Holiday hopes

Clarks Summit is a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s very much like countless other small towns in the country, and like many of them, it has an annual holiday parade in November.

A few years ago, the merchants association invited the pastor of the Church on the Hill to give the invocation at the beginning of the parade. The high school band was lined up and ready to march down Main Street. Miss Snowflake was already waving to everybody from her convertible. And the pastor stood with the other dignitaries, next to a 4-ft. plastic red-nosed reindeer, a 5-ft. plastic turkey, and a 6-ft. inflatable snow man.

This was his first parade prayer, and he didn’t know what exactly was expected of him. So he turned to the young woman who had sent him the email invitation and said, “Rosemary, what should I pray for?”

She seemed surprised by his question, but replied with holiday cheer, “How about if you pray for a successful shopping season – you know, encourage people to support local businesses?”

The pastor was stunned: the merchants wanted him to bless the buying and selling of merchandise. What did he expect? That they wanted him to pray for the healing of creation and peace on earth?

At the appointed time, he could only mumble the words, “God, thank you for bringing us together. Make us mindful of the poor who can’t afford to shop here or anywhere. Amen.”[1]

After this brief invocation, the other dignitaries looked a little puzzled, and the president of the merchants association leaned over to the mayor and said, “Next year, remind me not to invite a preacher to the parade.”

That’s probably a good idea, because a preacher in November reaches for a hope that stretches far beyond the upcoming shopping season.

A preacher in November spends much time with Jesus in the temple, thinking and praying about the days when not one stone will be left upon another and all will be thrown down, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; great earthquakes, famines and plagues; dreadful portents – what word is the preacher supposed to bring from there to the holiday parade?

A preacher in November spends much time with Isaiah and the glorious vision of new heavens and a new earth:

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in the city or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. No more shall they build and another inhabit; or plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

The vision is for Clarks Summit and Jerusalem and Nashville and every small town and city and hamlet under the sun, but it is too big for a little parade. The merchant association looks at the next few weeks of sales and hopes for better figures than last year, but the preacher can’t help but pray for a better hope.

As the church year draws to a close, Isaiah takes us back to the beginning of our story in God’s garden, with its hopes for creation and humankind, and he takes us back to the beginning of the dashing of those hopes: Adam and Eve, the tree and the serpent, the lies and the curses, the fury that turns Cain and Abel from brothers into killer and victim – and now, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord. Men and women shall no longer labor in vain or bear children for calamity or watch anger and violence spread from generation to generation. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. All that has prevented God’s shalom from flourishing  in the garden and in the ancient house of human history shall be overcome by the faithfulness and power of God, maker of heaven and earth.

Some of the things the prophet declared seem utterly doable. Putting an end to infant mortality? If only Isaiah could see the miracles that happen in the neonatal ICU every day. Prolonging human life beyond one hundred years? Life expectancy today is more than 80 years in over twenty-five countries, and close to 90 in Monaco on the French riviera.[2]

What was a dream for most of human history is quickly becoming a realistic goal – but wolf and lamb together, that’s just a little over the top, isn’t it? A world without violence, without terror and fear – that’s just a bit much, isn’t it? The sceptic mind prefers the spreadsheets of economic forecasters over the poetry of prophets.

Only the young possess the simplicity
To accept a truth transcending rote and rule,
So that, like star-led shepherds, children see
The fact of miracle.
But logic, the sophist, clouds the maturing life,
Caution replaces the fearless face of youth,
Till the skeptic mind prefers a plausible lie
To a fantastic truth.

We live with a lot of plausible lies, I’m afraid. We make do with the realities of the old creation because the fantastic truth of the new is, well, just a little over the top. We make do with hopes for better holiday season sales because the hope of God’s peace spreading throughout our broken world is just too big for our little parade.

“Plausible lies are part of the illusions of our culture,” says Peter Gomes, “things that appear to be real, valuable, and permanent, designed to give us pleasure and satisfaction and to help us in the mastery of ourselves and our world.”[4]

Plausible lies are lies because they continue the illusion that life can be mastered and that we are its masters. Plausible lies are plausible because they leave the promises of God out of the equation.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that the vision in Isaiah “is outrageous because the new world of God is beyond our capacity and even beyond our imagination. In our fatigue, our self-sufficiency, and our cynicism,” we remain convinced “that such promises could not happen here.”[5]

What would happen, if we dared to embrace the fantastic truth of God’s vision? We wouldn’t let the plausible lie of shrinking budgets define our life together. We wouldn’t let numbers define possibility, but ask how the possibilities of God might redefine our numbers and our budgets.

We wouldn’t allow our culture to drive us deeper and deeper into isolation and away from God, but rather let God draw us together and into the new heavens and the new earth.

As Christians, we confess that Jesus is the Christ and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world. We find our lives restored and renewed in the fantastic truth of Jesus’ resurrection. God raised him from the dead and that first day was the beginning of the new creation.

Sin had its way with him. Every lie, every injustice, every self-righteous illusion, every hateful word and angry blow – we had our way with him. All that has kept life from flourishing, the webs of evil thoughts, words, and deeds – they had their way with him and he died.

But he rose to reign over all. And where he reigns, violence is past. Where he reigns, those who build houses don’t labor in vain but make enough to live in them. Where he reigns, those who plant and harvest the fields also eat their fruit. Where he reigns, low infant mortality rates and high life expectancy are no longer measures of privilege. Where he reigns, life is restored and renewed in God’s shalom.

As his disciples and citizens of his reign, we learn to unmask the plausible lies we tell one another, and we begin to live by the fantastic truth of God’s faithfulness. We are being called out of the old creation not to withdraw from it, but to become part of its transformation. We participate in the creative struggle for a new community, a new city. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of endurance in the face of terrifying news, conflict, hatred, and betrayal—and he promises, “not a hair of your head will perish.”[6]

There still is anguish and terror, weeping and premature death, oppression and violence – but the risen Christ is the living witness that those are former things that have been judged and rejected by God, and therefore will not remain. What will remain, is what has begun with the resurrection of Jesus: life in fullness for all. What will remain, is the joy and delight of the new city where God is at home.

We call this Pledge Sunday because today we make our pledges of financial support for a new year of ministry. But Pledge Sunday isn’t about our money, it’s about our heart. We choose today and we choose every day anew, what vision will guide our life: whether it will be the plausible lies of the way things are, or rather the fantastic truth that challenges our imagination with the way things will be.

Our treasure will go where our heart leads. Where will it be? The parade of the merchants association? Or the procession of nations entering the city of God?


[1] Based on a story in Lectionary Homiletics Vol. XV, No. 6, p. 4


[3] G. S. Galbraith, “Fact and Wonder” Christian Science Monitor, Nov 25, 1959, in Peter Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002) p. 116

[4] Ibd.

[5] See Lectionary Homiletics Vol. XV, No. 6, p. 61

[6] See Lk 21:9-10