December 1, 2019: Advent 1, "God's Vision: Unity and Diversity"
“God’s Vision: Unity and Diversity”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 1, 2019
For centuries, the Church has used the season of Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. This season is wrapped in peace, hope, joy, and love, but it is also in yearning, longing, mourning, and expectation. In some years here at The First Presbyterian Church we’ve used Advent to think about what it means for Christ to be born among us, to walk among us, to live and die like us. In other years we’ve used Advent as a time to learn new spiritual practices so that our hearts, minds, and souls are ready to receive the gifts of Bethlehem. This year, though, I want to think bigger than how we personally prepare for Christmas. This year I want to think with you about God’s vision for all of creation. The Scripture lessons that guide our worship this season have very specific things to say to us about what God most earnestly desire for us and for all people and things. These Scriptures also tell us over and over that Christ coming into the world is where that vision begins to unfold. The challenge for us this season to understand God’s vision and then figure out where we fit into that vision. Because we do. Each of us has a place in how God is redeeming and transforming all things.
But I have to make a confession today: I often wonder why we observe Advent at all, and maybe you have wondered the same thing. If Christ was already born into the world, why go through the process of waiting for him year after year? Christmas celebrates the coming of God among us, as one of us, Word made flesh. If that dwelling with us is God’s answer to our yearning and hopes and dreams, why are we still yearning and waiting and watching and hopeing? And if Christ is not the answer to our yearning and waiting and watching—if Christmas does not bring the Prince of Peace, who shall reign forever and ever—then why are we looking forward to Christmas? I can see how Advent comes before Christmas—yearning, then fulfillment. But how can Advent come after Christmas year after year? Fulfillment, and then yearning? How can we hope for and expect something that has already happened?
These are not just the sentiments of someone who thinks too much about the church year. I mean, they are that. But they are not only that. Within these questions lies one of the deepest, defining mysteries of Christian faith. They get at the meaning of the incarnation, of Christ living and breathing like us, and they show us the substance of hope. They get at the nature of what it means to confess, as we do each week, that the Messiah has come and that he will come again. That is the bedrock of our faith—Jesus was born once in Bethlehem, and he will return one day to make all things new. To be a Christian is to be a person who looks forward for the One who has already come. We are people in-between, between the now and the not yet. We sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” and, “O come, O come, Emanuel.” Advent is a yearly reminder of just how in-between we really are, called to work today for a kingdom that may never be fully realized while we are alive.
Advent is also a yearly reminder of just how short our memories can be. Even though we went through this whole process only eleven months ago, not a whole lot has changed in our world since then. Advent and Christmas last year brought us good news and glad tidings for all people, yet our society is even more divided and separated than ever before. Advent and Christmas last year brought us good news of wars ending and peace reigning supreme, and yet our nation and so many other nations across the globe are engaged in endless conflict. Advent and Christmas last year called us to speak peace, and yet you need only overhear most any conversation being had on the street today and you’ll hear something divisive, something unkind, something untrue. Advent and Christmas, year after year, invites us to be generous not just during Advent and Christmas but throughout the year, and every day, there is just another news story about someone in power, or someone with power, stealing or defrauding or embezzling.
Advent happens year after year because we have not yet fully grasped or lived into the messages of the season. It is easy to compartmentalize our faith, to put it in neat boxes under the Christmas tree, to open those boxes only when we feel like it or want to. But the reality of Christian faith is that it is a living, active, and moving faith. We do believe that Christ is coming back to make all things new. This keeps us grounded in our walk of faith. But this can, and does, make us lazy. If Christ is coming back, do we really have to do anything with our faith? Advent shouts to us a great, big, loud ‘yes.’ And that ‘yes’ in born in the truth that our lives, this world, does not yet fully reflect how God wants things to be. Advent helps us to rehearse year after year the promises of Christ’s coming with a chance each year to take a hold of those promises and do something with them. Will this be the year we finally and fully hear the good news of the Gospel and live into God’s vision for all creation?
Well, a good question to ask to ask is this: what is God’s vision and what is our part in it?
