TWO IMPORTANT NOTES:
1. This sermon is based on two scripture lessons for the 2nd Sunday in Advent. To more fully understand the sermon, you should read the two texts:
2. IN ADDITION, you should click on the link at the end of the sermon to hear a version of the song sung immediately following the sermon (the final paragraph of the sermon serves as a bridge).
This is the best of all possible worlds. At least that’s what an 18th century German Christian philosopher thought. You’ve probably never heard of Gottfried Leibniz unless you were stuck in a required philosophy course in college, or that’s your last name, and every family reunion is an opportunity to remind folks that you have a connection to him. Leibniz’s thinking went like this: if God is all good and all loving and all knowing and all powerful, this has to be the best of all possible worlds. There is evil in the world, but no more or less than needed to inspire us to goodness. It’s like Goldilocks: not too much or too little, just right.
But like Goldilocks, it’s a fairy tale. Most philosophers haven’t bought his argument. The best-known and funniest critique came from one of his contemporaries, French writer Voltaire. His satirical novel and its main character have the same name, Candide. As the story begins Candide’s young, innocent and optimistic, but through a crazy series of unfortunate events he moves from a sunny trust that this is the best of all possible worlds to a dark and dismal belief that all you can do is keep your head down and mind your own business.
I suspect most of us aren’t persuaded either: this is not the best of all possible worlds. Many Americans have just come through a most trying and difficult time– celebrating Thanksgiving at a table where half the relatives think the savior has come in the president-elect and the other half think he’s the anti-Christ; I’m reminded of the woman who warned prior to the meal that if anyone brought up politics she’d personally drown them in the gravy boat. But most may agree that our political system gives breaks to the rich and powerful while the rest of us get the shaft.
We’re not alone in feeling that the world’s gone off its tracks. This summer United Kingdom voters approved Brexit and leaving the European Union, and all sides were gobsmacked. Today in Austria a deeply contentious and close election is taking place; according to a news source half the voters are increasingly struggling to understand the other half. Many are beginning to wonder if democracy can survive our tumultuous times.
On smaller but awful scale, last week I read about Yemeni refugees caught in the conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A mom and dad with several children had to decide: do we use our limited money for medical costs to save a sick child or to feed the others? In the end they decided one would die to save the rest; how do you live with such terrible choosing?*
In recent weeks in Williamsburg there’s been heated debate about group homes for the mentally ill, with potential neighbors concerned about falling home values or safety. Last week a resident of one of the homes left a suicide note on her bed, went to a local playground and hanged herself.** I wonder if she would’ve done that anyway, or if her darkness grew deeper because she came to believe people like her are frightening or worth less than a piece of property. There was also a 69 year old man arrested for possessing child pornography*** and a dead woman stuffed in a dumpster****. Then there are the everyday traumas: sickness or troubling medical reports, family conflict or divorce, abuse in many forms, a rising tide of vulgarity and disrespect, and horrors we no longer notice, like 15,000 children dying each day from lack of food and basic health care, or more gun related deaths in two years than in two decades in Vietnam. This is not the best of all possible worlds, and we know it deep in our souls.
But as people of faith, deep in our souls we also know another reality. We’ve been told another story with another vision of the world ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, made new. The Bible has many visions and images portraying that wonderful new thing: swords beaten in plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, instruments of death transformed into tools to cultivate life. Today Isaiah describes a wonderfully changed world led by an ideal ruler utterly guided by God’s Spirit. He always does what’s right; he sees clearly and seeks first and foremost to do God’s will; he judges wisely for the well-being of all, not just a few. In that best of all possible worlds not only human relations are healed and healthy; the whole creation is blessed and at peace. Leopards and baby goats, wolves and lambs are at peace; cows and bears live in harmony; innocent children play safely and unafraid; “they will not hurt or destroy” because the world is as full of the knowledge of God as the ocean is full of water.
For us followers of Christ that new day and that better world has already begun to take shape in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It might not look like much, like a nearly unnoticed sprig of green growing out of a tree stump. But for us the hopes and dreams of all the years are met in him; he is that leader filled with Holy Spirit Isaiah saw. Ready or not, he’s the One who comes to show us how to live truly and well, how to love one another, how to humbly serve and forgive and walk a better way. In him that best of all possible worlds has begun to take shape, both in him and in us learning his ways and living his life.
In Isaiah’s vision the promised coming one is filled with God’s Holy Spirit; that’s how he is able to live in line with God’s will and be the standard bearer for that better way. But did you notice something really important in today’s Gospel story? John the Baptist announces that God’s Empire is taking over; it’s coming ready or not, but if we’re paying attention we’ll get our lives lined up with that new reality. It’s already knocking at the door, coming through someone bringing fire and Holy Spirit. Fire to burn away in us what’s cheap or worthless or not essential; fire to heal and make us pure and holy; and Holy Spirit to give us the strength and power to live a different way, the Jesus way, and to bear good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. What a gift: we also have a part to play in that new creation taking shape.
We think we can’t live the Jesus way; on our own we can’t. But Christ comes bringing Holy Spirit power beyond our own so the life that lives in him can be seen in us. That’s what John the Baptist calls us to do: to repent, to go a different way with a different set of eyes and priorities and values and actions following the better Way of the God who comes to us in Christ. Ready or not, he comes.
The world may not be ready for this new way but I am; I hope you are, too. It’s not an easy way: it put Jesus on a cross. But it’s also a way of joy. The best of all possible worlds comes in small ways and unexpected places as we take up our cross and follow.
That best of all possible worlds comes at this Table. I love communion because here we lay aside our differences and become one in Christ; even in the presence of our enemies God prepares a feast to give and receive Christ’s peace and love at a Table set for all.
That best of all possible worlds comes as the Holy Spirit guides and helps us to be peacemakers in the midst of strife and harsh words and feelings, or we opt for humility and make a mockery of pride and arrogance, or we choose peace by working for justice, or we speak up and stand with any who feel threatened or at risk or afraid because they’re different or live on the margins. Ready or not, Christ comes here and now in the hungry poor, the stranger or the immigrant refugee family fleeing like Christ’s fled Herod; ready or not Christ comes in those imprisoned in mind or body or spirit; every kind word returned for meanness, every act of gentleness to tone down anger, every choice to listen instead of shout, every mercy shown, every forgiveness offered is a Holy Spirit empowered commitment to live now in Christ.
Such things aren’t easy, but with God all things are possible. We can’t do them on our own; we need God’s fiery Holy Spirit and each other. We need the church so we can keep hearing and telling these stories and seeing these visions; we need one another to hold us accountable and challenge and help us walk that better way. These habits of the heart we learn and practice together change us, and the world. God’s Empire comes; God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The best of all possible worlds takes shape and becomes real, here, now.
It feels like we’re in the midst of a terrific turmoil and tumult, thunder and lightning waking us in the night. But here’s the promise and the hope we have in Christ – the great storm’s over; its power’s been broken in Christ’s coming. A better day’s already dawning: sweetness in the air, justice on the wind. Can you smell Christ’s sweetness in the Spirit’s bracing breeze? The deaf shall have music, the blind new eyes; release for the captives, an end to the wars; new streams in the desert, new hope for the poor. Like a mother the church sings to us of a love that has conquered the powers of hell, and will keep singing till the Bridegroom Christ’s final return. Sisters and brothers let go your fear; the Lord loves his own and still comes near, so lift up your wings, and fly, and live, thanks be to God.
2016, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.