The United Church of Jaffrey
To hear this sermon as preached in the UCJ parking lot, please press play below:
The passage that we have just heard from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, has been traditionally understood to be a prophecy that foresaw the coming of Christ. This despite the fact that Isaiah is said to have begun his prophetic life during the reign of King Uzziah in Judah.
In case you, like me, are a little rusty on the reigns of the kings in Judah, I looked it up, and found that Uzziah, who was the 10th king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, reigned from 783 – 742 BC. So if Isaiah was a contemporary of Uzziah, his prophecy (if indeed it referred to Christ) predicted the appearance of a figure who would not be born for about 750 years!
It’s easy for us, in 2020, to think that all those Bible people lived around the same time, but that certainly wasn’t so.
Jefferson and his august colleagues signed the declaration of independence in 1776 — a mere 244 years ago.
Leonardo da vinci painted the Mona Lisa around 1506. Some 514 years ago.
Christopher Columbus, who famously sailed the ocean blue in 1492, did so 528 years ago.
To get back to 750 years, you have to talk about people like Marco Polo. Saint Francis. Genghis Khan.
So the Prophet Isaiah predicting Christ’s birth, would be like Genghis Khan predicting my birth in 1965.
In human history, 750 years is a really long time.
750 years, as it turns out, is roughly equal to 27 generations.
Can you imagine?
What if we turned the tables, and thought about 27 generations into the future.
What would that look like?
Can you imagine?
That’s just it!
That project would be an imaginative project.
We could make some guesses, but most of our speculation would look like science fiction.
Do you suppose this speculation that we have stumbled on, may account for the strangeness of Isaiah’s prophecy?
If, through some God given gift, Isaiah indeed had a kind of vague awareness of a great messiah figure that would appear as a savior in some very distant future, how would he even begin to articulate that vision?
Maybe Isaiah did that thing that science fiction writers do — he allowed his imagination to disrupt our basic assumptions of how the world works.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
In this almost absurdly Polly-anna-ish vision, creatures who we all know are predator and prey, are altered almost beyond recognition. These wolves do not eat lambs. Bears and cows graze together. Baby humans stick their hands into the den of snakes!
This sounds ridiculous.
We know that none of this actually came to pass. Not literally anyway.
If you think Isaiah was writing science, you might make the mistake of sticking your hand into an adder’s den. And if you did that, you’d probably end up with a bad bite.
But Isaiah wasn’t writing science. He was writing a kind of messianic science fiction of hope.
And while Isaiah’s prophecy sounds weird, and should not be taken literally, in one sense, at least, I find myself deeply moved by it.
It expresses hope.
It expresses hope that is embedded within the systems and cycles of our earth.
So let’s try it.
Let’s imagine 27 generations in the future, and write some messianic science fiction of hope.
I suppose the first thing to do is figure out the year we are talking about.
Its the year 2020 right now, so 750 years from now will be the year 2770.
As soon as we hear these numbers — you and and I start wondering something — something, notably, that Isaiah did not wonder. We start wondering if the human species will even be around in 2770.
For us, our vision of 2770 involves spaceships and artificial intelligence.
Because our assumption is that, by 2770 humans will have used up this planet.
We will have destroyed it.
And by imagining spaceships and artificial intelligence, we allow ourselves to get used to that idea.
But on this first Sunday of Advent, we are doing “messianic science fiction of hope.”
And in my book, at least, the “messianic science fiction of hope” does not involve going to other planets.
My vision for a messianic hope takes place on this planet, because we are of this planet, and…
God came to us, on this planet.
My assumption is that, if indeed we make it, as a species, to the year 2770, the reason we will make it, is because somewhere and somehow, we learned…
We really truly learned
That there can be no distinction between humans and nature.
This is the crucial paradigm shift, upon which our survival depends.
We do not go to nature. We do not look at nature.
We are nature.
And when we destroy nature.
We destroy ourselves.
So to write Isaiah’s prophecy today, for 750 years in the future, we too will have to destroy some basic assumptions that govern our lives. We’re not talking about wolves and lambs though. We’re talking about the things we assume we are entitled to simply by virtue of being so awfully smart.
In that time, men and women
will walk from place to place.
Children will spend most of their time
busily engaged outdoors helping
their parents grow food, and tend to animals.
We will have the benefit of medical science,
which will mean we will have nice long lives,
but we will mostly stay where we were born
because, with no fossil fuels left and no desire
to continue polluting the air, our economies
will be almost entirely local.
Nuclear weapons will be gone from the earth,
and with them, the absurd notion
that one culture could subdue another.
All of the money that was once spent
on the military, will be given to education,
but the learning will be different.
We won’t learn to “exploit natural resources”
that language will be gone. By then,
the land will be sacred. The land
will be our connection to the holy.
By then, we will have stopped pretending
to be above the ecosystem. Dominion is destruction.
Education will mean a return to the only things
that really matter — the systems and cycles
of the earth that sustains us. This lesson
was our one great hope for survival, and learning it,
we made it to 2770.
Where is the messiah in this prophecy?
Where is the little child that we came here, today, on the first Sunday of Advent, to celebrate?
I offer you this.
That there is no more beautiful expression of the cycles of the earth, than a child.
We are born.
We are born.
This beautiful child was born 2000 years ago — 73 generations ago.
God — the most important thing in the universe — was expressed as flesh and blood, dust of the earth, star stuff.
What could possibly be more clear?
Neither we, nor God, are apart from this earth.
Just as we are in the earth, we are in God, and God is in us.
Reach down and feel your pulse. You are feeling the rhythm of God.