Sermon: As If
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 98; Romans 13:11-14
Date: December 1, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Perhaps I’m easily amused. The fact that the admonishment “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy…Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” is assigned by the Lectionary to the first Sunday of Advent just cracks me up. Between Thanksgiving and—let’s be honest, Super Bowl Sunday, which marks the end of an expanded “Holiday Season”—the gratification of the flesh, the reveling in one way or another is on center stage here in America. Many of us got our reveling off to a splendid start on Thursday, eating a feast and topping it off with seconds on pie. And we go on to shopping, cookies, and party, party, party from here on through at least New Year’s if not the NFL playoffs.
“Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Ha! You know that thing Christians sometimes say after a reading of Scripture, when the reader says “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the faithful are supposed to respond “Thanks be to God”? I suspect we could dream up a more honest response to this sober text on the first Sunday of the consumerist Holiday Season: Not “Thanks be to God,” droned dutifully, but a spirited “As If!” Let’s try it: “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness… Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The Word of the Lord. Congregational Response: AS IF! Here’s an alternative to “As if!” from the Slang Dictionary: “Puh-lease!” Try it again with sarcasm worthy of a 13 year old: “PUH-LEASE!”
There, we just celebrated the oddity of the Scripture and snuck in a little confession at the same time. I’m not going to harangue you on behalf of God about how to be properly Christian in a season of revelry. Heck, I’m even going to invite you to a party at my house (Sunday, December 15) that will have cookies, and cheese. I do want to dig into that phrase “As If” in a less sarcastic tone. The great gift of early Advent is the spiritual turn toward the future, the note of hope that is sounded in the midst of chaos and darkness. Advent calls us to be mindful of the light coming into the world. Advent calls us to live “As If” we believe that God is still actively steering us toward a future of peace and justice, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (as we pray each week).
The passage from Isaiah’s prophecy describes the prophet’s vision of a New Age, in which God’s holy mountain will be the highest of all the mountains, and people all over the world will stream to it to learn God’s ways so that they can walk in God’s paths. The prophecy includes the lovely promise that one day the swords will be made into plows and pruning hooks, and war will be no more. This is a vision that seems far in the future. Yet God’s people are to live As If this is the direction in which we are headed. The end of the text takes us from future-tense vision to present-tense mandate: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” The route from swords to plowshares is laid out and lit with hope like a pathway lined with luminaria.
We read Psalm 98 together today largely because it is the Psalm that hymn writer Isaac Watts re-interpreted in the song “Joy to the World.” Our worship series during Advent and Christmas celebrates the 300th anniversary of this glorious Christmas carol written in 1719. Here are a few notes from a commentary about the psalm: “Psalm 98 is the fifth psalm in a group of six psalms…known as the Enthronement Psalms (Psalms 93, 95-99)…The Enthronement Psalms celebrate the reign of God as sovereign or king over all humanity and, indeed, over all creation…Why should all humanity and all creation join in celebratory song of God’s reign [as Psalm 98 suggests]? Verses 1-3 and verse 9 frame the psalm and provide the rationale for such an extravagant display of praise. In the NRSV translation of Psalm 98, the word “victory” is repeated three times in verses 1-3. The verbal root of the word is yasha’ and means “deliver” or “free.” The “right hand” and the “holy arm” of God are able to deliver humanity, and, indeed, all of creation from the many oppressions with which we and it are faced. Verse 9 continues by stating that God will judge the world, that habitable space, with “righteous and equity.” “Righteous” is tsedek..The basic meaning of the word in Hebrew is “to do the right thing.” …“Equity” is the English translation of the Hebrew word yashar, which means, literally, “upright, straight, to the point.” Judging with “equity” means judging with a clear view of equality for all and a firm sense of right and wrong — not equality and right (only) for those of privilege, but equality and right for all of the earth and the habitable spaces of the world.” The faithful are to live “As If” God has already won the victory, “As If” righteousness and equity are guiding values for God’s children.
Isaac Watt’s brilliant hymn “Joy to the World” captures that same “As If” tone. “Joy to the world, the Lord IS COME! Let earth receive her King!” Later, “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness, and wonders of his love…” It’s not about how God in Christ will rule sometime but is ruling now. It’s such a fabulous hymn that it’s easy to believe it while you are singing it wholeheartedly. What sort of man could write this and hundreds of other hymns we are still singing today? I took an old book off the shelf that gives some history of hymns and hymn writers and learned a bit about Isaac Watts. I was immediately enchanted by two words in his bio: “Dissenter, Congregationalist.” Watts, following in his radical parents’ footsteps, was a Congregationalist before it became so very stylish and cool to be a Congregationalist. In fact, he was nursed by his mother while she visited his father who had been arrested and thrown in the pokey for being a deacon in the English Congregationalist meeting house when the Anglicans ruled the day with an iron fist. As a young adult, the brilliant Watts (precocious enough to have started studying Latin at age four) turned down a scholarship to Oxford University because he would be obligated to become an Anglican if he accepted. Instead he studied philosophy and theology at a Non-Conformist academy and became a beloved pastor at Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London at the age of 26. He was often ill, but his church loved him and hired an assistant to do most of the work so they could enjoy his preaching and hymn-writing when he was well enough to appear. He tried out hundreds of new hymns on his little faith community, revolutionizing church music by moving away from the stodgy hymnody of his contemporaries.
