Sermon delivered November 19, 2017
at First Congregational Church in Blue Hill (UCC)
The pharmaceutical companies, churning out new products daily, have become the masters of making up brand names… no more “Dr. Sharfenberger’s Magic Elixir,” today we have Flonase, to insure that air flows through your nasal passages, though some products, like Viagra, seemingly a combination of the roots for life and farming, leave me mystified.
Of course, brand names are meant to connect, to convey, to match the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. Maybe that is why the Plymouth Valiant was only manufactured for a couple of years after the end of the Vietnam War, the zeitgeist not celebrating war after that mismanaged and lost conflict, when valor felt hollow.
It was into a Valiant that we all piled, three mothers and too many kids, sandwiches that would soon live up to the sand part of the name, towels and buckets and no sunscreen in sight, week after week through the summer for days at Oceanview, a spot where the James River met the Chesapeake Bay. If only we had known what was in that water! If only we had known about skin cancer!
In that age before seat belt laws, there would sometimes be nine or more of us, a clown car for the working class. But, as luck would have it, we moved between sixth grade and seventh, a combination of white-flight to the suburbs and a father bored with the current house, having added one Frankenstein addition after another. And though we were moving to a town with beach in its name, we spent little time in the surf and sand the summer that “Jaws” came out and shark hysteria swept the nation. And it has never abated.
With a billion cable channels we are afforded endless documentaries on “Shark Week,” though nothing really captures the spirit of this particular age quite like the ultra-campy “Sharknado” series, television movies, if we can elevate them to that status, where a Great White or Hammerhead can come from the sky. That a horrific death can come out of nowhere is definitely an anxiety of our time.
The thing is, sharks don’t actually kill that many people each year. Though we don’t have reliable statistics from some remote regions, the number appears to be a dozen or fewer deaths worldwide annually. Attacks are over-reported, giving us the feeling of constant danger.
This week, we faced the possibility that American elephant hunters, having paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to slaughter those magnificent creatures, would be able to bring their trophies home on their tax-deductible private jets, a grotesque thought. The fact is, however, that elephants are responsible for the deaths of about 500 people every year. This is, of course, largely due to encroachment and human stupidity, and I am definitely on the side of the elephants here. Thank goodness the SciFy Channel has yet to give us a carnivorous elephant, though they do play footloose and fancy-free with biology. Elephants simply don’t have those fearsome maws, row upon row of bloody teeth, so they do not invoke the same level of horror.
It was likely neither shark nor elephant that 19th century Congressman James Seddon had in mind when he coined the phrase “snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” in reference to the Mexican-American War. He would go on to serve as Secretary of War on the treasonous side of a later conflict, a short-lived confederacy, but his turn-of-phrase would live on. In my family, it has most often been used in the inverse, to describe how my mother’s favorite NFL franchise seems capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is all about reversal, about apparent defeat and promised victory. The situation on the ground as Isaiah was preaching was pretty terrible. The nation was in decline and other countries were interfering, trying to change foreign policy, not that we would know anything about that.
Assyria looked more and more dangerous, so Syria (just to be confusing, not the same kingdom) and Israel, the northern half of what was once the Kingdom of David, tried to force Judah into an alliance. No one knew what would happen next, everyone was anxious, and Isaiah the preacher was trying to make sense of it all, to call for change in the nation and change in the lives of anyone who would listen, but also tried to offer words of hope and comfort, not easy, for he probably didn’t always feel it himself.
And here we have this promise in the beloved passage from the eighth and ninth chapters, light in a time of darkness and a lifted burden and a child that shall be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” That is good news. That is gospel.
Christians have traditionally interpreted this as a prophecy about Jesus, and given the divine language in the passage, that sort of makes sense. Historical scholars tend to interpret the text as a reference to something specific in that Eighth century BCE context, the news that the young woman, a consort of the king, is with child, the hope that the child will be a wise and powerful king who will deliver the nation.
