Advent 1A Sermon (2013)

1st Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5;
Matthew 24:36-44


This rototiller, a modern plough, is God’s Word this morning that Isaiah saw, a message of a peaceable kingdom, when swords are beaten into plowshares. First, though let me tell the story of this T-Shirt, another word for us to see this morning.

Ten years ago (in 2003) our oldest two sons, Joel and Matthew, were in highschool, and the three of us were among the 41,000 that went the ELCA Youth Gathering in Atlanta that summer. I remember the long bus ride there and back, spending time with the kids. At the Mass Gatherings, Churchwide Bishop Mark Hanson stands out in my mind as one of the speakers. And the other one that stands out in my mind was a young man who encouraged the kids to discipleship by imagining Jesus’ own disciples as mostly teenagers. He went into the history of how someone around thirty years old like Jesus would take on teenage students. So for us to picture the 12 disciples as men as old as Jesus, as we often do, would be inaccurate. Most of Jesus’ disciples were the age of that Youth Gathering crowd, or a little older. It’s another good reason to think of Youth Ministry not so much as ministry to youth as ministry with youth. And, oh yea, the name of that speaker was . . . Rob Bell . . . who I had never heard of ten years ago.

But the thing I remember the best from that trip to Atlanta in 2003 is touring the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Neighborhood with Joel and Matthew. We immersed ourselves in the spirit of that great disciple of Jesus, who helped lead the nonviolent movement for civil rights. And after many of the laws changed, King spent the latter years of his life working to end poverty and war. In the last sermon of his life, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King spoke out against war:

It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.” (1)

I remember that last sermon because Joel and I bought these T-shirts [holding up T-shirt with the words “Nonviolence or Nonexistence” across the chest].

Nonviolence or nonexistence. I believe that’s the wider message Jesus was preaching in his last sermon which we have recorded in Matthew 24 — a snippet of which we have in this morning’s Gospel Reading. Jesus wasn’t yet prophesying nonexistence for all humankind, but he was for his own Jewish people, if they didn’t choose his path of the cross. He knew there was a lot of the age-old thinking going on among his people. The Roman Empire ruled them unjustly, and the only way that human beings seemingly had to resist injustice was to take up the sword and fight. But Jesus knew this would be a dead-end, and thirty years later he was unfortunately proved right. The Romans wiped them out, changing their way of life as a people. Jesus was trying to teach them the way of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies as the way of standing against evil, but they wouldn’t listen. Jesus offered the way of nonviolent resistance to evil, and his people chose the way of violent resistance, and nonexistence for their nation.

Nonviolence or nonexistence. Brothers and Sisters, I believe this is still the very heart of the message Jesus came to show us. After visiting the King Center and buying this T-shirt, I worked on an essay with these words, “Nonviolence or nonexistence,” as the inspiration (which you can still find on my website). Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, following his teachers Jesus and Gandhi, was helping us to glimpse the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 2, and of the cross and resurrection. Jesus had had to go the way of nonviolent resistance alone on the cross in order for us to see that way as the only ultimate way to peace. Easter morning is the promise that his way is the right way to New Creation, to the peaceable kingdom.

We Christians have found ways over the centuries to tame that message so that we could live in empire without being confronted by the message of plowshares instead of swords. One of our time tested techniques is to reduce the prophet’s and Jesus’ message to one of individual sins. That message includes help with our individual sins, of course, but it’s not reducible to it. The prophets and Jesus came with a word from God for us to see that has more to do with the sin that infects our community way of life, what I’ve been calling the crack in the container. It’s not individuals alone that leads to structures of poverty. It’s not individuals who accumulate wealth and then go to war to protect them. Empires do that, and then the nations they dominate try to turn the tables.

So focusing just on individual sins has become a way for us to ignore or even live with the sins of communities and nations. Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets by offering us a choice: we can continue in the way of violent oppression and resistance to oppression, or we can follow in the way of nonviolent resistance to oppression, the way of Jesus and the cross, the way of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom of beating swords into plowshares. The day of finally walking together in the light of the Lord.

