“The lands in longing call out your name;
the tongues are diff’rent, the prayer the same.
With humble spirits can we believe that God is bigger than we conceive?
The will of heaven on this earth be done;
the day is coming, oh, let it come.
With willing spirits, Lord, let us dare to kneel with strangers and join in prayer.
Grant in your mercy the hope that heals,
the law of love your word reveals.
A barren wasteland we must reclaim,
with hearts for bearing each other’s pain.
Give us the courage to make a place
to plant tomorrow’s seeds of peace’”
The Day Is Coming, Mark A. Miller
When I look at the news, I long for a better world. Do you? The Advent season names a certain holy disquiet, as we wait for the coming of Christ. The prophet Isaiah longed for a better world. In my longing for a better world, I want to admit a certain befuddlement on exactly how to bring it about. Let us resist finger-pointing and simplistic solutions. I have lost confidence in any revival without costly change. The world is complex and in a period of amazing technological, scientific, climate, medical, and manufacturing innovation. Our rate of change defies sloganized easy fixes. Less than 250 years ago, the steam engine revolutionized manufacturing. Less than 140 years ago, the first gasoline cars roared to life. It seems unbelievable that my mother rode a mule to church as a teenager in rural Kentucky. 100 years ago there was not a radio station in Nashville. The iphone is less than 13 years old. These innovations impact our lives, cultures, and markets in ways we do not yet fully understand. My Tullahoma church was full of aeronautical engineers, rocket scientists, test pilots, and astro-physicists. That experience helped me appreciate my limits. Suffice it to say, if you want to build a literal bridge gather engineers not pastors. Each of us comes with a limited understanding and vision. Faith holds mystery: “We know in part!” (1 Corinthians 13) We need each other to build the kind of world or church that we all long to belong to.
As I read Isaiah chapter 11, I feel my interpretive limits. Scholars tell us that some 2800 years ago, Isaiah 11 was written during the time when Israel’s neighbors rebelled against the Assyrian superpower. The rebellion factored into the collapse of Israel’s northern kingdom, subsequent exile and enslavement in Assyria. Even as the historical details fade, Isaiah’s message of longing for peaceable kingdom endures. Isaiah longed for a kingdom not some day in heaven, but on earth.
What does it mean that we pray for God’s kingdom to “come on earth as in heaven” or that Isaiah speaks about geo-polotics. Do we understand that God has something to say about our markets, laws and politics?
Inside a Birmingham Jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a lengthy letter to his detractors. Sadly, King’s detractors were a group of white male pastors who questioned King’s coming to Birmingham. King writes, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns… so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown..” (Letter From A Birmingham Jail)
Jesus preached, prayed, and worked so that God’s Kingdom might come not just one day in heaven, but right now on earth. Marcus Borg tells us, “The “proclamation of Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Saviour directly countered Roman imperial theology…. Jesus was Lord and the emperor was not! “Jesus is Lord” was high treason!… (The) message challenged the normalcy of civilization, then and now, with an alternative vision of how life on earth can and should be.” (Marcus Borg- The First Paul).
So let us enter Isaiah’s longing: “A shoot of new growth will spring up from the stump of King David’s tree; a branch will sprout from the roots. The Lord’s Spirit will rest upon them. God’s Spirit will bring wisdom and understanding, planning and strength, knowledge and reverence. They won’t judge by appearances, nor popular slogans, but will decide in favor of the needy and those who suffer. They will call out the violent and wicked. Violence will end. The wolf will not snatch away the lamb. The leopard will nap with the baby goats. The calf and the lion will eat straw together. A little child will lead. No one will do any harm in God’s name. The knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth. It will be glorious.” (adapted)
Unless we are literalists who envision God turning lions, tigers and bears into vegetarians, we understand Isaiah offers us a prophetic parable. Isaiah imagines God’s teaching entering so deeply into our lives as to break our cycles of violence and harm so that old enemies find peace and rest together. Seems outlandish? Well, if I had stood in the FUMC, Winchester, Tennessee, pulpit in 1945 and declared that one day the whole county would rejoice that a Japanese and German auto company was the largest employer, I feel certain that would have been my last Sunday there! I might have been arrested!