With sharks falling from the sky, Assyrian armies gathering, and neighbors like Edom ready to pounce at a moment of weakness, hope was powerful and important, and I don’t care if the particular prophet, son of Amoz, thought he was talking about a royal baby or a future messiah. It is enough for me that he mustered up some words of hope. However you interpret the text, God’s truth is still there. Unlike the Washington football franchise, that powerful force for creativity and love we name as God can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Some would reduce our faith to a checklist of ancient beliefs… virgin birth… check, blood atonement… check. Others would reduce God to the role of accountant and judge, infinite scorekeeper awarding points and assessing penalties, healing some illness, enriching some people, casting others into lives of grief and misery followed by eternal damnation.
The ancient prophets were trying to construct some understanding of God that matched both the traditions they had inherited and the situation in which they lived, and it was not easy, just as it is not easy today. It is never easy to try to make sense of what is so far beyond human understanding, and we are surrounded by questions like so many mental gnats. That has not changed in the almost three thousand years since these prophetic words were spoken, as an anxious prophet and preacher tried to help people walk out of their doors every morning, for our amazing advances in human knowledge have simply exposed even greater mysteries.
And yet, hope. The Hebrews, religious innovators, slowly discovered a divine mystery that was not composed of petty little gods using humans as pawns in an eternal conflict, not composed of equal powers of dark and light at war with humans as so much collateral damage, but instead divine mystery was this force that was relational, loving and forgiving. They would have a long way to go to reach the Abba of Jesus, we still have a long way to go, to break free from our idolatry, for we still make God think like we think, reducing God to our own size, but by the time of first Isaiah they were facing in the right direction, the direction of hope and love.
This is our story. This is the source of our hope, this story that declares that love wins, that life wins. And it is cause for thanksgiving.
We are improbable creatures in an impossible creation. We are mysteries and everything around us is mystery, something instead of nothing. Our yearning and hope is pure miracle, as is, if we are honest, our anxiety. The brains that make up the names of the latest drug designed to treat the clinical condition called life, those brains are miracles, if sometimes misguided, and even the twisted talent that imagined a sharknado, that too is miracle.
Hope was not fulfilled by human machinations of kings and priests, in the time of Isaiah nor in the time of Roman brutality five centuries later. Liberation was a promise delivered in blood and labor and pain and joy, a new life, a child.
Like those who listened to Isaiah, we need hope, and we need to be reminded that God delivers, and we are thankful for this story. The Hebrews saw deliverance in a fugitive murderer who would lead them out of Egypt. Isaiah sees deliverance in an unborn child. Christians found deliverance in a man that was completely destroyed, annihilated as measured by the standards of the world.
We give thanks for a God that calls us to snatch life from the jaws of defeat, even when the defeat is at our own hands, when we become willful slaves yoked to rules we have invented for ourselves, when we are shackled by fear of what others might think, when we surrender the divine in ourselves and make ourselves small and fearful. The people that live in darkness have seen a great light… well, might have see, if they open their eyes.
The light is there, and we are thankful.
O for a thousand tongues to sing, as the hymn declares, O for a thousand tongues to sing of the millions that have seen that light and been comforted, that have walked out into the world despite falling sharks and an Assyrian army looming at the border.
What will it take for you to see the light? What will it take for you to allow God to remove the yoke of burden you have placed upon your own shoulders?
How many stories must we tell of hope, ancient and new? How many candles must be lit to remind us of the eternal light, the Word that was with God and that was God that was spoken out into the void and became all that is?
Isaiah would deliver words of challenge as well. He would call for people to change their hearts. The school of prophets that would follow would continue to innovate, to dream and re-imagine, the one to come not a mighty general crushing enemies but instead a Suffering Servant who was able to speak words of love even in his pain, one we would come to understand as Jesus.
And we are thankful.
The prophet warns the people of Judah not to look to the past, not to consult their ghosts, but to look forward to this promised child, this future, for hope faces forward.
And we are thankful.
A child will be born, a supernova of creativity and love, this day and every day. Light will dawn and pour across the land, leaking into the darkest of places. The holy will release us from our bondage if we will simply let go of our shackles.
And we are thankful.
Look around you. The people who have lived in darkness have seen a great light. You are that people. You are that light.
And I am thankful.