Mountains Valleys and Level Places

read this article The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday in Advent – November 27, 2016 Scripture:  Isaiah 40:3-5

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“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” out there.  In here, too, but this room gives me more hope.  Our world beyond these walls unsettles me more than it comforts me every year at this time as a Minister of the Word Incarnate.

The bright lights, red cups, snowflakes, candy canes, scented candles, Santa Clauses, snowmen, and incessant pop holiday music all set up a formidable barrier to what Christmas for us as a Christian community is really about.  And that “Christmas” season starts weeks, even months, before we as a faith community begin to talk about it.  I almost always feel like a really joy-killer by the time we catch up in the church, but  “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” means, more and more, “It’s beginning to look a lot like another year where we allow something else to define Christmas.”

So, I’m grateful for the first Sunday in Advent more and more every year.  Not just because we finally get to add our voices to the “candied Christmas commercial” that began a month ago, but because that voice is a more honest and real voice.  Our prophets, our Psalms and our Gospels all begin Advent with the same warning:  “Beware.  Be careful.  You think you’ve been a political upheaval in these weeks past?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.”  What we anticipate in this season changed the world two thousand years ago.  It could change it again if we’d take it seriously.  Immanuel is a crisis for our world today – and in our own lives given the season we’ve created to celebrate it.

Pray with me …

About eight and a half years ago, before accepting the call this community extended to me to be your Pastor, I had a phone conversation with a Presbyterian church in Monmouth, New Jersey.  The search committee there let me know that they had just been through a difficult transition with their former Pastor who they informed me created much division in the congregation with his political views.  Their final question  to me in our time together on the phone asked if I thought I would brewing a political agenda to this call, to this community.

I knew what they meant.  I confess.  I knew full well they were talking about United States Governmental Politics – Republican/Democrat/Conservative/Liberal national politics.  And I knew I was being more than a bit obtuse with my response.  But it just … rubbed me the wrong way, this request.  There was, I believe, an even deeper hope, desire even, to remain non-partisan, non-opinionated, non-biased about anything as a Christian community; to just “go-along” to “get-along.”  So, I responded pretty quickly, saying, “Well, I must tell you that I do have a political agenda.  It’s called the Kingdom of God.  And it’s profoundly prejudiced, opinionated, and one-sided.  And whatever ‘leeway’ we’ve given ourselves in following this particular party platform does not come from our party’s nominee for Lord, no matter how torturously we try to interpret him and his message.”

Listen again to the prophet’s words: There are no mountains in the Kingdom of God.  The mountains have been “laid low.”  Not coincidently, there are no valleys, either, and we’ll get to that in a moment.  But let’s consider the mountains first because they are far more familiar to us as American Mainline Protestant Christians.  Our lives are lived on the mountains of this world.  That is not to say that we don’t experience lows and depths of sorrow.  But we do it all from one of the mountains in our world – The mountain that is Christianity in the United States.  The mountain that is Mainline Protestantism in the United States.  The mountain that is the United States.

We are affluent.  We have more than enough food, water, and shelter.  We have access to healthcare, social security, and retirement benefits (retirement, at all).  We have the absence of war, prosperity, and place.  We have a democracy, security, and freedoms that most of the world’s populations can’t even imagine.  And most of all, we have intricate social relationships, connections, affiliations, and support.  We live on the mountains of this world.  But … here it is again:

There are no mountains in the Kingdom of God.  It says so right here (the Bible).  “Every mountain (even the small hills) shall be made low.”

Now that should cause each and every one of us to consider our lives a bit deeper.  Our place of privilege and favor and opportunity in this world has no place in the Kingdom of God we say we live and die for.  The hard, cold truth is, when we parallel the first century world of the Bible with the 21st century world of today, our place of privilege and power puts us more in line with the Roman Empire, or at best the Jewish priestly aristocracy of Temple religion.  We’re a far, far cry from the unwed peasant couple who wandered into Bethlehem two thousand years ago; or from the child they gave birth to who grew into a thorn in the side of all those who wielded earthly authority; or from the fishermen and women of low birth that first understood what this life we’re getting ready to celebrate should really mean for the world.

