“God’s Vision: Peace and Incarnation”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 8, 2019: Advent 2
My family had to say goodbye to one of our dogs this week. Gus was a good boy, 16 years old as best we can guess. Gus and I got along really well, and as long as he could, he would jump up on the sofa each night and nestle in between my knees to watch TV. When it got too much for him to jump, I’d lift him onto the sofa for the evening. Even though Gus and I were buds, he was always a Mama’s boy. Katie had adopted Gus as a puppy long before marriage blended our families together. I’ll never forget the first time I met Gus. It was actually even before Katie and I started dating. I had taken a little road trip down to where Katie was living in Stillwater and because she had just moved into her house a few days earlier, the furniture was stacked with boxes so we ate pizza on the kitchen floor. When Katie answered the door that night, Gus came bounding through the living room and immediately started barking and jumping up my legs. He was the funniest thing I had ever seen—he had the ears the size of a Doberman even though he was only about 25 pounds. That little dog was all ears, and we’ll miss him greatly.
One thing Gus was good at was barking. And his favorite thing to bark at was our neighbor’s dogs. To the west, our neighbors have three dogs, and each morning when I opened the back door for Gus to go out, he would race down the steps on the deck, bound towards the west side of our backyard, and immediately start scratching at the fence and barking at the neighbor’s dogs. Then the neighbor’s dogs would start barking back and eventually the whole neighborhood would be awake for the day. Between our yard and the neighbor’s is a seven-foot privacy fence, and Gus barked so much and so often at those dogs that he wore away some of the wood on the fence, revealing fresh wood beneath wood that had been weathered over the years. I can’t even see over the fence so Gus, who was no more than 2 feet tall standing on his back legs, also could not see over or the dogs on the other side.
Now, our neighbor on the east side has a dog, too, but never once in the years Gus lived here did he ever bark at that dog. The difference, you see, is that the fence on the east side of our yard is chain-link. Gus could see the dog on the east side through the fence, and he knew that Jasmine, a little husky, had no real bite even though she has a big bark. Gus could not see the dogs on the west side because of the fence, making it impossible for him to know whether or not they were a real threat to him and us. It is kind of amazing how God can teach us lessons even through our dogs. And the lesson I learned over the years with Gus is that when we can’t see something—a dog, a person, a group of people—it is terribly easy to turn them into a threat. The fence prevented Gus from seeing the neighbor’s dogs, who are perfectly lovely and friendly. Without being able to see, Gus felt threatened. Over the years Gus taught me that there can be no peace if there is no seeing, no incarnation, no face-to-face, in-the-flesh interaction.
As I mentioned last week, we’re searching the Scriptures this Advent season to find clues about God’s vision for us and for all of creation. Today, our reading from the prophet Isaiah leads us to meditate on God’s vision of peace and incarnation. “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” Isaiah says. A better word here is probably ‘stump’ instead of ‘stock’—a stump is lifeless and without potential. Israel was a stump in the time of Isaiah, a stump where there used to be a magnificent tree. This magnificent tree grew from the family of Jesse, the family of King David who was the greatest king to ever rule Israel. But over the years, the tree was slowly, and at other times not so slowly, hacked apart. First it was exile in Babylon that began to dismantle the magnificent tree of Jesse’s family. Then it was the Assyrians who marched on Israel and utterly defeated their armies. Now, the great family of Jesse that was supposed to produce Israel’s promised Messiah is a stomp, a nuisance in the yard with so little potential and hope.
But Isaiah tells us that out of this stump God is about to do something new. God’s spirit enters the story and hovers over the stump that was once Israel’s greatest hope. This spirit from God is irresistible, beyond human control and management and predictability. The spirit from God indicates new possibility. The spirit does reform the stump or plant something new next to it or even grind it down to make the ground smooth. No, the spirit brings something new out of the stump. God’s spirit forms a person from the stump of Jesse, a person of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Incarnation is what the spirit does, bringing to life something that was not in existence before. This is a new ruler for Israel, one who does not rely on the normal faculties and senses, but who uses equity and justice in making the world right. This one, this ruler, this incarnation is clothed in righteousness and faithfulness as they make all things new.
Peace is the way under this new ruler. Prey and predator live peacefully together. Beasts that once competed for nourishment find that there is plenty for all and for their offspring. Children will be able to play without the fear of being bitten by animals that are poisonous. The destruction that so heavily marks human existence will not dominate the future, and the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. This ruler will stand as a signal beacon to all nations that God has fully and finally conquered the pain, destruction, fear, and death that lurks around every corner. Creation will be restored and reconciled. Brutality will be tamed and death overcome. Old enemies become friends. The world will be in order so that the fragile and vulnerable can have their say and lives their lives as abundantly as everyone else. What a glorious vision, indeed!
You’ll notice here that words from God are not enough to make this vision of peace come to life. For hundreds and thousands of years God spoke to the people, calling them to peaceful, just, and righteous lives. Sometimes they got it right, but most times they did not. Even after God delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites could not give up their crush on others gods. Constantly, day after day, the Israelites chased after everything that wasn’t God, thinking that idols and other religions and other rituals would satisfy their longing for a relationship with God. Over and over, the people of Israel turned their backs on the One who fed them in the wilderness, sheltered them in the desert, and brought them to the Promised Land. And over and over, God sent prophets and messengers to call his people back. The words of these messengers fell on deaf ears, and the result was violence, destruction, and death. To bring about true and lasting peace, God knew that words would not be enough. So from the stump of Jesse, God spoke a word and brought to life a new ruler who sits on the throne of David forever and ever.
That ruler is Jesus. Jesus is God incarnate among us, living and breathing as we do, loving and eating as we do, dying as we do. Jesus is God incarnate among us bringing peace that lasts forever and ever. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” In Jesus, God came into our world to drive out darkness and hate, not by telling us how to do, but by showing to us in Jesus that it can be done. In Jesus, God took down the seven-foot security fence that stood between us and God and us and our neighbors so that we can now clearly see how very little we have to be afraid of. Words were not enough—God had to take on human form to teach us that lesson. Light and love had to come into the world, walk the ground we walk and breathe the air we breathe, in order for us to fully and finally understand that peace is actually an option. Peace comes through incarnation, through showing up, through being in the flesh, through standing face-to-face with God and one another.
There is no mightier or fearsome tribe in all of African than the Masai. Each year, at a celebration of the new moon, warriors from the Masai tribe walk to the outskirts of their territorial lands to meet with leaders from other tribes. At different times throughout the year, the Masai and these other tribes are on guard against one another, check to be sure territory and hunting grounds and boundary lines are respected. Throughout the year the Masai may even go to war with these neighboring tribes. But at the yearly celebration of the new moon the Masai and their neighbors meet face to face. They know, when standing before one another face-to-face, peace is a much better option than violence and war. And as they stand there facing one another, they ask a simple question: How are the children? In one unison voice, an answer is given, even by warriors who do not have children: All the children are well. This means that, even if it for a moment, peace prevails.
I believe that each one of us here today desires true peace—not like pageant-question peace, but true peace that lasts and lasts and lasts. My friends, the good news of the Scriptures today is that true peace is possible. It is possible because God became incarnate among us in Jesus, showing us the way to that peace. And it is possible because every moment of every day we have the chance to stand in front of one another and ask: How are the children? Face-to-face, we cannot hate one another. Face-to-face, we see that threats are so very low. Face-to-face, we see clearly the image of God imprinted on one another. Face-to-face, we see eyes and ears and smiles and wrinkles and freckles and hair and aging that is brought on by the years, and we see how very similar we really are. Face-to-face, we can ask about each other’s children and celebrate when there is peace and work together to bring peace where there is none. Peace cannot come if we do not show up, for one another and for God. Jesus showed up for us, and we in turn show up with his love and justice and mercy and grace in all things that we do.
Peace is not so out of reach. God is with us. God is incarnate among us. Let us be incarnate, present, for, hand in hand together with each other. Then there will be peace. Amen.