Advent 2: This Is My Wish

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on December 9, 2018, the Second Sunday of Advent. The sermon was followed by my daughter Abby Harris singing This Is My Wish, a Christmas song recorded by Jordin Sparks.

Isaiah 11:1-10; John 14: 25-27

There once was a Queen who ruled over a kingdom riven by much conflict. Seeking inspiration for reconciliation, she offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The Queen looked at all the pictures, but there were only two that represented peace to her.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, for lush, green mountains rose up all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell and in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a torrential waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the Queen looked more closely, she saw behind the waterfall a tiny green bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, amid the furious rush of water, sat the mother bird on her nest… at perfect peace.

The Queen chose the second painting. “Because,” she explained, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no conflict or chaos. Peace means to provide a safe and steady place of refuge amid turmoil, and to nurture life even as death threatens. The bush, the nest, and the mama bird, these communicate the real meaning of peace.”

Both visions of peace are represented in the reading from Chapter 11 of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who provided counsel to several kings of Israel during a period of great conflict. One commentator writes:

The context for Isaiah’s oracle is the difficult period of tensions around the Syro-Ephraimitic war in 733 BCE, when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, Ahaz refused; but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, he called Assyria to intervene. This they did with devastating impact, eventually leading to the destruction of Samaria and the end of the northern kingdom in 721.

I won’t begin to try to explain all that, except to say, Isaiah wrote the words I read in response to an enormous and overwhelming conflict with which we can easily identify. Replace Israel and Judah in the text with Democrats and Republicans, and Assyria with Russia, and this would sound like something right out of today’s headlines.

In response, Isaiah paints two pictures.

First, Isaiah prophesies that a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Jesse was King David of Israel’s father. In the midst of the chaos that is engulfing Judah, this family tree of the beloved David appears all but dead. But like that bush in the painting that pushes through the rocks behind the crashing waterfall to support new life, Isaiah assures Judah that new life will spring forth and peace shall be restored.

Then, beginning with verse six, Isaiah paints a picture that we have come to know as the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. This is the vision of peace represented in the first painting of the perfectly still mountain lake. Turmoil has been left behind, and tranquility reigns. This is a vision of the realm of God, to be fulfilled in God’s time.

Both portrayals of peace are true. We might think of one as a peace process inviting our participation, while the other is our ultimate destination, a return to Eden with God.

That said, how do we live like the bird sitting quietly on her nest, nurturing new life, even as chaos swirls all around?

I recently read a quote from Buddhist teacher John Kornfield:

If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate, and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.

Well, we’re not dogs, so how do we live like the bird sitting quietly on her nest, nurturing new life, even as chaos reigns? How do we enter into this peace process? What courage, what strength, what force of will is required?

Or, is it nothing more than nothing?

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a titmouse asks a mourning dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the titmouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow-not heavily, not in a raging blizzard-no, just like a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd snowflake dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say-the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the titmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

On this Second Sunday of Advent, each one of us is invited to be that sprout that springs forth from a stump that appears dead. Each one of us might be that bird that sits quietly amid the chaos nurturing new life. Each one of us might be that 3,741,953rd snowflake, that nothing more than nothing, that one voice that restores peace.

But how! We are not dogs. We all too easily tumble into the roiling waterfall portrayed in the Queen’s painting, becoming part of the turmoil that surrounds us, giving in to anxiety, fear, judgement, anger and blame.

God, through Jesus, has equipped us to restore peace in our lives, our relationships, our communities and our world, not with courage, strength, and force of will, but with nothing more than nothing, through confession and forgiveness.

Confession helps us name, then unburdens us, of the ways we contribute to conflict and chaos. And accepting forgiveness for ourselves while forgiving others allows us to nurture new life and restore peace in the world around us. This is the peace process into which we are invited.

I am hoping confession and forgiveness can become a theme for us at First Church in the year to come. So let there be peace, and let it begin with me by confessing this to you.

There are two essential commitments I make as your pastor and preacher. First, that each of you know that you are created in the image of God and loved unconditionally. And second, that together we follow Jesus in standing alongside the most vulnerable, those the Gospel calls “the least of these,” including immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, women, ethnic and religious minorities, those with disabilities, and the poor. These two commitments are not incompatible with one another. Both are biblical, and both are central to our Christian walk of faith. That said, as your pastor and preacher, I sometimes find that in lifting up the gospel’s commitment to the least of these, I leave others, some of you, feeling diminished or judged rather than unconditionally loved. Instead of resulting in peace and reconciliation, my message sometimes draws attention to divisions among us. This is my confession to you, and I am sorry.

I ask for and gratefully accept your forgiveness, just as my faith tells me God forgives me. And I bring you good news that you too are forgiven for those times you may judge or contribute to separation and conflict. Confession and forgiveness. One voice. Nothing, and more than nothing.

The Queen in the story concludes that peace means to provide a safe and steady place of refuge amid turmoil, and to nurture life even as death threatens.

This is my wish.

This is my wish for this church.

This is my wish for the most vulnerable, those Jesus calls the least of these.

This is my wish for me, and this is my wish for each of you.

That peace will find a way.

Amen.

 

Abby Harris singing This Is My Wish

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