Monday, November 29, 2010

Red alert!

Swords and Plowshares, Phillip Ratner, 1998, from the Safad Bible.

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 28, 2010 – Advent 1

I must confess to you that I procrastinated in the writing of this sermon, which can happen when God’s word is disruptive. After reading the gospel lesson numerous times, after praying, thinking, reading other sources and then reflecting on all of this, I was still quaking in my shoes. You heard the Matthew text. It sounds like a terrorist alert. “Warning, red alert! A dam has been destroyed due a terrorist bomb and a flood is coming. Warning! There have been random kidnappings in the area. Stay alert for further messages. Warning! There have been numerous break-ins in the area. Keep watch in your neighborhood.” We heard images of God coming into the world not as a cute, cuddly infant, but God as a flood, a kidnapper, a thief who comes into our lives with disturbing surprise and upheaval. What a way to begin Advent.

Did you know that in order to guard against a terrorist attack, our government established a website called It was launched in 2003 by the Department for Homeland Security. The website educated citizens on how to prepare for a terrorist attack, whether it be a chemical or biological threat, an explosion, a nuclear blast, or a radiation threat. Since Obama was elected in 2008 it is now sponsored by FEMA and Citizen Corps and is geared to prepare businesses, families, kids and military families for any natural or man-made disaster. The website exists so that we will be “better prepared for the unexpected.” During the Bush administration it used to display the different colors of the alert system. Since Sept. 11 we have been at a yellow alert and at various times that alert has been upgraded to orange. Red is reserved for an imminent threat of attack.

That color-code alert system reminds me of the 1970’s and ‘80’s when we educated ourselves about nuclear proliferation and worried that our Soviet neighbors would start the next world war. Those were anxious times.

And then there are the bomb shelters of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. And the air raid sirens of the 1940’s. It seems we have always lived in fear of our imminent destruction, especially since our technology has outstretched our ability to control it and use it for constructive purposes rather than destructive ones.

With the advent of ever-more revealing screening technologies and airport pat-downs, it seems we are more fearful of a terrorist attack than of God coming into the world. We are more ready to destroy ourselves than we are for God to disturb our lives with the message of Jesus.

Isaiah has a different vision of our future. In the future that Isaiah imagines, all nations come to God’s holy mountain. God judges between the nations and puts things right between them. And it is not God who beats the swords into plowshares but the people. It is we who turn our spears into pruning hooks, our weapons of mass destruction into tools for harvesting food, our bullets and bombs into grain to feed the hungry.

There is a monument in Washington, D.C. that illustrates this passage poignantly. Artist Esther Augsburger worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department to construct it. The sculpture, entitled “Guns into Plowshares”, measures 16 feet high, consisting of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the steel blade of a plowshare. The handguns were ones that had been surrendered by local residents.

It is this future that God wants us to be prepared for, this future of peace, this future of passing down knowledge to our children of how to feed people rather than how to kill them.

But sometimes it appears that this future, this vision of peace, is scarier to us than a future terrorist attack. When we prepare out of fear, we think we can hold onto what we have. We afford ourselves the illusion that we can control the outcome, that we can fight and be triumphant or that we can run away and hide if necessary.

When God warns us to prepare out of love, love for the kingdom, love for everyone including our enemies, including those whom we consider outsiders or we disagree with, we then have to let go. We have to let go of what we think we know, let go of our treasured opinions and way of living, let go of all that we think keeps us safe in the eyes of the world. We have to let go of our fear and embrace the way of love. Sadly, we humans seem to find it easier to base a life on fear than on love. And those in power find it easier to govern those who fear than those who love in Jesus’ radical way.

God comes into our lives and interrupts the order we have so carefully surrounded ourselves with. It is our reluctance to follow God’s way that gives Advent its sense of urgency. If we kept alive Isaiah’s vision even for just a few minutes each day, we think, we wouldn’t have to wake up to such a disturbing alarm. We wouldn’t have to listen to these Advent texts that drag us away from the manger and its warm scene. We could go about our orderly way.

But no. Jesus pulls up our eyelids and jolts us awake with the words, “Keep awake. You do not know when God is coming.” I have a sticker someone gave me that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” We smile ruefully because we know that we have been too busy with things other than those which lead to the kingdom of God.

Jesus tells us that if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he would’ve kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Hindsight is always 20/20, so we are cautioned to stay awake in the present moment, to not be lulled asleep by our comforts, to not numb ourselves from our fears.

If we had known that war only leads to death, destruction, and disease among nations and that the death of an enemy is no different than the death of a loved one in the eyes of God, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with our adversaries until God had led us to another way?

If we had known that deep water oil drilling is not failsafe, that an accident could be catastrophic—both to human and aquatic life, would we have stayed awake until we found another way to provide energy? We would have seen all people and not just some, all the earth and not just where we live, as one creation, made by God for all people.

If we had known that a child would grow into an adult in the wink of an eye, a spouse would change and grow over the years, a parent would get older and not as able, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with them until we found a way to keep our temper, give thanks for their love, accept them as they are, and take it all one day at a time?

If we had known that we were only given so many years on this earth to give, to love, to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, to taste, to know, would we have stayed awake and kept watch, watching for God in each moment, ready for God to break in at any time? We would have known our life here is far too precious to waste on business as usual.

Our God is the One who is always coming into the world. The waiting of Advent is not to wait for God to come but for us to prepare, to get ready. God is always ready to come into the life of this world and into our lives at any given moment, if only we stay awake and keep watch. If we are mindful of the holiness of each moment, of each breath, of each person, of each gift of creation, God is there, ready to break us out of our complacent ways of living and believing and transform us. We truly can be “better prepared for the unexpected”. Though we do not know when God will come, we do know God will. Of that we can be certain. What a way to begin Advent! Thanks be to God.

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