Delivered at Ames UCC on December 6, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Judah survived the Assyrians only to fall to Babylon in the 580s. The elite, the powerbrokers, are sent into exile but their descendants return in the 530s BCE, about fifty years later. Somehow the exiles and their children maintained their identity as Judahites, as followers of the God of Moses, while in a foreign land. After becoming the widow, the orphan, and the stranger themselves, the ancient Hebrews are reunited with those who were left behind to tend the home fires of faith.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her…
(God) will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep
This is the vision of peace that Second Isaiah offers his people. Despite the pain for the descendants of the exiles as they leave Babylon, the only home they knew, and the inevitable chaos on their reintegration with those who never left, Second Isaiah assures them that God’s peace will come.
JOHN THE BAPTIZER
One portion of this passage is particularly familiar to us as Christians. The gospel of Mark begins,
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When we Christians hear Second Isaiah, we see John the Baptizer, and we know to look for Jesus. For us, Jesus is the one who levels mountains and raises valleys, who makes the rough places in this world smooth.
And we usually hear this portion of Mark during Advent as part of Advent’s preparation for the rising of the Christ after the birth, baptism, miracles, execution, and resurrection. Jesus the baby and the man came and went but the Easter holiness endures. God in Christ will be known to us again in the dark and rugged valleys of this life.
I could now describe of all the ways our world is as painful and chaotic as that of Second Isaiah, name the lethal cliffs and crevasses of our own time. But the list is now too long for one sermon. Let’s talk instead about why we read reassurances of peace in this time of so many different and unending wars.
The other night I couldn’t get the Jesuit prayer app on my phone to work so I was going to give up on a bedtime prayer. Carla then reminded me of the huge stack of books below my bedside table.
One of them is Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.[i] For every day of the year Ellsberg provides the biography of a saint or saintly person, with great depth and breadth in his selection. It’s not just martyrs of the Dark Ages. I like the book because I need to hear how other people lived this faith. I need support in prayer, in discipleship.
The saint for November 30th is a woman named Etty Hillesum. Etty was born in Holland in 1914 and died at Auschwitz in 1943. But from the day that the Nazis first forced Dutch Jews to wear a star, she wrote about the joy of life. She was determined to uplift and celebrate the innate joy in this world despite the complete destruction and annihilation toward which she was clearly headed (p. 522).
And here’s why, in her own words (p. 522):
I find life meaningful…I wish that I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath, so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again.
The hope and peace that Etty strove to live and live for was not merely for her own sake, a kind of mad response to a maddening world. She saw the potential within God’s creation for fellowship despite the murder all around her. And she saw that for God and for us.
Despite knowing that she and everyone she loved would die, that her co-religionists were slated for extinction and Europe was ablaze, Etty Hillesum had faith that another generation would come. She wanted to help strangers get closer to God and goodness faster than she did herself. Etty had faith that the hope and peace she lived for unto her death would fall not on deaf ears but open hearts.
I find this exceedingly moving. To be so in love with Love that not even the Nazi juggernaut had the power to silence Etty gives me the bolster that I need. Yes, I may carry a lot of fear and anger and even despair in my heart these days, but if a woman who knew her executioner could not be turned away from hope and peace, how can I?
Etty also reminds us that our faith, in the words of Isaiah and John the Baptizer, are not just for us and our immediate comfort. Kids, please stand up or stand up on your pews now or as I call your name:
Mari, Eli (pr. Elly), Grace, Eli, Oscar, Adam, Abby, Jacob, Jenna, Ben, Alison, Kat, Aidan, Ailis, Ollie, Anna, Will, Lucy, Brandon, Ryan, Emma, Reese, Adelae, Annelise, Brecken, Sarah, Erin, Carter, Aria, Lamar, Elsa, Elliot, Adeline.
None of us can allow terrorism, domestic and international, to distract and occupy our hearts when these precious children, as well as those in our own families, need us to give them hope for a world of peace.
So get together all of the apps, bedside books, journals, Bibles, and people that help you sustain your hope for peace. In the next few days, share with me what you use and what you need to keep rejoicing in God’s creation even as so many others are gunning and bombing it down. I will compile what I receive as a resource for all who come to this sanctuary.
En route to Poland and, ultimately, Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum, age 29, threw a note out the window of her cattle car that read (p. 523),
We have left the camp singing.
As long as we keep singing, as long as we keep looking for God in Christ to baptize us again in the Holy Spirit, war will fail and peace will reign.
[i]Ellsberg, Robert. All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. (Spring Valley, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company) 1997.