The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills.” That is good news. But what Isaiah says next is sort of startling. Isaiah says, “All the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of God of Jacob; then he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his path.” The vision here is that God’s mountaintop home will draw all people to the Lord. “All nations,” and “Many people,” is Isaiah’s way of saying people from different tribes and nations, different ethnicities and faith traditions, who speak different languages and hold different beliefs and live in different ways—every one of them will come to God. What Isaiah doesn’t say is that these different people will be transformed into one group that looks, thinks, and believes the same. Isaiah says that all these different folks will come from the various corners of the earth, learn the ways of God, and live together as one even as they are all different.
God’s vision is one of unity and diversity. That might sound strange to us: unity and diversity. It sounds strange to us because human history, including the history we are living in right now, has taught us that unity and diversity cannot necessarily be friends. If people are different, how can they be one? How can a group be united if its various members believe or think different things or come from different backgrounds? If parents and siblings or relatives voted differently from one another, how can they live together as a family unit? If the person sitting across from me in church believes differently than I do about Jesus or the Bible or communion, can we really claim to be members of the same church? Am I really supposed to put up with my neighbor who waits two weeks instead of one to mow his lawn, and what about those awful weeds in his garden that drop seeds in my garden? Am I supposed to put with that? Time and time again, inside and outside of the church, we have heard the message of ‘no’ and ‘you can’t’ and ‘you shouldn’t’ and ‘you should push them away.’
The time we are living in right now, my friends, is pounding this message into our heads and hearts. Each day we are told that if we do this and we don’t do this, we are good members of this club or party or society. Each day we are told that this type of person is out and this type of person is in, and you better stick with the ones who are in. Each day we are sorted, like some demented version of Harry Potter, into this house or into these people or into that pigeonhole. It is a method of control, because when the people are under control, those in power and those who have less than pure intentions can do their very worse. It is what happened to Jesus. The powerful elite in his day defined him as traitor, a weirdo, a seditionist. Once they had him boxed in, he was easier to destroy and it was easier to stir the crowds in their favor. Once they had him locked down, they could do whatever they wanted. And what they wanted was for him to be dead. And for a time, they succeeded.
But then three days later Jesus showed to us and to the world that categories, party lines, ‘us’ and ‘them,’ has no place or power in God’s kingdom—our definitions, our division, our rules and regulations…all of that is meaningless to God. Today might be the first Sunday of Advent but we remember Easter and how Christ’s resurrection freed us from all that holds us back or down. His new life gives us new life so that we do not have to define or be defined by anything or anyone other than the God of love who loves us unconditionally. We can, in fact, live together, though we are so very different. God wants us to live that way because we are all created in God’s image. When we go about asking one person to change to be a part of ‘us,’ or we ask whole groups of people to change who they are, we are denying God’s image in them. And that is simply not God’s vision. God’s vision is that we do the hard, hard work each day of seeing the sacred image of God in each person. This work leads us, across our differences and diversity, to live together as one. In peace. In love. In charity and compassion. In unity. As Christ did every day he was alive.
We take our place in this vision when we stop trying to change the people around us and start cherishing them as image-bearers of God.
We take our place in this vision when we realize that most times the way someone lives has little to no effect on how we live. Our life’s work should not be about changing them. Their choices do not directly affect us, their preferences do not influence our own, the way they live their life and faith is between them and the Lord. And we must respect that sacred boundary.
At the same time, we take our place in God’s vision of unity and diversity as we speak up and stand up when someone’s way of life is having a direct negative impact on our lives or the lives of other people. This means speaking up in the face of evil, bigotry, hatred, and lies.
We take our place in God’s vision when we use our similarities to build bridges instead of using our differences to burn them down.
We take our place in God’s vision when we let love lead and stop leading with things like doctrine, theology, the rules whatever they may, or how it has always been done.
My friends in Christ, it is because of Christ, the Prince of Peace, that we can one day hope for a day of true and lasting unity among the many people and nations of the world. It is because of the Word made flesh that we can yearn for a day when God will teach us God’s ways. It is because God is with us—and God is with us—that we can start working for and living into that day every day, including today. We don’t just sit back and wait for Christ to come. We get to work right now, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We get to work right now, cherishing the people around us. We get to work right now, speaking up for justice and what is right. We get to work right now, laughing in the face of anyone and anything that says we cannot live together as one human family. We get to work right now, singing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and “O come, o come, Emanuel.” Amen.