Sermon from November 4, 2018, Advent Preparation Sunday

Ransom the Captives from Lonely Exile
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 4, 2018
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost,
Advent Preparation Sunday
Philippians 2:3-8; Mark 13:24-37
and selected verses from Isaiah 60, Mark 1 & 13 and Luke 1

The hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
expresses the essence of Advent.
I am taking the elegant, well-focused
and most relevant Pilgrim Hymnal version
as my text. Its first verse says,
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Emmanuel means God with us—
“God with us” is what we pray will come,
the universal force of love and life and light.
But what does it mean to ask for God to be with us
when God is always within and around us?
The prophet Isaiah first used the name Immanuel
to refer at times to all the children of Israel,
but early Christians saw God with us
in the man Jesus, his teachings, his life,
his undying presence, his way.
If Emmanuel means Jesus, it must also mean
what Paul calls the body of Christ
living in the world. It means the church—us.
We are the Emmanuel we are praying
will come and ransom captive Israel.

Ransom means that there is a cost to be paid,
a sacrifice to be made.
What is the ransom required to free captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here,
meaning a society that is captive to an empire
that cuts it off from its true homeland?
What ransom can free our society today
from its condition of separation, of disconnection?

Last month I sent out a link to a film
about the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photograph.
Those three astronauts were the first to go
deep enough into space to see earth
as a tiny ball afloat in a vast universe.
The nearest Earth-like planet we have discovered
would take many thousands of years to reach
in the fastest spacecraft yet built.
We are so alone in space, and yet
those astronauts saw that what makes us lonely
is not how far we are from other habitable planets,
but how far we are from each other,
how far we are from oneness with all people,
all the earth and God. Our separation
threatens our existence here,
and we have nowhere else to go.

That is our lonely exile,
and the ransom we must pay
is to give up what divides us—
not the wonderful diversity and differences
that we can negotiate around and accept
and even celebrate for their richness,
but the selfishness that cannot see our oneness,
the greed that abuses others and the earth,
the hardness of heart that does not open
to God’s love and honor and serve it.
We need to sacrifice human civilization as it is
in order to establish the realm of God on earth,
and this is a huge ransom to pay.
Imagine how much we will have to change
in order for all corporations and governments
to conform to the great universal,
cross-cultural law of love
that commands us to have compassion and mercy
for the stranger and enemy and least of creatures.
Imagine what would happen
to the weapons, fossil fuel and financial industries
if compassion and love for all creation
became the laws society chose to obey.
That is what we are praying for
when we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”
and we are praying that we will be the ones
who will make it happen as the body of Christ.

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee O Israel.”
Isaiah prophesied it, Jesus prophesied it,
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of it,
we ourselves yearn for it,
and now we learn that we have a deadline,
Ninety-one of the most respected scientists
from forty different countries reviewing
6,000 separate climate studies have told us
we have to ransom captive Israel now.
There will be no future chance,
there will be no future Emmanuel to come.
It is up to us. Not just in our lifetime, but now.
We may feel lonely in this hour,
but we are not alone, we truly are one
with each other, with all creation and with God.
We have the greatest power in the universe
on our side, and the rest of this carol
tells us what will happen if
we fulfill our calling and rise as Emmanuel.

“O Come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
“God with us” means the force of light
is in us and all around us
that brought the stars into being
at the dawn of the universe.
The coming of Emmanuel
releases a power of light that brings joy,
the quiet joy of a candle shining in a window
guiding a weary night-traveler home,
or the glorious hallelujah light of Easter dawn.
The light of God with us cannot be defeated.
Its way is resurrection.
It is the light that shines in the darkness
that the darkness cannot overcome.
A man comes into a sanctuary and tries to kill it
and the light rises up a million-fold.

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.”
The Hebrew Scriptures talk of Sophia,
Wisdom, as a feminine spirit of God.
She is within us, she guides and teaches us
when we listen deeply. Wisdom shows us
the sacred way, the sustainable way to live
on earth as individuals and as a society.
All humans of all cultures find it in our hearts
through the contemplative path
when we silence the false self of the human ego
that has run our society
and held us captive for so long.
Emmanuel, God with us, brings wisdom
that creates a new order on earth.
It shows the path and
makes us smart enough to follow it.

“O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”
Whole nations of ordinary people like us
long for the simple joy of light,
for the life that death cannot conquer,
for the wise, sustainable order
of sufficiency, justice and mercy for all,
for freedom from the addictive greed
that leads us to see other creatures and people
as objects for our own selfish use.
Our exile in this way of living
that has held us captive for so long
leaves us feeling lonely and unfulfilled,
leading to constant inner agitation,
constant outer conflicting interests and
never ending wars and streams of refugees.
Our hearts long for peace.
The nations long for peace.
Peace is what Emmanuel brings.
Wisdom tells us, “Have peace in yourself
and thousands will find salvation around you,”
and no peace in the world without peace in the heart.

Advent invites us to seek peace,
in the very season when the selfishness
of consumer culture is celebrating its frenzy
of materialistic glut and glitz.
To take time for the spiritual life during Advent
is to feel God with us,
is to experience the coming of Emmanuel.
To take time for the Spirit during Advent
is our declaration of independence
in the revolution of values
that will ransom captive Israel from its lonely exile
and establish God’s realm on earth.
The time of fulfillment has come.
The captive earth cannot wait any longer.
Let us pray in silence as a first step
of preparation on our Advent path…

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