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Sermon Archives

Living to See the Day

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Dec 08

The Second Sunday in Advent

Texts: Isaiah 40: 1-8 and Matthew 3: 1-10

One of my last memories of my dad was from a summer day in 1990.  He had become too sick to work and was doing his best to enjoy what would be his last summer at our house in Orleans on Cape Cod.  Earlier that day, he had left a letter on my pillow, hand written on a yellow legal pad, classic Al Smith style.  In it, he told me that he loved me and that he was proud of me.  “I just wanted to let you know what a joy and delight your 17 plus years have brought to my life, Dan, and although my life has been cut short, the depth and quality of yours has more than compensated.”  He went on to imagine who I might become. He made a joke about my being the “man in the house” and caring for my mom as she grew older before signing off “enough of this long epistle” and saying “I love you” one more time.  I pretty much have it memorized now but I recall reading it for the first time in my upstairs bedroom and crying into that pillow for what must have been an hour.  Meanwhile, my dad was downstairs watching the news.  It was about all he had energy for at that point in his illness.  Eventually, I pulled myself together, rubbed my eyes dry, and mustered the courage to go see him.  When I found my dad sitting in his chair, his eyes were already tearing up, in part because of the moment between us but also because of what happened to be on the news that day.  It was Nelson Mandela.

 Up until yesterday in my memory, I thought for sure it had been the day of his release from prison.  Turns out that had happened in February 1990 and the letter was dated in August.  Still, Mandela was just beginning to re-emerge in the public light as a free man, and the look on my dad’s face seemed to say, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.” I think he actually said as much. When I sat down, he turned down the TV volume though never took his eyes off of it, or Mandela.  I think we were both glad for the distraction since any eye to eye contact was beyond what either of us could handle.  I mumbled out a “thank you” for the letter and “I love you too”.  He nodded and smiled.  And we both watched as history was unfolding before our tear-filled eyes.   I look back today and can’t help but be struck by this juxtaposition of events.  A father and teenage son, two hearts reconnecting in ways as deep and genuine as it gets.  At the same time, on broadcast news from around the globe, a father of an entire people – Mandela, Mandiba -- and a still harshly divided country reconnecting after 27 years apart.  My dad died just a few weeks later but he lived to see the day.  And so did I.  

What a rare blessing it has been for me and I assume for many of you to read the remarkable coverage of Mandela’s death but even more his life, a life so fully lived. This week, the world has had a chance to savor a rare taste of fulfillment!  Not merely hope, mind you.  Not merely inspiration.  But genuine fulfillment!  In a very real way, we have all lived to see a day when the better dreams of a nation and of the planet have been realized and have been fulfilled, despite violence, despite tribalism, despite nationalism, despite deeply institutionalized, government sanctioned racism.  Mandela’s friend and biographer Anthony Sampson once called his story, “The world’s favorite fairy tale. The prisoner released from the dark dungeon, the pauper who turns out to be a prince, the bogeyman who proves to be the wizard.”  A fairy tale, maybe, if only everyone could live happily ever which we know is far from the case in today’s South Africa and which is why I say it's just a taste of fulfillment.

With Mandela’s story as our backdrop, I’d like for us to pause and consider what fulfillment means in light of our scripture texts and also in this season of Advent now upon us.   After all, the theme of promise and fulfillment courses through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament alike and its shows up especially at this time of year when we prepare to celebrate the birth of the foretold Messiah.  Even apart from Jesus though, promise and fulfillment is a key, if the not the key, dynamic in the Torah and in the Prophets.  In Genesis, God promises land and descendants to Abraham and Sarah.  Just ask her! Do you think Sarah ever thought she’d see the day when she would give birth. The prospect was laughable and yet the promise is fulfilled.  In the story of Exodus, God promises liberation from slavery albeit after years in the wilderness.  Surely there were moments when Moses and those stiff-necked Israelites never thought they’d live to see the day. Yet the promises are fulfilled.  In the Prophets – through the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos -- God promises justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. On occasion, there is even talk of an ideal King, a so-called Son of David, an anointed one, a Messiah to rule that new day.  You can bet the real kings in those days never even wanted to see that day come.   Nonetheless, the prophets kept the dream and hope of God’s peace and justice alive. And so it is that the prophets have a particularly prominent role in our Advent and Christmas observance. Just hear how one prophet gives voice to God’s promises:  

