about interning Muslims like we did Japanese Americans in World War II. Racial intolerance and expressions of hate and intimidation have risen since the election. Anti-semitism is rearing its ugly head yet again. There is talk of going to war with Iran to effect regime change. There is a darkness that is settling over us and the world.
When will it stop and will it ever end are raised repeatedly. Each time it is raised we lose a portion of our hope that things will change. We give in our fears, throw up our hands, and decide that nothing is going to change. How does this all fit with the holidays coming on? How does this fit with the anticipated birth of a Savior of whom the angels sang glory to God and on Earth peace to those whom God favors? Is the vision that God gave Isaiah to proclaim anything more than a pipe dream that makes for a good greeting card but not much else? When if ever will it come? What do we do now?
Isaiah proclaims to us God’s dream and invites us to live as if it were true now. Matthew tells us to watch because soon God will come and the vision will be realized will you be ready?
The context in which Isaiah proclaims God’s dream is the context of judgement and political turmoil. In chapter one God has proclaimed judgement on unfaithful Judah. God tells that them they are sick of head and heart. They have moved so far away from God that they are utterly estranged, according to the words of Isaiah. They are involved in a war with Israel and Syria and have taken a tremendous hit. They continue to offer sacrifices but their hearts are not right. God calls them to repent and clean up their act. Yet as bad as they are they have the hope of divine redemption. Not just redemption, the making of something new. God speaks through Isaiah.
In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest and all nations will stream to it. All the people will come so that the Lord will teach us his ways. All people will learn of the ways of God and God will settle disputes with justice, righteousness and peace. Weapons of war will be remade into tools for peace and all the colleges of war will be closed permanently. We think may it be so. But what do we really think?
We think this vision is for dreamers, poets, songwriters, preachers, and visual artists. Those folks we tolerate because they entertain us or they spark our imaginations. These are not the practical folks who live with both feet in the real world. These are not the ones who know the real challenges. They cannot see that human beings will never change in this life. They cannot see that only the strong and well defended will live. They cannot understand that power is what gives control of everything. They are the ones whose hearts are too tender who can’t overlook slights that if you were strong you wojld not pay attention to. We will tolerate them. We will give them a listen once a year and then we will get back to real life. That is the easy way out but the prophet won’t let us stay there. Isaiah holds our feet to the fire calling us to live our convictions.
Isaiah calls us to hold fast to the vision of God as the Lord of the Universe whom all leaders and people answer to. Isaiah call us to imagnine and live the vision of changed hearts that sees others not as enemies to be defeated or enemies who are trying to get what little we pereceive we have from us. He calls us to live our lives as being a part of a larger community that looks out for each other - that there is no need for war anymore because all have what they need.
Deep down inside of us we long for that. The longing is so great that it hurts when we know it is still unrealized. So to minimize the pains of the unrequited longing we try to say it is only a dream but we give up hope of ever seeing it happen. We give up until it only becomes a slight grin from an artists rendering on a greeting card, a pause to listen to John Lennon’s Imagine, or our decision to tolerate for another year the preacher trying to articulate dream that seems so distant. The dream goes into hibernation for a while. Matthew reminds us that we do not know when we do not know where but the Son of Man will come and the God’s dream of Shalom we be realized.
In our text from Matthew, he reminds us that no one, human, angels nor Jesus himself knows the time when all this will happen. He reminds them that the people who were overcome by the flood in Genesis were going about the tasks of everyday life. They were eating and drinking, getting engaged and married, having kids, planting and harvesting. They may have noticed that it looked like rain but they went about their work not knowing what was about to overtake them. When the Son of Man comes people will be working, they will be doing things at home, they will be living their usual lives when everything will change dramatically. We don’t know the day or the time, but we hope that soon and very soon we are going to see the king. Hallelujah we are going to see the king.
We want to be able to shout out - no more crying there we are going to see the king, no more dying there we are going to see the king. Hallelujah we are going to see the King. We want to be able to shout it out but the words won’t come out because we are seeing the antitheses of what we so much want to shout out. So what do we do how do we live with the disappointment. How do we explain our desire to live in a different way when the world wants to challenge us. We hold tight to the dream.
Listen to a few of the words from a song by the Electric Light Orchestra called Hold on Tight to your Dreams:
Hold on tight to your dreams, Hold on tight to your dreams When your ship goes sailing, when your heart is breaking Hold on tight to your dreams And when you get so down you can’t get up You want so much you’re out of luck when you’re so down hearted and misunderstood Just over and over you could hold on tight to your dreams.
God says to us hold on tight to this dream that is mine and is also yours. Hold on I am coming. Don’t let go. Live it out seek the well being of others. Reach out in love to all. Open your hearts and your lives to others. Develop a community of shalom that seeks the well-being of all.
Do not give up. Hold on. I am coming, says God.
What Kind of King? Ezekiel 34:15-24 and Matthew 25:31-46 November 20, 2017
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. It is named The Feast of Christ the King. This feast was declared by the Roman and Episcopal churches in 1928. It replaced what had been called Judgement Sunday. Its emphasis was on the judgement that faces all of us who have ever drawn breath on this planet. So, who is this King and judge? What is he like? How will he judge?
We Americans have little knowledge of monarchies. The monarchy we are most familiar with is the British monarchy of Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth has very little power. Her only real function is to be the visible manifestation of Great Britain to the world. She has ceremonial roles to play such as the opening of the Parliament. Granting honors and recognitions are hers to do. She gets a briefing daily from the Prime Minister. She decrees no laws, she cannot pass a sentence on anyone. What she is the embodiment of and symbol of Great Britain to the world. That is a far cry from the type of monarch that Jesus is.
Jesus is powerful. Jesus is absolute. Jesus sits in judgement and pronounces sentence. He commands his subjects. He determines who is part of his kingdom and who is not. He has the power to forgive or to condemn. He can tear down or he can build up.
Jesus is not the kind of king who sits on a comfortable throne surrounded by the best of everything. He is not surrounded by people who are telling him what he wants to hear. Nor does he insulate himself from his subjects by castle walls or a troop of armed guards. Jesus is the kind of king who moves freely among his people, whose throne is a cross, whose crown is not one of gold and jewels but of thorns. His royal attire is not an ermine cloak over a Brooks Brothers suit. His attire is the dress of a working-class person. Ezekiel and Matthew have much to tell us about what kind of King Jesus is. What they have to tell is both terrifying and liberating. First we will look at Ezekiel.
Ezekiel takes up the image of the King of Israel being the shepherd of the nation. That is an old image that came about when the people pressured God to have a king just like the neighbors did. In 1 Samuel chapter eight, Samuel ,a judge and priest, is getting very old. The reputation of Samuel's sons was bad among the people. They wanted a king to rule when Samuel died. The other nations had kings. It seemed to work well. At least that is how it appeared to them from the outside. The problem came in that God understood the arrangement to be that God was the perpetual king and human beings were his regents; those who carried out his decrees. God felt rejected, hurt and once again disappointed by the people. God gave in to their demands and granted their request with a warning and a proviso that a king would exploit all of them for the kings benefit rather than seeking their well-being. The people said we are willing to take the chance.
God decided that the only way the people would learn what God had been warning them about was to learn the lesson the hard way. God granted them a king. For the next three hundred or so years Israel and Judah learned a hard lesson.
Ezekiel speaks to them as they are getting ready to return to the promised land and rebuild both country and identity. They had to redefine the relationship between God and his people. One of the images that Ezekiel uses is the old image of shepherd.
Throughout scripture we have the image of the shepherd. The image of the shepherd is used to describe the role of the leadership of the people. It is a good one as a shepherd’s responsibility is to lead the sheep to food, water, and shelter. The shepherd is to protect the flock from all harm. The shepherd must be willing to die in defense of the flock. The shepherd goes after the strays and brings them back to the flock. The shepherd comforts the flock when fear is lurking among them. That is the way God led the people. That is how God expected the people God raised up to lead to act but they did not. Earlier in chapter 34, Ezekiel gives a very descriptive review of what got the shepherds in trouble.
The image he uses is the shepherd taking care of themselves first rather than taking care of the sheep first. He says you eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep. You have not healed the sick, strengthened the weak, not bound up the injured, brought back the stray or sought out the lost. God pronounces judgement upon those shepherds, holding them accountable for their mistreatment of God’s sheep. Then he describes the actions of the good shepherd.
The good shepherd will search for the sheep, rescue them, bring them back to the land, feed them, water them, and protect them. I will bind up the wounded, heal the sick, bring back the stray, seek the lost. The fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Ezekiel proclaims that not only will God judge the unfaithful shepherd’s, God will also judge the fat sheep which in Ezekiel’s image are the ones who were complicit in the oppression of the lean sheep of the society. Ezekiel proclaims that those who have and exercise power have a responsibility to care for the society over which they have responsibility. I will judge God says and I will be the shepherd who does what is right for the people. I will make things right. No one should be afraid.
