Second Sunday of Advent Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church
December 8th, 2019 The Reverend John Zachary Flack
Isaiah 11 :1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
[Audio recording appears below printed sermon]
Hwaet! If you want to tell the story of a king, you need to begin with force, with a word that will seize people by their ears and drag their eyes to you. So -hwaet! That's what they said over a thousand years ago when they were going to tell the tale of a king long lost to legend, a king that came to embody every virtue of their time, strong in war, generous in victory, resolute in death. Hwaet! It means Behold! or Lo! or Listen! or even, if you're Seamus Heaney doing the translation, So! Listen! Hwaet!
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness . ... Shield Sheafson, the scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
That's the beginning of Beowulf, a poem about an ancient warrior who comes to rescue the descendants of that dread king from the terror of a ravaging demon named Grendel, and then rescues the same people from the revenge of Grendel's grief-stricken mother, and then, as an old man, dies fighting a dragon, about to slay the people of his kingdom. The poem, when I first read it, seemed to me to be the Star Wars of the year 1000: a tale of a long time ago in a kingdom far, far away. The poem ends with Beowulf's death: "They said that of all the kings upon the earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame."
Here we are in Advent, a thousand years between us and the men and women sitting beside fires in the cold, passing the time with poetry. There's something like two and a half millenia between us and this text from Isaiah, which also prophecies the advent of a king, but a much different king than the one who came on a boat to the Danes, garbed in armor and wielding sword. Instead, the king is a tender stem, a shoot, the barest thing, easy to pluck out, a vegetable. Isaiah prophecies no war, no battles, no grappling with demons in the dark, no dragons. Instead, Isaiah prophecies an end to war and enmity: the infant will play next to poison snakes, and the toddler will touch the venomous adder. "They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain," says the Lord, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” It will not take the shedding of blood to defeat evil, but the truth. What kind of king do we expect?
It can be so easy to be carried away by the image of great men, Übermenschen, heroes of old and idols of today. But if you read between the lines of Beowulf and the passage from Isaiah, you begin to see the problem with kings, and men who claim to be special. Government by King, at least in the time of Beowulf, was almost government by a mafia, a mob state. It's a band of bullies who go around and offer protection to others -- protection, usually, from themselves. They spend most of their time fighting other men just like them, and forcing the people they bully to kill each other. The people in the King's Court spend most of their time trying to get the King to see them with favor, so they can be rewarded and draw near to the seat of power. At the same time, the nearer they get, the more they think of how to take the power for themselves. Beowulf was remembered because he was generous, kind, fair, and eagerfor renown precisely because he was an ideal-king in his age where, generally none of these things were known or valued. But mostly warlords divided plunder amongst the men of their warbands.
If you read between the lines of history, and take off the lenses of glory, you will see how rare it is for people to govern themselves on the basis of law and human rights and dignity. Something happens to people when power is not vested in the personality or charisma, but when particular people are given the responsibility to serve on behalf of others according to the law. For a brief moment in time, the clarion sound of the rule by the people sounded for half a century; the imperfect democracies conquered fascism and their charismatic leaders who promised to embody the spirit of their countries. Freedom fighters outlasted totalitarians in the Eastern bloc, and Europe, that warring continent, formed an economic union designed, in part, to ensure that no World War would ever come again. This did not come naturally, but through the struggle and spirit of ordinary people, inspired in part by the words they heard in scripture, the contrast between the rule of God and the rule of the kings they knew. It was a miraculous age because itseemed like democracy, the government not of kings and dictators, but of the common, ordinary person, was going to win.
Our own nation, founded on the premise that African slaves and their descendants wear both property and only 3/5 human, was both a leap toward freedom and a reinvestment in bondage. Slavery was the oil of our economic engine and was part of our national soul. The new nation that dared to govern by democracy couldn't allow all the people in it to govern. It took a war for us to end slavery; the racism we had to adopt to justify slavery is with us still, bolder and stronger now than it was five years ago. A nation founded, in part, on the ideals of truth and reason and science, seems now to have abandoned all of these. Our government has elected to consistently disinvest from the poor, from education, from infrastructure. It has silenced scientists, and place political hacks in charge of serious research agencies. At every turn our nation is gaslighted and misdirected, even as we chase every rumor and piece of gossip over our phones. Does right matter? Do facts matter? They are the foundations of democracy. As one elected official has said, "How can democracy survive without a common set of experiences?" One of those common experiences, it seems to me, is precisely the yearning Isaiah evokes: the yearning for peace, for an end to injustice, for righteousness to be as natural as respiration.
We are blessed to live in a city that begins with the Statue of Liberty, and the poem written on it:
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pompl"cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
As a pastor I’ve been asked to make a vow to never give anybody false hope, so I won’t say there is such a thing as a Christian nation. There’s a church which is what Christ came to build. But sometimes, nations and the church share similar ideals. And to me there is nothing more Christian than the idea that the rejected, the outcast, the unworthy are invited in. Because that is what baptism does for us. You who were once not a people, now are a people. Paul insists on that in every letter he wrote.
In the Civil War there was a hymn that we now have in our hymnal:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die (in our hymnal “live) to make men free, While God is marching on.
For some people the idea that other people were enslaved was too much to bear. So, when democracy comes to say “the rejected, the poor, the wretched, the teeming mass”, when it says that’s the people that we want, then it comes into the Christian sphere of the church. Because those are the people God has asked to come to God’s church.
When we think about incarnation, we think about Advent and the coming of Jesus, it’s important for us to remember that Christ wasn’t born in a palace. He was born among the wretched refuse. When we think about the promise of Isaiah, he wants a king whose reign is not based on strength, or power, or weapons, but on righteousness, on regard for the poor. It’s striking, in the world of Isaiah, to see a poem that was dedicated to the absence of military imagery. But rather the presence of God’s almighty breath and the Word.
Paul says, we are become heirs of the Kingdom of God. Coheirs with Christ. He calls us citizens with the Saints in Heaven. There’s plenty of language in the New Testament if you want to think about what it means to be adopted into a land with people that aren’t yours. To be made of one people. Look no further than right here in this sanctuary. All of our families have come from different ways. Some of us have come from the descendants of slaves, some of us have come from immigrants, some of us have come from people who have been here for centuries. All of us here together under one Word – God’s invitation. The problem of splitting heirs is that when adopted into the family, how will the kingdom be divided. But somehow, in God’s Kingdom there’s enough for all of us to share. We are all co-heirs. We’re all together by virtue of our baptism. We’re all members of the glory of the Cross, the glory of the only Son, the glory of locusts and wild honey, of camel's hair.
Because Baptism, if Paul is right about it, makes us citizens with the Saints in God’s Kingdom. The church is not exactly a democracy, but it is a community where a family, where the ordinary person is exalted. Where the wretched, the outcast, the lost, the undesirable, here is desired. Here is important. Here is loved by God.
When John the Baptist talks about the winnowing fork-of Jesus, precisely what he is winnowing away, ironically, is the separation between the worthy and the unworthy, the powerful and the weak, inviting those who are searching into one place. If we want to be a Christian nation, if we want to take that risk, we have to be the place where the wretched refuse, the undesirable, the ones who flee from persecution, the ones who aren’t safe, find safety, find home, find a welcome. And if nations won’t do it, you know the church will.