I mentioned that Jesus had had to walk that way alone on the cross. Brothers and Sisters, the Good News for us today is that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have led millions of people to try walking in this way. Gandhi led millions of Hindus in facing the British Empire with Jesus’s way of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. Martin Luther King led millions into that way of peace and justice against the arrayed forces of Racism. You and I have been privileged to witness on a larger scale the first victories of Jesus’ different way to peace! What does it mean, then, to be inspired to continue walking in this way? What does it mean to beat swords into plowshares for our time and place?

I mentioned that Rob Bell spoke at the ELCA Youth Gathering in 2003. Let’s return to Bell and his emphasis on having the young people lead us. We’ve recently completed a Strategy Map as a congregation that places Youth Ministry as the #1 priority. Across the church young people are leaving churches much, much faster than they are joining them, my own sons included. Is this because we aren’t doing youth ministry as well as we used to fifty years ago. Perhaps. We can no doubt do some things better. But is it also because of our message? Is it because the younger generations sense our nation and world with very significant problems, and our best answer again seems to be having a strong military? Are our youth craving a message that features Jesus’ different way to peace? Are they ready to lead us in new ways of living that message.

Several years after the Youth Gathering Rob Bell wrote this book called Jesus Wants to Save Christians. (2) It is a wonderful overview of the message of the prophets that came to a climax in the message of Jesus. How human history, including biblical history seems to offer endless cycles of peoples being oppressed by empire, then becoming empire, and then falling again. This was the story of Israel as they went from slaves in Egypt to a great nation under David and Solomon, to being an empire themselves of accumulating wealth and a huge military to protect it, to falling again under empire, like the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus and finally to nonexistence as a nation. The only message which truly stands out as different in that history of war is the peaceable kingdom of the prophets and cross of Jesus. In today’s America, where we have accumulated huge wealth and the military to protect it, are our youth craving a renewed message to live by? Bell writes:

Imagine the average youth group in the average church on the average Sunday. Imagine visiting this youth group and having the pastor say to you, “I just can’t get my kids interested in Jesus. Do you have any suggestions?” How do you respond?

…This particular church is blessed, and we should be clear about this — it is blessing. It is good. It is fortunate that this particular church … has enough resources to hire a pastor who had the resources to get training to gather these students in the student room to teach them about the way of Jesus. Many Christians around the world would simply stand in awe of that kind of blessing.

And the students in this church, these are good kids. They are from families who just want to see their kids become good Christians. Imagine just how much is available to them. They have more at their fingertips than any generation in the history of the world — more information, more entertainment, more ideas, more ways to kill time, more options. Many of them own more than one pair of shoes, and three meals a day. So we are talking about a minuscule minority of kids in the world.

…And so each week they gather to hear a talk from the pastor. Their pastor tells them about the Jesus revolution. About Jesus resisting the system. About the blood of the cross. About many of the first Christians getting arrested. About Jesus having dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors. About people sharing their possessions. About Jesus telling a man to sell everything. About the uniqueness of their story in the larger story of redemption.

How do children of the empire understand the Savior who was killed by an empire?

…They gather, they sing, they hear a talk from the pastor, and then they get back in the car with their parent and they go home; the garage door opens up, the car goes in, and the garage door goes down.

This is the revolution? This is what Jesus had in mind?

And so the youth pastor turns to you and says, again, “I just can’t get my students engaged with Jesus. Do you have any suggestions?” What do you say? How do you respond? (3)

We’ll need to respond in the coming weeks in working out our strategy. Will our answer include listening to our youth and young adults, about what they see in the world and in God’s message to bring peace? Will it include the word Isaiah saw, a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 1, 2013

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”; A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington [Harper San Francisco, 1986], 276-277.

2. Rob Bell & Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile [Zondervan, 2008], especially chapter 5, “Swollen-Bellied Black Babies, Soccer Moms on Prozac, and the Mark of the Beast.”

3. Ibid., pp. 135-38.

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