A sermon preached on the transferred feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston. To read the scripture, click here. To listen along, click the play button below.
This passage from Isaiah is one of the most powerful messages in all of Judeo-Christian scripture. It’s used during Advent to proclaim the coming of Jesus. It’s used as the text for Handel’s Messiah, sung so often as a celebration of Easter. It’s used because it reminds us that, in our despair, the God of Love responds as our hope.
Isaiah is lamenting about the people of Israel – their inconsistency, their withdrawal from God and their pain and suffering as a result of their actions. The story of Israel, you see, is the story of humanity. It’s the story of us. How we get lost in our human need to control. How that need to control inevitably results in despair. And how the God of Love saves us every time.
Isaiah’s lament is that there is no hope in Israel. That they have reached the point of no return.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of God blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Even in the midst of despair, there is hope. Because the word of our God will stand forever… Isaiah says.
And this hope is pointed to over and over again throughout scripture.
- The covenant of Noah: humanity had become violent and corrupt, God wiped out all life in a flood, but saw a spark of goodness and so, had Noah build an ark. Then God made a covenant to never destroy life again.
- The covenant of Abraham: after Abraham’s never-ending faithfulness to the God of Love, God promised that this loving faithfulness would remain in humanity and that these people – the people who claimed the God of Love, would be called descendants of Abraham. And these descendants would be as numerous as stars in the sky.
- The covenant of Moses: God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. Moses who didn’t think he had the capacity to lead, yet there was God setting his heart on fire so that he would go and lead the people out of Egypt. So, when people are oppressed, God will always send us, causing our hearts to burn and lead others to freedom.
God’s covenants tell us that:
- God will never destroy us.
- God will plant within humanity the capacity to be servants to the God of Love, the God of Life, so that we may be servants of one another through our compassion.
- And God will ensure that our own hearts will be set on fire to lead others to freedom because God desires for all of us to be free.
And, as Christians, we believe that Christ is the final covenant. Love incarnate. A self-giving love that reconciles the whole world to God. We believe that the sacrament of Eucharist has the power to reconcile us to God because we become what we receive in that moment. We receive the Body of Christ and we become the Body of Christ broken open for the world that God has made. We become Love in action.
Not a sentimental version of Love that has us at the center. But a love that risks all that we have and all that we are. A love that has God at the center.
Isaiah’s words reflect something that all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures came to understand – standing in the breach. Something that Jesus also understood. And that is, as a descendant of Abraham and, more specifically for us, as a Christian… we are continually called to stand where we can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time. And point people toward Love.
Our patron saint John the Baptist stood in that place. And I believe that we have so sanitized scripture that we forget just how “political” John the Baptist was. John was leading a protest.
Under oppressive Roman rule for nearly 70 years and in the midst of uprisings, John stood in the River Jordan, a boundary between the desert and the Promised Land, between the wilderness and salvation.
When all around him people were shouting for a warrior messiah to rise up against the Roman rule, John was standing in the breach seeing the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time. Calling people out to the desert to join him and then pointing to love.
And John saw love incarnate in the form of Jesus and said, “This is love. This is what will save us. Because it is love that is anointed by God. It is love that we are called to serve. And it is love we are called to become.”
When we really see what’s going on, I know it’s easier to tune things out. And we all have so much going on in our lives that we sometimes just want to be able to get through the day. I get it. The good news is that we’re not in this alone.
And all of the trappings of our civilization will, at some point, cease to be. This is guaranteed. Isaiah reminds us that this world is withering grass and fading flowers. And, as shocking as it may be to hear this, our nation will someday no longer exist… because all nations rise and fall. Every one of them. That is the manner of worldly things. I’m not trying to be depressing or outrageous or anti-American. That’s just what happens over time.
As Isaiah reminds all of this is nothing compared to the word of God. The comfort we are given is that God remains constant throughout all of it.
God’s word arises as a response to nothingness.
God’s hope arises out of despair.
God’s Love descends during times of fear and hate.
The way policies are being enacted in our country right now is immoral. Immigration is a complex matter, but I believe our task as Christians remains the same – to stand in the breach with our brother John the Baptist, where we can see the state of the world and God’s Reign of love at the same time and continue pointing to Love. Love becomes incarnate when we live it out.
So, if you feel your heart burning in anger, just as Moses heart did, don’t tune out, my friends. Don’t think you unworthy to serve either. This is a difficult time and we are being asked by the God of love to move beyond our complacency and comfort and become the Body of Christ. I ask you to spend time in prayerful silence, listening for God’s voice instead of opinions, and then do what God is calling you to do.
This Table we come to every week is where we reconcile ourselves to God and become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.
“Out of a great need
We are all holding hands and climbing.
Not loving is letting go.
Listen, the terrain around here
Is far too dangerous for that.”
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz