Isaiah 61: 8-11
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Our first look into Advent Scripture took us to the book of Isaiah. That text sought to bridge the gap between human evil and God’s grace. God, Isaiah assures us, was not willing to let anything get in between God and ourselves. The mountains quake like a boiling pot seated over a fire, the valleys gave up their depth to become flat ground. When God arrives, we suddenly encounter every historic act of salvation.
Our text for this morning, taken from a little earlier in Isaiah, asks us to home in on another aspect of God’s work. We know that all will be set right in the triumphant return of Christ when all oppression ceases and all that remains in our actions toward one another is love and righteousness. Scarcity will no longer exist; God’s favor will be freely proclaimed to all people. Everything will be, in a word, perfect. The question that comes from such a grand vision of the end of history is what we are to do until then. If the end of all things is settled, and perfection awaits all the faithful in the world to come, then how do we spend our time on earth? How do we live out the wait before the return of Christ?
There are many passages about our responsibility to be ready for Christ upon his arrival, as well as a fair few explanations of specific behavior to be encouraged and discouraged ahead of it. However, I want to speak about what we must understand to be our general responsibility in existing as Holy People awaiting a Holy God. That is, we must be a people who grow in righteousness over the course of our life. We must become steadily more and more invested in all that God has in store for us, more in line with the vision of life which Christ has shown us. The Church, in all that it does, must become a people where-in, “Righteousness and praise spring up,” wherever they are found.
The Church grew in the early centuries of its existence precisely because it stood out from the Roman society which it inhabited. While the Roman people were certainly not some cartoonish vision of evil, there were certain societal and cultural practices which stood against the general morality of the Church. The Church, for example, was popular among societal pariahs who were not usually allowed in polite company. The Church and its egalitarian practices allowed for women, the poor, and non-citizens to participate more fully in a community than the wider culture would allow. Still more, in moments of disaster and danger – when people were sick or when children were abandoned to die of exposure on hilltops – the Church took these people in and cared for them.
Even before the inception of the Church there are stories of righteous people among the Jewish people. Such a person is often called a Tzadik – one who is righteous. Scripture captures such images of righteous people. Joseph in his salvation of the Ancient Near East from starvation, Boaz in his redemption of Ruth, Ruth as the model gentile convert, Mordecai and Esther as the model of imperial opposition. Still more we have the example of those like Daniel, and the martyrs of the intertestamental books of the Maccabees, those who lived righteously and died for their faith as a result.
Scripture, history, and all other stories that we tell record multiple layers of our understanding of the world. We record the plain happenings of an event on one level: what happened, who was there, and what came as a result of it. On another level comes our understanding of the morality of a situation. Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, most stories we tell take a side. Unless you find a truly great historian or storyteller, their own biases will leak into their retelling. Finally, the stories we tell, in light of our biases, usually demonstrate what aspects we as a culture value above all others – what do we value in people?
There are many more aspects of stories that demonstrate other things about us than I could ever name. However, there are also aspects of our stories which hide away rather than reveal aspects of our world. For example, the actions of villains will be inflated to fit their evil character and, in the same way, the heroes that we lift up will often have their rough edges sanded off to ensure no one is scandalized by their actions. It would be hard to deny that many of our struggles today culturally stem from our willingness to villainize and to sanitize flippantly, from an unwillingness to acknowledge good and evil and instead to paint in broad strokes those we either support or oppose.
The Biblical record is stark in that, on the whole, it does not shy away from presenting the evil and the good a person does and leaves the audience to decide what to do with that information. Those who participated in any way in our Genesis study will remember that at every turn, whether we looked at Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or his twelve sons, the good and the bad were there for everyone to see. In some ways it keeps us grounded in understanding that our “heroes,” are just as human as we are, but in others it also made clearer that humanity contains multitudes. The great hospitality of Abraham to those in need, contrasted with his seeming unwillingness to care for his family most of the time, paints a complicated image of what it means to be a righteous person.
The promise of God, across all scripture, is a promise of redemption. The brokenness of the world is meant to be genuinely made right. This is not achieved through pretending all is well or through erasing the consequences of a person’s actions, but through genuinely transforming the heart of that person to allow them to act righteously in line with God’s will in the world. Through the slow death of evil within them and the gradual birth of goodness in its place.
The most compelling stories that we can tell as a people are those stories where someone grows and becomes good over the course of the narrative. We want to see the growth of a character, not just to have a paragon of virtue from beginning to end. Les Misérables, the book more so than the films or musical, tells us about a petty thief who becomes a noble and philanthropic father. The Lord of the Rings shows us the journey of a King who is unwilling to take the throne, slowly taking on his role as a leader to his people. Even beyond the realm of simple narratives, we crave to see in others the growth we long for in ourselves.
The life of the Apostle Paul is perhaps the most striking example of this in scripture. Raised up to be a good man by all accounts, Paul had a terminal case of hatred in his heart. While we are never given more of an example of this manifesting than his hatred toward the Christians, we can assume he probably had more than a few groups he felt this way about. His zeal for murder overcame his better angels and as he rode out to round up more victims, God intervened and started to transform him. He was healed by one of the people he had set out to destroy, and the process of making an apostle from an enemy of the church had begun.
The Church, in whatever form it has taken throughout history, needs to be more proactive about growing in righteousness. From at least the time of Constantine, and probably before, the Church has complicated its mission through entanglements with all kinds of worldly business. Wrapped up in partisan politics, in acquisition of wealth, in striving to take power over government, and even the acquisition of military might. What began as a group devoted to love of God and neighbor, to doing what was right even when and especially if it was hard, became harder and harder to pick out from a sea of socio-political groups trying to get an edge over everyone else.
The Church, as defined by Methodist doctrine, is found wherever the people of God gather, the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered. In a place where this is true, we should see people growing more and more righteous every day. The sacraments deliver grace to us, the word of God lights our heart aflame, and our gathered prayers open our ears and our hearts to the needs of those around us. To be the Church, is to grow, because to be alive is to grow. No living creature exists that does not have some sort of mechanism to allow its continued existence, and for the Church to be alive it must continue to move forward into righteousness.
We must choose what we want to be in life. Whether it is to go about our three score and ten just checking occasional boxes and meeting the bare minimum of expectations, or if we will push beyond and really invest in the Kingdom of God which we have been called to be a part of. We should look at the kind of stories we tell and how they align or do not align with the vision of humanity which Christ offers us. Do we lift up heroes in our tales for being Christlike? Or do we lift them up for satisfying our earthly desires?
If we succeed, and if we grow more holy each day that passes, we will eventually find ourselves inching toward perfection. Not to say we will not sin, because to err is human, but to say that we are perfectly intentional in doing what is right at all times. That we stand blameless before all we know because even our failings are produced by a desire to do what Christ wills of us. If we truly wish to find our time waiting for Christ to be fulfilled and blessed, we must spend it developing our ability to do what is right.
When people tell stories about us, about the Church as a whole, we must ensure that the stories they tell are redemptive, powerful, and glorify God. We are writing a story now to be told for all time, let us do our part to make it a good one. – Amen.