Now, I know we don’t honestly worry about any of this.  Not really.  For at least seventeen hundred years, since Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, we have “tortuously” interpreted the scripture and tradition of the Christian faith to accommodate our mountain existence.  But let’s just say for the sake of argument that we really do understand how “out of whack” our lives are with the Kingdom Jesus, Immanuel, called home.  Let’s just pretend for this morning that we understand what we’re getting ready to welcome into the world will change everything we have.  Assuming we can do that, then we really ought to be a bit terrified in these weeks right before it happens, shouldn’t we?

Well, no … actually.  Our gospel good news from beginning and end is “Be not afraid.”

You see, even when, especially when, we understand the true meaning of the Kingdom of God, we need not be afraid.  For as I pointed out already, there are no valleys in the Kingdom of God, either.  It also says that right here (in the Bible):  “Every valley shall be lifted up.”  The Kingdom of God, recorded in our prophetic scripture, finally looks like this:  Uneven ground that has become level, and rough places that have been made into a plain.  The mountains fill the valleys and all will see the glory of God

In the Kingdom of God, we do not leave our mountain for a valley, we leave it for a level plain.  We leave it for community with others.  That’s the good news of great joy that is for who?  All the people.  Our political agenda as a community of Christian faith is not an “all or nothing” proposition.  It is not “either” the mountain or the valley.  It is “neither” the mountain “nor” the valley.  The Kingdom of God is the “level place.”  And this level place, this plain, this solid, stable surface is for everyone … everyone.  Every single man/ woman/child, black/white/brown, foreigner/resident/ immigrant, Muslim/Jew/ Humanist in every corner of this world.  This is ancient wisdom written into the very fabric of creation, expressed and experienced for us in the birth, life, death, and new life of a human being, Jesus, and that’s what Christmas should remind us of – our call to live in peace and harmony, on a level pain, with the rest of creation.

“Be not afraid” – the beginning and end of our Gospel Good News.  So why are we still so terrified?  Well, that’s a bit more damning.  That’s why we fill this season with more sparkle than speculation and more distraction than action.

What we fear is giving up the mountain.  That is the quandary our country is in right now, and the predicament other countries in our world who live on the mountains are in.  We play a “zero-sum” game in our lives outside these walls.  (And let’s be honest, it’s that life that defines us more than this one.)  Anything shared is lost.  It’s “us or them,” globally and domestically.  We either move up the mountain, or slide into the valley.  We justify the mountains we live on as a resource for the valleys.  We call it “trickle down” or “redistribution,” but in all cases we’re on the top and the ground is never level.

So let me get political (again):  As Christians, we must profess that “Making America Great Again” is not enough.  We must lower the mountains to make the world a level place.  As Christians we must realize that “Standing with Her” is just the beginning.  We must raise the valleys by standing with all who are marginalized and sidelined by the status quo.  We must be resolute in our insistence that anyone who represents us as citizens in our world’s politics lower the mountains and lift up the valleys; feed the hungry, care for the poor, release the captives, free the oppressed; and “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”  That is our platform as disciples.

I told you this three weeks ago on the day after our Presidential election:  Your vote for our President or any of our national leaders doesn’t matter to me as your Pastor.  Your response as a disciple of Christ in holding all our civic leaders to account, and your role in doing so in this world yourself, does.   We must “be about the ministry of healing and reconciliation” in every corner of our world, our country, and our lives.  And after Stewardship Dedications and Anniversary Celebrations, here we are again.  On the threshold of a political upheaval that literally split time:  Immanuel – God with us.

We begin our preparation this year with ourselves.  Our silent contemplation as we entered this sanctuary was on each one, individually, this morning.  I hope you took advantage of that earlier and can draw on that now and in the week ahead.  Our candle was lit by “one” this morning.  The song I’ve not been able to get out of my head all week includes these words:    Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.  That is, a peace that doesn’t just exclude war, but includes justice.  Let there be peace on earth … and let it begin with me.

If we can do that, if we can truly begin to live into Isaiah’s prophesy of old, lowering the mountains of our privilege into the valleys of the world’s deep needs, wherever and whatever they are, then … Immanuel will be real.  Eugene Peterson’s translation of Isaiah 40:4 puts it this way:  Level off the hills, fill in the valleys, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.  Then …” the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.  And then … it will begin to look a lot like Christmas.  Let every heart prepare him room.


Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / November 27, 2016 / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church