“The Equity of God”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
There is a great side-by-side picture that has been circulating on social media lately. On one side there are three people—tall, medium, and small—trying to see over a fence to a baseball game on the other side. Each is standing on a milk crate. Standing on the milk crate, the tallest person can see over the fence quite well, even though they could see over without it. The middle-sized person on the milk crate can just barely see over the fence, when before they could not see over at all. But even with the milk crate, the smallest person cannot see over the fence. This part of the picture is labeled “Equality,” because each person has been given an equal amount of the same thing: one milk crate. On the other side of the picture, you see the same three people, but the milk crates are distributed differently: the tallest person is not standing on one, the middle person stands on one, and the shortest person stands on two. This part of the picture is labeled “Equity,” because even though they are standing on different amounts of milk crates, each can see over the fence. Equality is about giving everyone the same thing; equity is about giving everyone what they need in order to have the same experience.
In these early days of Advent, we hear God’s promises through the voices of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Through these prophets, God promises to bring a Messiah into the world who will redeem Israel from centuries of sin and exile. In our readings today, the prophet Isaiah told us that the Messiah will come into the world on a great highway in the wilderness. In order for this highway to be built, though, the landscape has to change: the valleys have to be raised, and the mountains have to be brought down. The uneven ground will be made level, and the rough places will be smooth as a plain. Only then, Isaiah says, will this grand highway be able to deliver God’s messiah to God’s people. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together.
The people of Israel would have heard this good news in two ways. First, they would have heard it as good news because they knew the land well. The Israelites were people of the land; they farmed it, they wandered in it, they knew its dangers and its wonders. They were people who had taken a 40-year journey through it; they were a people who had been taken captive in it; they were a people who had seen it flow with milk and honey. The Israelites knew the valleys and the mountains, the ups and downs and everything in between.
Isaiah says that the land they know so well will change in every way. Every valley they struggled to scale will be lifted up; each mountain they huffed and puffed to climb over will be brought low; all the uneven ground that caused them to stumble will be leveled; the rough places, where they stubbed their toes, will be smooth as glass. A highway will be built over the smooth ground and it will connect the Israelites to a world full of wonders and inexplicable excitement. The highway will also be the way of their Messiah. A smooth landscape with a great highways means no more wilderness, no more famine, no more exile and slavery, no more ups and downs—just smooth sailing from now on.
But even more than this, and secondly, the Israelites would have heard and known that God was not just talking about changes in the landscape. From the moment we enter into the Israelite drama in the book of Genesis, we know things are going to be tough. We see this particularly in the book of Exodus when the Pharaoh, for no other reason than ethnic control, enslaves the Israelites for hundreds of years. God chose the Israelites to be God’s people, and this put them at odds with every other nation on the globe. So to hear that God is going to lift up the valleys means that they would be lifted up from oppression; to hear that God is going to bring down the mountains means that their oppressors will be brought low; to hear that the landscape is going to be smoothed like glass means that the Israelites will finally have a chance to play on even ground; it means a fair chance to experience the life and joy God has promised.
Isaiah’s prophecy shows that God is interested and concerned with equity among the people. The equity of God is not about reversing rolls—the rich won’t necessarily become poor, the poor won’t necessarily become rich. If you’ve ever seen the movie Trading Places, where a powerful banker becomes homeless and a homeless man becomes a powerful banker just overnight, that is not what God is interested in. But God is interested in every person having a fair shake at the experience of life in abundance. In order for this to happen, God is in the business of lifting up anything and anyone that has been pushed down or forced down. In order for this to happen, God is also in the business of bringing down anything and anyone that has been elevated to a dangerous or costly level. For some people and situations, this will be a welcomed change; for others, not so much. For those who have been trampled by life, by aggression or oppression, by biases or racism, this will mean an entirely new life. For those who have risen to the top on the backs of other people, and for those who have become accustomed to lording over all things, this also means new life, but they may not enjoy it. All of it must happen in order for the Lord to build the grand highway in the wilderness on which the Messiah will come. The ground for the highway will be level and smooth; everyone and everything on the same even plain.
We see the equity of God come to life in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah. To the woman at the well he gave forgiveness of sins and a peaceful assurance that she was much more than her past transgressions. To the disabled man at the pool of Siloam, who sat by that pool everyday and watched people get in an out and was never offered help to get in and out himself, Jesus gave the truth that he was not defined by his disability but by his formation in the image of God. To the Pharisees, who thought they were superior because they could quote the Scriptures word for word, Jesus gave humility in the knowledge that one can quote the Scriptures and never really know what it, or God, means. To Pontius Pilate, who tried to trap Jesus by asking him, “What is truth?” Jesus gave freedom to discern the truth outside the influence of the Roman government. To the blind, Jesus gave sight; to the deaf, Jesus gave hearing; he made the sick well, he touched the diseased and restored their humanity, he spoke to outcasts and showed them their worth as God’s children. Jesus didn’t give each person the same thing—that would have been foolish. Instead, he gives to all exactly what they need in order to experience the fullness of life God desires for all people. He instituted a reign of equity where every person is on the same plane of God’s unending love.
Isaiah’s prophecy is good news for us today just like it was for the Israelites long ago. God has leveled the playing field; the valleys have been lifted up and the mountains have been brought down; the Messiah came and we have seen the glory of God. We can live in peace and hope because God makes promises and keep them. But Isaiah’s prophecy is a call to action. There are plenty of forces in the world that like to push the valleys back down and shove the mountains back up.
Of course I’m not talking about actual valleys and mountains. I’m talking about the wickedness of racism and racial superiority and nationalism. I’m talking about the evil of discrimination based on someone’s gender or who they have decided to love. I’m talking about Christians who think that they know God just because they can quote the Bible. I’m talking about Churches that think they, and no one else, have the corner market on the truth or morality. I’m talking about anyone who claims they are a follower of Jesus and abuses, turns away, leaves someone out in the cold, denies a person a meal, or stripes someone of their dignity. I’m talking about anyone who claims they are a followers of Jesus and does not stand up when someone is abused, or turned away, or left out in the cold, or denied a meal, or denied basic dignity. These are what keep the valleys in our world low and the mountains high, and God’s equity—the equity that assures us that we are loved and valued and redeemed—demands that we do what we can to level it out and prepare the highway of the Lord.
My friends, the news is good: God’s highway will be built and we will see our Messiah and we will bask in the glory of the Lord. But as we get closer and closer to Bethlehem we have some questions to ask ourselves. Do you have a milk crate to spare so someone can see over the fence? Have you either intentionally or unintentionally pushed one of God’s children down? Have you taken a place of authority or power by denying the image of God in someone else? Do you see an organization or group or policy in the world right now that is keeping God’s people from experiencing the fullness of life? Do you see or know someone who desperately wants to watch the game and needs just a little help to see over the fence? Now is the time to act. Now is the time help. Now is the time to make the change. Now is the time to repent and turn to the Lord.
Now is the time to see the star and follow it to where the baby will be laid. Now is the time because, as we sang last week,
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for God’s justice tears every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn.
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
The world is about to turn. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.