The early church saw Jesus fulfilling Isaiah’s longing for a coming kingdom. I do, too. The problem is that the church quickly turned Jesus into what Richard Rohr describes as the “Great Comma”. Consider what the Apostles Creed says about Jesus: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, (COMMA), suffered under Pontius Pilot, crucified, dead and buried…” In opposition to the Gospels, the creed shifts the focus away from Jesus’ life towards Jesus death. Such a mis-focus reduces Jesus to an abstract theological concept or a magical formula. God did not come and live among us to be a COMMA in a theological formula! “Jesus came so that we could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” ( John 10:10) Jesus’ way of being a human being matters. God-with-us is the whole point of the incarnation! It is not enough for us to simply believe in Jesus; no, we must follow Jesus. We must do the things that Jesus did on earth as in heaven.
Think about how Jesus’ living teaches us: there was no room in the inn, Mary labored in a stable, Christ was laid in a borrowed feedbox, King Herod plotted, Joseph dreamed, they fled to Egypt at midnight breaking the king’s law as refugees, Jesus washed feet, fed a crowd, offered free healthcare, healed on the Sabbath, easily proclaimed forgiveness, included the untouchables, ate with the party crowd, broke oppressive rules, burst theological wineskins, called out hypocrisy, listened to children, chatted with prostitutes, welcomed strangers, opened blind eyes, dined with the rich, divested of worldly good, loved enemies, turned the other cheek, forgave 70×7 more times, gave everything away, shared the last supper. Jesus was betrayed with a kiss, crowned with thorns, carried the cross, mocked by the crowd, forgave a thief, forgives us all, questioned God, bled, died, was laid in a borrowed tomb, appeared to Magdalene, ordained women, restored Peter. Christ appears as we break bread, embraces doubters. Jesus appears to Paul, Priscilla, Juilian of Norwich, John Wesley, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. Jesus is with us even as we feel a holy disquiet longing for a better world. Indeed, that longing might be our needed catalyst.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount holds this longing for a better world. Jesus strangely names a kind of holy disquiet, with the ways things are, as a blessing. “Blessed are people who grieve, who are humble, who are hungry, who show mercy, who make peace, who are harassed, who are insulted… people so harassed the prophets who came before you…rejoice and be glad.” Just after these upside-down blessings, Jesus names all who feel misunderstood, mistreated, and sad as bearers of Divine and Holy Light. Jesus does not say to we who long for something different, “you are a bunch of sinners,” as did John Calvin and a few of my youth directors. Jesus say to the mourning, hungry, and harassed, “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” God so loves our world, loves our humanity so deeply that God inhabits both. There is holy light within us.
In 1986, a professor’s lecture at the University of Kentucky prompted my purchase of “A Testament of Hope.” Doctor King’s Birmingham Jail message lit hope deep in my soul. Like a surgeon’s light it exposed so much, even as it offered the hope of Christ’s blessed community. Is that hope found in losing ourselves for a larger vision? Or do we meet Jesus on earth when we feed the hungry, welcome strangers, or forgive for the 77th time? Perhaps, it is a holy mystery that when we incarnate Jesus’ teachings, God’s peace comes. We find life fully lived as we live like Jesus. We trade a longing for a better world for the work of helping construct a peaceable kingdom or maybe it is a deeper grace.
“The will of heaven on this earth be done; the day is coming, oh, let it come.
With willing spirits, Lord, let us dare to kneel with strangers and join in prayer.
Grant in your mercy the hope that heals, the law of love your word reveals.
A barren wasteland we must reclaim….
Oh Children of Divine light: Shine! Amen.