Sermon: I Believe in the Sun/Son: Hope for Tomorrow

Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Mark 1;1-15

Preached: online for NPC on November 29, 2020 by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz

 

         What does the Sun – that shining ball in the sky – have to do with the Son, the only begotten Son of God whose birth we celebrate in a few weeks? The sun in the sky can seem to disappear for days, especially at this time of year when the nights are long and the days are short and often overcast. We might begin to wonder if the sun really is there, if the sun will rise again! Yet, in our hearts we know that the sun is still there, sometimes hidden by the clouds but ever-present, even in the night when it (and even the light it emits) is hidden from our sight.

         The Son, Jesus Christ, can also be difficult to see or feel when we are in the midst of a pandemic, a contentious election, fire storms and hurricanes, or even our personal tragedies or difficulties. This is especially true when we do not know when these events or situations will end. For example, the election is over. However, the electorate is highly divided. It was, by both parties, often portrayed as an event which would determine the very continued existence of our country! Whether or not you maintain this point of view, it is clear that approximately half the people in the country – or a significant portion of that half – fear for the future of our country. The other half – or significant portion of that half – are breathing a sigh of relief. This would be true no matter which candidate had won. We need, therefore, to remember that the Son, Jesus Christ, is our hope for the future, not any one candidate or party.

         As we heard a few weeks ago regarding the situation in Thessalonica, this is not the first time such apocalyptic theorizing has taken place. In our readings today, we again hear God’s message of hope spoken in difficult times.

         Isaiah spent much of his career as a prophet proclaiming God’s judgment on Israel and Judah, and all the surrounding nations as well. In today’s passage, Isaiah is now speaking to a people who are in exile. The best and the brightest of the nation had been marched away to serve in a foreign court. The buildings of Jerusalem, even the walls of Jerusalem now lay in ruins. Lives and businesses had been destroyed. While some of those in exile were regaining their incomes and status, they were still subject to the whims of the foreign kings and laws. Babylon was very strong. Return to Israel seemed unlikely in their lifetimes, if ever. The people felt abandoned by God.

   Into this scene steps Isaiah again. Isaiah loudly proclaims that God’s harsh, yet just, judgment on Israel is not the final word. God will redeem, comfort, and restore Israel. We know that while this restoration took some years, this promise was fulfilled.

         Fast forward hundreds of years to the time of John the Baptist. Mark skips over the judgment of God issued by John the Baptist which we hear in other Gospels. Yet Mark expects that those who read this Gospel already know about the vehement calls to repentance which John issued. The people of Israel are once again under foreign rule. Even the king was a non-Jew put into power by the Roman government. Resistance had arisen multiple times but had been savagely squashed by the powerful Roman army. Much as the people longed for release from this occupation, few thought there was hope for such a change in their lifetimes.

     Into the desert limelight steps John the Baptist. Having challenged the Jewish leaders and people to repent and change their ways, John the Baptist now encourages them to prepare the way for change. Quit putting roadblocks in the way of God’s actions, says John. Make straight the highways -get rid of the twists and turns of your hearts by which you rationalize the evil which you are doing. Repent! And receive forgiveness. What has been is not what must be, nor what will be. God is doing a new thing!

         Now, in applying these lessons to our own time, some words of caution must be said. We definitely need to hear Isaiah and John the Baptist declaring that we need to repent – both personally and collectively. Yet, as we noted last week, God is the ultimate judge. Jesus makes this point several times in his teachings: take the log out of your own eye before trying to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye; and when the disciples wondered who had sinned, the blind man or his parents, Jesus responded with a question about whether the disciples thought they were more righteous than the people on whom a tower had fallen recently. It is so easy, and for some very tempting, to point fingers of blame on those who suffer misfortune, and assume that their misfortune is due to their disobedience to God. It would be so easy for us to claim the mantle of Isaiah and John the Baptist as spiritual descendants. Some have done this regarding Covid-19. Some do it directly by claiming the pandemic is a judgment by God, implying that those who fall ill or die are somehow more sinful than those who don’t. Other do this indirectly. With loud claims of God’s protection they resist wearing masks and continue to gather in large groups. Left unsaid by these folks (and possibly not even considered in their own minds), is the implication that those who do contract the virus are not protected, or possibly even loved, by God.

While we cannot rule out absolutely that this devastating year of 2020 is a year of judgment from God, it is clear that we might each have our own thoughts about what sins God is judging! Better, then, to look to the Scriptures for corporate sinfulness – greed, unjust treatment of others, failure to care for the weak and those in need of food or clothing – which the Bible often condemns. Better yet, to look beyond the condemnations of the acts of others, and turn to God and repent of our own failures, then to find the direction and hope which comes from God’s forgiveness.

   John the Baptist tells the crowds that God prepares the way. God is the one sending the messenger! No matter how abandoned you may feel, how frustrated, powerless, and hopeless, God is aware of what is going on, and God actively works toward redemption, a new way of life for all.

   John then tells the people that there is even more to come. John has a powerful message, but it is not about himself. One stronger than John will come, and through that Messiah the people will be baptized with the Holy Spirit of God themselves! In these words we hear an extraordinary message, though the message really shouldn’t sound so extraordinary. God is using John the Baptist to proclaim God’s message of hope – just as God used Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Isaiah and so many others. God wants a partnership with humanity in God’s proclamation of repentance, redemption and hope!

     So often we hear the stories of those humans who oppress, demean or slaughter other humans. It’s depressing yet we do need to hear the truth about atrocities so that we can speak out against them. We occasionally hear stories of those who rescue and free others. We need to hear these stories too! God wants us to hear how God works with humans to inspire hope in hopeless situations.