I wanted to share a glimpse of Isaac Watts’ story because it’s delightful to be reminded of part of our Congregationalist heritage of Dissent that threads back long before the birth of the small but spunky United Church of Christ. We still harbor a tendency toward independence and a determination to dissent in our covenantal denomination. There are myriad issues about which we may be a faithful voice of Dissent. One of them is one of the “toxic myths of scarcity” I spoke about last week, drawn from Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money: “That’s just the way it is.” She spoke of that myth of “That’s just the way it is” in the context of a dog-eat-dog competitive economy in which we fight to the death over scarce resources. But that same hope-squelching myth applies to lots of spheres besides economies; it’s a blanket wet blanket that cynically regards any aspiration for a better world as ludicrous. For instance, will humanity ever get to the point at which nation will no longer lift up swords against other nations? Naw—we’re a war-like species, violent and competitive by nature. “That’s just the way it is.”
When we feel ourselves lured by such cynical despair, we need to reclaim the tradition of Dissent. That’s what faithful people who believe in God’s ultimate victory and God’s will for righteousness and equity do: We live As If that’s NOT just the way it is. We fight against the magnetic pull of despair. We live As If hope is real; we dissent against all that would drag us down into hopelessness. Desmond Tutu, one of the most persuasively hopeful people of our generation (aren’t we fortunate to have shared this Earth with such a shining light?) said with great conviction, “This is a moral universe, which means that despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word…that is what has upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail.”
Paul urged the Christians to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Surely the temptation to give into despair is one of the “works of darkness.” In truth, it may be a more potent fleshly temptation than all the shiny baubles and chocolate-dipped treats and fizzy drinks and numbing pills combined—to sink, zombie-like, into desolation and amuse ourselves while we wait for the end of the world. Well, friends, make no provision for this particular desire of the flesh; resist the desire of the spirit to snooze until the apocalypse. When someone tells you that the destiny of doom is “just the way it is,” dissent. Now is the moment to wake from the sleep of the already dead. Live instead As If this is true: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
We light the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent and bring into its circle of light those things that are giving us joyful hope. I’ll lift up a few. This is the 30th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I saw a photo on the computer of an art installation imagineered by Patrick Shearn–a huge assemblange of 30,000 colorful ribbons flying near the Brandenburg gate. ‘Visions in Motion’ represents the wishes, hopes, and memories of 30 thousand people. The project collected individually signed ribbons at workshops, churches, and schools over the last few months, carrying messages of peace and hope fluttering in the breeze. Did you hear that? Collected, among other places at churches. The art work is a tangible image of the kinds of prayers and peace-making actions that are continually emerging from churches who believe in God’s promise of peace.
Here’s another hopeful trend, which is old news that randomly floated to the top of my social media stream this week and gave me renewed hope: “A  John Hopkins study linked the legalization of gay marriage to a marked decrease in teen suicide rates. Researchers compared data from states that had legalized gay marriage before the 2015 Supreme Court decision to those in which it was still illegal. Their findings…are significant. The study found a 7% reduction in teen suicide attempts in states where gay marriage was legal. Seven percent may not seem like a lot, but it amounts to 134,000 fewer suicide attempts.” We worked for marriage equality as a church (dissenting from more traditional faith communities), so it’s likely that our state was included in those statistics covering early adopters. Now that marriage equality is the law of the whole land, we can hope that suicide attempts among LGBTQ folx continues to fall, as the wider society continues to catch on about the humanity of all the human beings.
Consider the fall of apartheid in South Africa—it was not so very long ago. It fell through vigorous effort and sturdy dissent. And it also fell because of indomitable hope by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Remember him saying this? “We used to say to the apartheid government, ‘You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come, join the winning side.’” Believe it, friends. The psalmist proclaims it As If it were already true: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” [Psalm 98:3b] Paul proclaims it as his unconquerable hope: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” Come and walk in the light, the light of hope, the light of joy, the light of the winning side, As If it is already accomplished.
 Bailey, Albert Edward The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretation New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950 p. 44-46f