In Isaiah 2:  Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” 

In Isaiah 9:  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

In Isaiah 40, and quoted in our passage for today:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”.  And “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [In other words, make a royal road of that ideal king!]   5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” 

These promises didn’t just appear out of the blue. They were forged in a particular context of a particular people. They grew out of the ancient Jewish experience of exile and oppression, of injustice and violence under monarchy after monarchy.  It’s into just one of these settings that these promises take hold in the gospels. This time, it's the Roman Empire, and King Herod.  This time, the immediate context into which these promises were being recalled and interpreted was the Jewish-Roman wars.  These incredibly bloody wars that were said to turn red the waters of the Galilee were cataclysmic for the first century Jews who were living some 30 or 40 years after Jesus death which is when the gospel of Matthew was actually written.  But it is because of that broader context, that great ten thousand plus year history of promise and fulfillment that the first Christmas emerges on that ancient Palestine scene with such extraordinary power.  Think about it, most Jews of the time thought they’d never to live to see the day, or even to have a taste of fulfillment, and who could blame them? 

Just as there were then as now multiple and even competing sects of Judaism living in first century Palestine, “sibling rivalries” as they’ve been called, there were and are multiple Jewish understandings of the future.  Its becoming clear to historians that the very idea of Messiah as a type of fulfillment would have been completely foreign to some if not most of the Jews at that time.  In fact, its largely because of the historical prominence of Jesus as the Messiah that most people assume that Jews did and do have a cherished concept of the Messiah, but its just not so.  But I want to come back to this question of who could blame them?  Who could blame the Jews for not believing that Jesus was the fulfillment of messianic prophecy?  For starters, some of the gospel writers themselves could. 

Just take a quick look again at our text from Matthew.  Here we find a key example of the promise-fulfillment dynamic.  We’ve heard the expressions:  “This was to fulfill the Law.”  Or “this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophets.” This a formula especially employed in Matthew’s writing. In fact, Matthew is so determined to prove the continuity of Jesus with Jewish tradition that at points he betrays that very same tradition, or at least some of the siblings that were part of it. Through the voice of John the Baptist, and later through the mouth of Jesus himself, Matthew calls the Pharisees and Sadducees, a “brood of vipers”! Vipers, mind you, were snakes whose babies were known to eat through their own mothers’ stomachs, killing them!  Why am I dwelling on all this now?  Because just as we need to exercise extreme caution in Lent and Holy Week when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations, never again giving credence to the libel that the Jews killed Jesus, so too must we be vigilant in Advent. We need to read the Christmas story and treat its connection with the Hebrew Bible with utmost care.

There is conflict and vitriol between Jewish Christians towards more traditional Jews right from the start.  There are seeds here of Christian anti-Semitism and they need to be dealt with lest they grow!  To this day, countless Christians treat the prophetic promises of the Messiah as mere predictions of Jesus birth, life and death.   These texts are not predictions![1]  I’m going to say that again.  These texts are not predictions!  If they were, the only way the Hebrew Bible texts would be valid in their own right is if the predictions came true. Instead, these prophetic texts are glorious promises!  Unlike predictions, promises leave open a wide variety of ways in which the spirit of something can be fulfilled.  Some Jews of the time saw their fulfillment in Jesus and some did not.  For those who didn’t, the glory of those initial promises remain.  If you still think this is merely an academic considerations, no big deal, semantics, consider that for some Jews and some Christians alike, these glorious promises follow a Zionist narrative and are playing out daily amidst the vast tensions and conflict both within and surrounding Israel today.  The extent to which these promises are inclusive or exclusive of non-Jews, and are tied the land or not, are of extreme geo-political import! 

