This is the sermon I would have preached had I not been deathly ill on Sunday morning–or at least part of it, since I was going to finish it on Saturday morning, but never got out of bed.
As our car slowly crept up the one-lane snow-covered mountain road, I could feel the tension of the previous weeks melt away, even if I felt a little tense about keeping my grip on the steering wheel on the sharp turns and sudden dips in the road. We got lost a couple of times, had to turn around in some mountain driveway—these are never simple affairs, but steep inclines that are as unwelcoming as they are dangerous. We arrived at the main lodge, received our keys, and checked into our own little cabin in the woods for a week’s stay that would be cell-phone, TV and internet free. We did bring along the brand new Wii system that we had just gotten for Christmas, but we also had crafts, books, puzzles and other family-time activities the pass the time. It was going to be a great week, and we settled into the secluded setting like it was home. The place was called “Faith Mountain,” and it was the site of our annual family Christmas vacation, which we take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I was recalling that trip this week as I looked forward to this year’s vacation, and to the opportunity to relax and be away from all the stresses and strains that build up over the holiday season. Stepping out the door of that cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, the thing that struck me the most was the silence—no traffic noise, no trains in the distance, no neighborhood kids running around—nothing. And, because it was the dead of winter, there were no birds in the trees or other sounds of nature around us. It was as close to complete and total silence that one can get in this part of the modern world. And to me, it was pure heaven. Paradise—no ringing phones, no messages to check, no sermon to write, nothing—apart from a few books that I had to read before my classes began in a couple weeks’ time. To me, it was a vision of the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s mountain of hope, on the other hand, is a very busy place. There are houses being built, vineyards planted, children and babies running around, people working and laboring, though not in vain, as they had during the time of the Egyptian slavery and the Babylonian captivity. Likewise, John of Patmos’s description of heaven, found in Revelation 21 and 22, is of an active, bustling place, modeled in some respects on the Jerusalem that existed at the time, but modeled more importantly on the hopes and dreams of the People of God, which had been with them since they first entered what they knew as “The Promised Land.” Jerusalem, characterized by Mount Zion, was the ideal city, and would become idyllic in God’s kingdom, when everything would be re-created according to God’s plan. Even nature will fall into line, and the animals themselves will become friends where they were once enemies—meat eaters would become vegitarians, and everyone would get along. It is an echo of an earlier Isaiah, who spoke of the hope that would come after the time of captivity in Babylon, in Isaiah chapter 11:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lied down with the kids, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little chid shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned shild shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters of the sea.”
Animals and people living in peace. Plenty and prosperity for everyone. No more slavery, or captivity, or struggle for power. It’s a vision of hope, and we, who are followers of God-in-Christ, are in the business of hope. We look longingly toward the future, eyes straining to see what lies ahead, with the assurance that all shall be well in Christ Jesus. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” But do we really believe it? Or, do we want to add on to that prayer, as John C. Holbert wrote, “But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!” Or, as Saint Augustine once put it, “Lord, give me patience, love and chastity—but not yet!” For you see, if we truly want God’s kingdom to come here on earth as it is in heaven, we need to be willing to accept it when it comes. We can’t put amendments on God’s kingdom plan, or make an exclusive guest list of who’s in and who’s out. We have to accept that the lion and the lamb are both welcome, that the wolf and the cow are equally part of God’s plan.
But one animal doesn’t win out. One animals gets left in the dust, quite literally! The serpent, that cunning messenger of evil and malevolence—he who tempted humanity out of its purity of heart and intentions—he will not partake in the goodness of the kingdom of God—his food will be dust, and he will be trampled under foot! It is a recollection of the judgment of God agains the serpent in the book of Genesis– “Cursed are you among all animals, and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
Plenty of food; houses for everyone; vineyards that bear constant supplies of fruit; rivers that never run dry; animals that get along; no snakes—it sounds great, doesn’t it? But we know that we live now in a world that is very different from this vision of Isaiah’s. We know that we live now in a world where many go hungry, and housing is expensive; crops fail and wild animals are wild and snakes still slither among us—and not just physical snakes, but spiritual snakes—snakish behavior that lies to us and tells us that we need more and more stuff to get by in life, and that we can save ourselves from all that ails us. Snakes tell us that we can be rich, and happy, and healthy and have everything we’ve ever desired if we just have the right outlook on life, or follow the right program, or know some special secret that God or the Church or somebody wants to hide from us.
Where are the signs of God’s hope mountain? Where are the signposts that point the way to the kingdom of God?
[I would like to have finished this sermon with some examples of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our daily lives…and then talk about how we need to keep that hope alive within us as we enter into dark days–the changing season means that the days/nights will seem darker and colder for the next several months–and we often enter into “dark times” in life, especially those who don’t look forward to the holiday season with as much anticipation as the rest of the world. Hope exists not because we make it exist–no amount of sloganeering or mantra chanting will make hope indrease or decrease one bit. What we need to do is recognize God’s hopefulness in our midst, given to us by Jesus Christ, and allow that hope to infuse us–body, mind and spirit.]
Well, that’s what I would have said, if I had been there on Sunday. Thanks for the prayers and well wishes!