     Marcia McFee, who has written most of the material which we are using in our Advent services, has chosen films for each Sunday to complement the worship. This week her chosen film is Defiant Requiem, a documentary which tells the story of a unique choir created by a young Czech concert conductor in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. With death all around him, Rafael Schachter managed to get a piano smuggled into the basement of the men’s barracks, then assembled a choir in both the men’s and women’s barracks. Taught the music by memorization, the choir first performed a secular opera, then moved to Verdi’s Requiem. It was both a gesture of defiance against the Germans and a source of hope for the Jews, even though the Requiem is a Christian work. I will share the full text of the Requiem, and a trailer for the movie, in the email in which the link for this service and sermon can be found and on our website. However, I want to share a portion of the Requiem with you now. Imagine the Jewish choir singing this before their Nazi oppressors. They begin by speaking of those who are oppressed, those who suffer:

   “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord; and may perpetual light shine upon them. A hymn in Zion befits you, O God, and a debt will be paid to you in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer: all earthly flesh will come to you. [Quartet and Chorus:] Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. [II. Sequence Chorus:] The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes, as David and the Sibyl prophesied. How great will be the terror, when the Judge comes who will smash everything completely! The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound through the tombs of every land, will gather all before the throne. [Bass:] Death and Nature shall stand amazed, when all Creation rises again to answer to the Judge.[ Mezzo-soprano and Chorus:] A written book will be brought forth, which contains everything for which the world will be judged. Therefore when the Judge takes His seat, whatever is hidden will be revealed: nothing shall remain unavenged.”

     Though the words were sung in Latin – so the German authorities might not hear directly the judgment on themselves – the beautiful music, and knowledge of what the words meant, lifted the hearts and souls of the Jews who sang them. The Holy Spirit was undoubtedly present each of the sixteen performances given by these Jewish victims of the holocaust, though the choir did shrink over time as members died of exhaustion, hunger, or murder.

Schachter himself died in 1945 in one of the death camps, but not before collaborating with God in giving hope to so many: God in partnership with humanity to address the sinfulness of the world!

     The ultimate example of this partnership of God with humanity is revealed in Jesus Christ as God united with humanity in a single person who was and is both human and divine. In the powerful crucified and risen Christ lies our hope for the future. May the words of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, and the courageous singing of these prisoners encourage us to proclaim God’s message of repentance, redemption and hope as we look for Christ’s second coming. Whether or not it happens in our lifetime, we can trust God’s promise that help will come; salvation is trustworthy. May we find hope in this promise of God. We believe in the Son, even when, even when sin and brokenness seem to be winning. Let us shine with Christ’s light and proclaim the truth that Christ will come again! Amen.


Text of Verdi's Requiem: 

Lyrics of Verdi’s Requiem

 

  1. I.Requiem and Kyrie Chorus: Grant them eternal rest, O Lord; and may perpetual light shine upon them. A hymn in Zion befits you, O God, and a debt will be paid to you in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer: all earthly flesh will come to you.

 

Quartet and Chorus: Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.

 

  1. II.Sequence Chorus: The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes, as David and the Sibyl prophesied. How great will be the terror, when the Judge comes who will smash everything completely! The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound through the tombs of every land, will gather all before the throne.

Bass: Death and Nature shall stand amazed, when all Creation rises again to answer to the Judge. Mezzo-soprano and Chorus: A written book will be brought forth, which contains everything for which the world will be judged. Therefore when the Judge takes His seat, whatever is hidden will be revealed: nothing shall remain unavenged. The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes, as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano and Tenor: What can a wretch like me say? Whom shall I ask to intercede for me, when even the just ones are unsafe?

Solo Quartet and Chorus: King of dreadful majesty. who freely saves the redeemed ones, save me, O font of pity.

Soprano and Mezzo-soprano: Recall, merciful Jesus, that I was the reason for your journey: do not destroy me on that day. In seeking me, you sat down wearily; enduring the Cross, you redeemed me: do not let these pains to have been in vain. Just Judge of punishment: give me the gift of redemption before the day of reckoning. Tenor: I groan as a guilty one, and my face blushes with guilt; spare the supplicant, O God. You, who absolved Mary Magdalen, and heard the prayer of the thief, have given me hope, as well. My prayers are not worthy, but show mercy, O benevolent one, lest I burn forever in fire. Give me a place among the sheep, and separate me from the goats, placing me on your right hand. Bass and Chorus: When the damned are silenced, and given to the fierce flames, call me with the blessed ones. I pray, suppliant and kneeling, with a heart contrite as ashes: take my ending into your care.

Chorus: The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes, as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Solo Quartet and Chorus: That day is one of weeping, on which shall rise from the ashes the guilty man, to be judged. Therefore, spare this one, O God. Merciful Lord Jesus: grant them peace. Amen.

  1. III.Offertorio Quartet: O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory: deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell and from the deep pit; deliver them from the mouth of the lion; that hell may not swallow them, and that they may not fall into darkness. But may the holy standard-bearer Michael show them the holy light; which you once promised to Abraham and his descendents. We offer to you, O Lord, sacrifices and prayers. Receive them on behalf of those souls whom we commemorate today. Grant, O Lord, that they might pass from death into that life which you once promised to Abraham and his descendents. Deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell; Grant that they might pass from death into that life.
  2. IV.Sanctus Double Chorus: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

 

  1. V.Agnus Dei Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Chorus: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting.

 

  1. VI.Lux aeterna Mezzo-soprano, Tenor and Bass: Let eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, with your saints forever; for you are merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them with your saints forever; for you are merciful.

 VII.Libera me Soprano and Chorus: Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved: when you will come to judge the world by fire. I tremble, and I fear the judgment and the wrath to come, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved. The day of wrath, that day of calamity and misery; a great and bitter day, indeed. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day. Deliver me, O Lord, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved; when you will come to judge the world by fire. Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day. Deliver me.


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