Time passed and Judah returned home. They went through about another 500 or so years, under one tyrant after another. The empires that ruled them had no concept of the King being a faithful shepherd who was a servant of the people. They believed that the people existed to bring benefit and the good life to those who ruled them. It was then that God came again.
God came again not as a great king coming down from heaven to rescue his people by the force of arms. He came down as a baby born in a backwater of the most powerful empire of the time. He was born to a peasant girl, who was to marry into the line of David and whose husband was a carpenter. This baby grew up. He learned the faith. He developed his relationship with his father in heaven and began the work that God had sent him to do. He taught. He healed. He encouraged shalom, the peace and the well-being of all. He called for the people to live together with compassion, mercy, and grace. He challenged the religious authorities to change their ways, give up their power, and find a new way to be faithful. Just before he was arrested he laid out a vision of judgement and hope.
In Matthew, we have one of the most challenging stories that Jesus told us. It is the story of judgement using the image of sheep and goats. It is scary because there is no way around what he declares. We can only listen with fear and trembling. We can only hope that the King is gracious and merciful. Jesus tells us the story of the sheep and the goats.
Jesus gives us the image of the king sitting in on the throne in glory. Before the King are gathered the nations whom he will separate as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Standing before the King are people gathered from all over the world. They have come to stand before the King and be judged. King Jesus speaks to the ones on his right. Come you who are blessed by my Father. Here is your inheritance. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and took care of me, was imprisoned and visited me. They are thunderstruck.
When did we see you like this at all? Jesus answers, I was in all of those folks you were serving. You served me when you served them. It is this kind of behavior that makes a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Notice that Jesus says nothing about professions of faith, state of the art sound and video, coffee bars, praise bands, pipe organs, fancy vestments, or huge worship spaces. It is not about how many Bible verses we have memorized, or that we can recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is about how did we serve the people that God sends us to care for. The more challenging part is yet to come.
King Jesus speaks to the people on his left. Depart from me you evil ones. Go join the devil in the lake of fire. You did nothing to take care of my people. They protested we did not see you? If we knew all those folks were you, we would have taken care of you. Honest if we had known it was you and not the ordinary needy rabble we would have done what we could. Too late the king says; be gone to your punishment. Then it ends.
We are shaken badly. We don’t know what to think. We want to believe that we are among the sheep who have seen Jesus in the ones who need our help. We want to believe that we have fed, clothed, given drink and comfort to others. We certainly have no desire to end up like the goats in Matthew or like the fat sheep in Ezekiel’s image. Does the story end at this point? Are we heading toward the Kingdom of Jesus or are we headed to the lake of fire with the devil? What hope do we have?
Our hope is based on the truth that the King is Jesus. Jesus is the King who lived among his people, healing them comforting them, feeding them and calling us to join the mission. We do join the mission at times. We fail at times. We want to give up. We want to exercise judgement on those whom we are called to serve. We must keep in mind that this King is the one whose throne is the cross and whose crown is thrones.
This King, who pronounced the harsh judgment against the goats, is the same one who went to the cross and willingly gave up his life on behalf of the sheep. All of the sheep. The compassionate, merciful, obedient ones, as well as the goats who were self-serving, ungracious, uncaring, and exploiting. This is best seen in Luke’s account of the passion of King Jesus. Luke tells us that the two men who were crucified with Jesus. They were talking with him. The one on his left was taunting him about saving them and himself if he was the messiah. That man on the left was grasping for any help that might be available to save his life; even if it was taunting Jesus enough to goad him off the cross and to save them now. The other man is different. He acknowledges that they deserve what they are receiving. Jesus does not. He looks to Jesus and says Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus says today you will be with me in Paradise.
We live in the United States of America. We freed ourselves from the rule of a king 240 years ago. We live in freedom. What does any of this have to say to us? What it says is not about how we are to govern our nation. What it tells us is who we are as followers of Jesus. It tells us of our responsibility as regents of King Jesus. It tells us that we are subject to judgement for our actions and inactions toward others and it reminds us that any and all people are people who are worthy of love and care. The king we serve is King Jesus.
King Jesus the Shepherd of the sheep. King Jesus the Lord of and Judge of the universe is the one who offered himself to die for the unfaithful, the disobedient, the exploiter. He died for the greedy, the judgmental, the ones who would do harm to those who are not like them. He died for the ones who would rather give stones than bread, saltwater instead of fresh, to build barriers rather than breaking them down. King Jesus died for those who welcome and for those who need to be welcomed. King Jesus died for the weak and for the powerful, for all people whom God has breathed into.
May we be found faithful before our King, not through anything that we have done, but by the mercy and grace of our King and Savior.