Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Yesterday, December 7, was the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For many of us this is simply an historic date that we remember from our school studies, but for others it is a vivid memory of fear and horror. For those who experienced it first-hand, Pearl Harbor – like 9/11 for many more of us – is the ultimate expression of the consequences of being unprepared.
I don’t mean this in the military sense because, although history tells us that we were certainly caught off-guard both by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11 assaults, we were not unprepared militarily. We had as much personnel and weaponry as either of these two groups who attacked us 60 years apart, and yet we were still surprised by their strikes. That’s because we were betrayed by our collective overconfidence as much as by inadequate advance warning. Americans believed that direct attacks couldn’t happen in this country because we were too rich, too powerful, and too self-contained to be targeted for violence. Leaders and citizens put stock in the unchristian notion that keeping ourselves and our interests safe is our only concern and that we can avoid danger by isolating ourselves from those who are not Americans – if we put ourselves first.
Human beings have been embracing beliefs like these for thousands of years and the people who first heard today’s Hebrew scripture from Isaiah were no exception. Isaiah was writing in a time of wars and rumors of wars and the king to whom he prophesied wanted Isaiah to tell him what to do – how to know which king to follow, which was the right one – the one anointed by God. Isaiah’s response has provided us with some of the most beloved scripture passages in the Bible. According to Isaiah, the true anointed king – the Messiah- will be wise. The Messiah will be just. The Messiah will be judged favorably because of the kindness and mercy he shows to the least of his people. The Messiah will bring predators and prey together, and “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
This description did not fit any of the rulers of Isaiah’s time – and it doesn’t describe any of ours either. I have heard a great deal from some Christians about how God uses “flawed” persons to promote her will. Certainly, many of God’s favorite humans, like King David, were horrendously flawed – and, as a result, they all eventually met fates consistent with their selfish and violent ways. Yes, God loved them – because God loves all of his creation, but that doesn’t mean what they did was God’s will. That’s why they lasted only a season, eventually becoming the broken stumps of long-gone earthly kingdoms. This repeating pattern of flawed and failed human leadership reminds us that, “The promised salvation will not come through human intervention but through divine action, in which the rights of the poor and the frail members of society will be respected.”
We are not prepared for this. All you have to do is watch the news to know that humanity is not ready to accept a ruler who focuses on treating the least of our citizens with the most dignity and love. This country is not prepared to give up some of what we have so that everyone may have enough. We are not ready to genuinely repent of our self-absorption and exclusionary ways. We are too afraid of being attacked to stop attacking others. This does not mean we are malicious and sinful people. It simply means we are human beings, biologically driven to prioritize our own physical and emotional well-being and safety. “Most of us can relate to feelings of both weakness and aggression. Most of us have felt preyed-upon at one time or another; [and] most of us [if we admit it] have sometimes been the predator as well.” This is normal. We know this not only because our 21st century science confirms it, but because our scriptures are full of stories of human beings who sometimes give in to their flawed natures. But knowing that doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to be convinced that such behavior is acceptable to God – that the drive for ascendency and hoarding of resources can ever lead to God’s promised commonwealth. Rather, we must attempt to prepare for the fulfillment of God’s holy vision by rejecting violent, proud, and deceitful actions. We must stop preparing for war and try to imagine what it might be like to live in peace with our neighbors – all of our neighbors.
Many years ago Gary and I visited Israel. As most of you know, the country is physically and spiritually divided, with many groups claiming that the land belongs exclusively to their people. These divisions are demonstrated in a variety of ways, including through car license plates, which identify the specific area of Jerusalem from which you come. We were traveling from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Bethany to see the spot where Jesus is said to have raised Lazarus from the dead, and on the way we got a flat tire. As we attempted to figure out how to change it, two young men drove up and parked beside us. We could tell from their dress and license plate that they were Palestinians, people who dispute Israel’s right to occupy the West Bank land that we were standing on. We were afraid. We thought they might take advantage of our vulnerable position to teach us, their occupiers, some kind of violent lesson. Instead, with the greatest patience and persistence, they changed our tire. By the end of the encounter, we were laughing together. We had been prepared for war, and were instead surprised by peace.
This is the kind of surprise that our Advent scriptures suggest we should be watching for, and it is the kind of surprise that is far more likely to happen when we stop living for our individual desires and fears and start acting as if we actually believe in what we say we do – a God of mercy, righteousness, and peace. It is, you see, the kind of surprise that happens when we live in hope.
“Hope is the undaunted force that comes from the Holy Spirit, getting into our human spirits and drawing us beyond the darkness of today and toward the light of the new tomorrow. But in order to live in hope, we have to give up our anxiety and despair. We cannot fall into the trap of assuming that the loudest and most ruthless people always win. We have thousands of years of history and pages and pages of Holy Scripture to tell us that’s not the case. Evil may ascend for a time, but good is forever. God – the true God of righteousness and mercy – is forever.
It is for the arrival of that God that Advent prepares us. During this season we are asked not to get ready to fight, but to forgive. We are told to prepare not for death but for life –new life in Jesus Christ. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come”? John the Baptist asked his audience. Do not be ready for an apocalyptic battle, do not fear the fire of judgment; instead prepare the way of the Lord, the way that leads us beyond fear, with hope, into everlasting joy. AMEN.
Noel Leon Erskine, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 1101.
Stacey Simpson Duke, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], Kindle location 1153.
Joanna M. Adams, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], Kindle location 1642.