 One more point.  Without wanting to ruin anyone’s Advent observance, I invite us all to think about these complexities next time we find ourselves singing all the verses of our Advent introit for today, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  Its one of our tradition’s most beloved of carols.  The melody and words find an exquisite blend in the yearning and longing many of us feel this time of year.   We have yet to sing the first verse this season in part because we are seeking an alternative version that isn’t awful.  It goes like this.  Imagine singing it with a Jewish guest at our service, or for that matter a Palestinian. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, O ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear! Ransom captive, Israel?  In lonely exile waiting for the Son of God?  On the one hand, the text of this much loved hymn, especially verse 1, seems to suggest that the Jews and Israel are just waiting around, mourning and decidedly unfulfilled without Jesus, victims of their ignorance! Whether this was the intention of the author of the hymn, or of its 9th century Latin antecedent, hardly matters when we know that this language could so readily be perceived as standing in line with centuries of unchecked Christian anti-Judaism that sees Messianic expectation as prediction.  On the other hand, when seen as a promise that was fulfilled for some but not all, we can see our own hearts, our own souls as Israel here, yearning and longing for that deeper fulfillment, filling a hole within us. We can see ourselves in exile from our better selves, our better dreams, in exile in this strange land of empire, in exile from market driven consumerist deluge of this and any season. And indeed, we can and should rejoice that our Savior, our silent night, our Joy to the World is coming, that Emmanuel is near!  Imagine what these words mean in the African American tradition or how this notion of being ransom captive would be nourishing to countless lives lived in modern day chains, whether by the chains of prisons, slavery or addiction. Are the words themselves inherently wrong? Perhaps not seen in light of our history of relations with Jews, but they are most definitely dangerous, especially when taken out of context, and who among us these days ever does that?

Ok.  Enough of this long epistle!  The fact is I do still love O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  And I do still love the gospel of Matthew despite its very harsh and ungenerous reading of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  As Brent has said a few times, our study of Matthew through Advent and the coming year can and should be a critical love affair, for at the heart of all these for better and for worse traditions, is Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us. At the heart of it all, is one who Christians have every right to believe is a fulfillment of prophecy, a fulfillment of God’s dream of love and justice and peace!  Had I been there at that first Christmas, I too would have said “I’d never thought I’d see the day!” but looking back now, I’m glad someone did, for I too have had a taste of that fulfillment in Jesus. 

Before I wrap up, I want you all to consider a time in your own mind when you’ve found yourself saying in disbelief “I never thought I’d see the day!”   For some, Mandela may well spring to mind, or the election of Obama, or the Red Sox first win of the World Series let alone those that followed!  Consider the more mundane examples as well – maybe a time when you see your otherwise extremely self-centered family member engaged in some remarkable act of charity or compassion.  And now, I invite you do something harder.  Ask yourself, for what are you waiting now, or even better, what is that hope you are living now?  As Christians, and in Advent especially, we are all living to see the day, are we not?  Living to see the day when God’s love is made real, as real as human flesh! Living to see and celebrate and rejoice that God is with us!  We too have had a precious taste of fulfillment!  We can see it again and again as God’s promises of love and justice are made manifest in history, even recent history!  Gandhiji and MLK, Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day, and by all means Nelson Mandela.  What’s most amazing is that all of them, including Jesus, rarely doubted that they would the see the day!  They saw it first in dreams and on long walks, but eventually, a taste of genuine fulfillment cam, to them and so to us!  

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent.   With the fulfillment of Christmas still a few weeks away, Advent teaches us, trains our hearts even, always to be living to see the day.  Is there a depth of sadness, and maybe even despair in all the waiting, in the watching? You bet! It is a season that invites us to get in touch, deep down, with our own yearning for fulfillment, both in our personal lives but in our collective life as well. Where are those holes of faith and hope that need to be filled in you? Yes.  So where do you need to make some room in the overcrowded inns of your hearts and lives? And how are you living to see the day? 

That summer day in 1990 was August 7th.  I looked it up.  According to one news report, Mandela had just finished a chaotic, fractious ANC national executive meeting that decided to suspend the armed struggle against the apartheid government.  “Comfort, comfort, my people, says our God!  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry out that she has served her term.”  Whether its 27 years of waiting or 20,000 years, God’s dream has been fulfilled.  Thanks be to God! With that knowledge, may we too live our lives waiting yet, but knowing that we will live to see yet more days of glorious promise fulfilled! Amen. 

Peter and the choir have prepared a response of faith anthem to honor Mandela.  Its called Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, which means God Bless Africa.  It began as the anthem of the ANC, the African National Congress and is now the national anthem of five countries, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe and of course South Africa. 


[1] This section is informed by Marcus Borg and John Dominican Crossan’s treatment of Matthew and this theme of fulfillment in his book “The First Christmas:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth” (Harper One, 2009).

 

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