“Can You Imagine?”
Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2 – Year A
They say bumper stickers are good barometers of public moods. I’m not talking about bumper stickers that express political views or show support for presidential candidates. I’m talking about bumper stickers that convey attitudes.
A couple of bumper stickers I’ve seen recently:
Your kid may be an honor student, but you’re still an idiot.
Hate you. Hate Kansas. Taking the dog.
Some bumper stickers express a kind of permanent “road rage” – the foul breath of our commuter culture. A guy pulled up behind me on the highway last week, flashing his headlights and honking his horn. As he raced by, I saw his bumper sticker:
Move Over Stupid: I’m Trying to Speed
A day or so later I pulled up at a stop light behind a bumper sticker that said:
Watch Out For The Idiot Behind Me
We may chuckle at these market-ready highway greeting cards because it seems silly to take them seriously.
But what’s so funny about all that verbal aggression? What makes us laugh at our impulse to lash out at our neighbors with words? Why do we laugh at bad manners and sweeping insults and the unbridled free-expression of every last one of our foul moods?
To let off steam, you suppose? But at what cost to the people around us? At what cost to the social contract, if there is still such a thing these days?
A few bad attitudes in a crowd are one thing. It’s something else when everybody is in a bad mood.
See, attitudes can get out of control. They can get a grip on a household, a workplace, a community, entire nations. Sometimes it seems like everybody’s got an attitude of some sort.
It’s one thing when everybody’s got a good attitude. It’s something else when everybody is in a funk.
Look, I’m not in funk. Susan and I just got home from Seattle where we spent the week with our first grandchild. Let me tell you, it’s impossible to stay in the grip of a bad attitude when you hold a newborn in your arms. So much love, so much joy, so much hope for the future all bound up in a little bundle of new life and possibility. I can’t imagine a thing in the world that could have spoiled the spell that nine and half pound miracle named Milo has cast over his grandmother and grandfather. But as I held him in my arms, watching him sleep, listening to him breathe, I found myself wondering about the sort of world he has entered. And I admit to having some real concerns about some of the attitudes that are shaping the world we are leaving him.
Someone once said that news is the first rough draft of history. That may be. But when we’re still trying to make sense of the news, it’s impossible to predict what history will have to say. Heaven knows how history will render the world my grandson has entered. History has only begun to render an account of the world I entered some sixty years ago. But already there are things we can learn from those times, evidence of attitudes that shaped the story we lived back then. Take McCarthyism, for example. That was one heck of an attitude. In fact the whole “Cold War” was a kind of global attitude. Thankfully we got over it.
Of course then we had the 60s. Then the Watergate years
…the Me-decade of the 80s…the culture wars of the 90s…and in the last decade, the War on Terror…the Great Recession…now what seems to be a global populist uprising… We have to wonder what will be next big attitude?
But it’s not just a matter of attitude. Instead of seizing the opportunity to listen and empathize with one another, there seems to be a widespread consensus these days that everybody’s bad attitude is everyone else’s problem.
“Look, I’m having a really rotten day. If I hurt your feelings, just deal with it.”
Here’s the point: I believe the witness of scripture flies in the face of that kind of attitude. Scripture calls us to repent, to turn around, to see things in different light. Scripture call us to see things from God’s perspective.
Our still-speaking God is committed to changing things, turning things around, starting things over, setting things right.
We’re God’s people, and the attitude God’s people ought to have is the attitude that things can change, things can be turned around, things can start over, things can be set right.
That was Isaiah’s message, even though his people didn’t buy it at first.
You see, the nation of Israel faced a national crisis in Isaiah’s day, eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The mighty Syrian army was threatening Israel’s northern border in those days. The people lived in constant fear of being overrun and conquered by foreigners who didn’t share their values, who cared nothing about their history, their God. A few people took comfort in the covenant God had made with Israel back in the days of King David, the promise of an everlasting dynasty on the throne in Jerusalem. But in Isaiah’s day, most people weren’t so sure, including King Ahaz, who was on the throne at the time. With the Syrians on his northern border, instead of believing in God’s assurance of protection, King Ahaz made an alliance with an old enemy, the Assyrians.
You could say that Israel had an attitude, the attitude that “I don’t need God; I don’t need anybody; I am master of my own destiny.” The political elites of Israel had come to believe they didn’t need God because they had powerful allies.
But Isaiah saw things differently. Isaiah warned against relying on military might. He warned against forming political alliances. Isaiah counseled the King to trust God, not horses and chariots and swords and spears, the weapons of war in those days.
Then as now, nobody wants to listen to the peacemakers when all the sabers are rattling. Israel refused to rule out the military action. And for a while, the alliance with the Assyrians worked. But as soon as the Syrians were defeated, Israel’s ally, the Assyrians, turned on her and seized the Northern Kingdom in the year 722 B.C. It was a national calamity no one saw coming. And suddenly, Israel’s attitude changed. Instead of “I don’t need God” now it was “I can’t believe God would let this happen.”
Here’s the thing: once an attitude gets a grip on a people, it’s hard for anybody to have a nice day. This was the period of time that produced the prophecy of Jeremiah, sometimes called “the weeping prophet.” Cultural anthropologists tell us that he art and music and culture of a people reflect their attitude.
But the art and music and culture of a people can also change their attitude. The difference is all about what can be imagined. A people must be able to imagine their way out of a predicament before they can work their way out. People must be able to imagine their way out of a crisis if they are to muster any hope of actually getting through it. If the world is to have any hope of becoming the just and peaceful realm scripture speaks of, we must be able to imagine it.
Isaiah realized this. This morning’s first reading has been called “a pearl of Hebrew poetry.” It is filled with a breathtaking variety of images and metaphors: the shoot growing out of the stump; the branch out of the roots; lions and lambs lying together; nursing infants; children playing at the den of deadly snakes.
Isaiah, the prophet – Isaiah, the poet – offered a beleaguered people a message of hope. He responded to Israel’s bad attitude with the promise of new age. He believed with all his heart and mind that God was committed to changing things, turning things around, starting things over, setting things right. He painted pictures with words of a just and peaceful kingdom in which the natural order of things was overturned.
Isaiah knew that if the people could not imagine such a world, then such a world would never come to be.
Can we imagine such a world – a just and peaceful world in which we pull back from the brink of the deep divisions that separate us, that keep us at each other’s throats, differences that have lately eclipsed what unites us – namely our shared need for dignity, respect and the chance to live into our full potential as human beings?
That is the question for the people of God in the season of Advent – this season of arrival, this season of “coming into being.”
In the middle of the last century, as the world emerged from a great war, people could imagine a world at war again. And they imagined weapons so powerful, so devastating, so fearsome, weapons so horrific that they would never need to be used, so long as one side never gained an absolute advantage over the other. But each side tried to imagine a way of gaining an advantage, and so the world war that was ended by the use of that horrific weapon became a cold war in which people began to imagine the mutually assured destruction of the entire world. And so the Cold War ended. That is part of the history written in my lifetime. A world has come into being that was still hard to imagine when I was born. And that fills me with hope for the world into which my grandson has been born.
We are now two weeks into the season of Advent. Advent comes from a Latin word that means “coming into place or view or being.” What sort of world is coming into being?
As this season of Advent unfolds, can we, a beleaguered and divided people, imagine the world Isaiah imagined? the world Israel awaited? the world we are still awaiting? the world God promised? the world Christ called us to join him in bringing into being? Or is the only world we can imagine the broken world of bad attitudes and bumper stickers?
Can we imagine justice for all? Can we imagine peace, a peace that passes all understanding? A peace that will not come to pass in this world until it first comes to pass in each one of us?
It is abundantly clear that we can imagine war. We can imagine hatred. We can imagine bitter division. We can imagine a world of winner take all.
But can we imagine peace? Can we imagine justice? Can we imagine healing? Can we imagine God’s grace embodied, God’s love made real?
As the season of Advent unfolds, let us pray that we might imagine the world God has promised.
And then let us make it happen. Otherwise, it will never come to pass.
The Rev. Dr. Dennis B. Calhoun
Old North Church, UCC
4 December 2016