“Jesus is for Losers” A Sermon by John M. Semmes The First Presbyterian Church + Oxford, Mississippi 7 December, 2014 + Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (NRSV) Well, it’s tree-trimming time. Families everywhere have been loading up the car and heading out to select the perfectly shaped holiday bush. Wherever you go, Christmas tree lots look a lot alike, don’t they? There’s always bare light bulbs strung overhead, always someone working there who steps out of a beat up Winnebago, cigarette handing out of his mouth, annoyed by your arrival and looking a lot like a cross between Jeremiah Johnson and one of those men in Deliverance, always a little too delighted to be wielding a chain saw, appearing to be thinking of his mother-in-law as he cuts an inch or two off the trunk of your tree. Once at home, the real fun begins. You struggle to remove that satanic plastic netting he used and, after fighting to get it in the tree stand that never seems to work as well as it should, in it goes to the living room or some other high place of honor. Then, sheer pandemonium: unwinding lights that come out in a jumble, looking as though someone (that would be me) just threw them in the attic last year out of frustration; pulling out your favorite ornament only to find that the bale on which to put the hook has broken off; finally finishing and plugging in the ten-foot extension cord you need to reach the nearest outlet, only to discover the top strand of lights has one bulb out which has crippled your entire electrical masterpiece; turning around and wondering why you are suddenly the only one remaining in what was supposed to be a family affair of decorating; trying to decide if the tree is leaning so dangerously you need to run to Walgreen’s for some picture wire and an eye hook. Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! I telephoned one of you the other night to check on a relative and was told your Christmas tree was in the process of being trimmed. I apologized for interrupting, but was reassured. “Oh, it’s okay,” the husband said with a fair amount of pride in his voice. “We’re almost through and no one has been strangled yet!” And so it goes during Advent, a time on the Christian calendar that insists upon getting us to go beyond society’s way of celebrating the holiday by considering things hoped for and things not seen. In fact, if you parse out its real meaning, Advent demands that we shake off the assumptions that shackle our religious imagination, assumptions like the birth narrative being just a nice story with no real meaning for the world in which we live, assumptions like what we read on a page in Isaiah being sugar-coated optimism, not something real and transforming upon which we can depend. Advent is about the fact that human beings need dreams to sustain themselves. We need a view of the future that draws us toward a better self, or better relationships, or a better community, all of which are essential to our thriving in the here and now. Advent gives us room to dream in a world tightly packed with anxieties and insecurities and schedules. Lord knows we need room to dream. Few texts in biblical literature are better known or loved than the one we read this morning, and for good reason. These verses articulate the deep and persistent dream for justice and peace by way of a Messiah who is coming to establish those things for us. Few other texts better assure us things will be different than they are right now or reveal to us in a stronger way the radical new world to come, when righteousness and faithfulness will prosper, when creation will be at peace with itself, when tears will cease to fall, when death will no longer have dominion over us as God’s children. The coming of Jesus Christ will do all that…someday. But what about now, you ask? Sure, we all dream for the day when things will be made perfect; it’s not hard to do that. But for now, with war still part of our vocabulary and the economy still unstable and natural disasters still taking place around the world, it seems more practical – does it not? – to dream about a better world right now. Besides, aren’t Isaiah’s words just pie-in-the-sky promises to keep us focused on eternity instead of all the anguish in life? And isn’t the prospect of a Messiah working for justice and mercy right now more attractive to the part of us that dreams? To answer such questions, I can only tell you what I see in this text, and it is two-fold. Like you, I see a promise that one day, things will be different, far different from what we could ever hope or imagine. Justice and mercy shall be the order of every day. Common enemies will coexist, children will be forever safe from danger and our differences will cease to be perceptible. I cling to that dream, and I believe it with all my heart. It is the radical promise of which Isaiah speaks. But I also see evidence that, as victorious as the reign of Christ will one day be, Isaiah is also urging us as people of faith to pursue that kind of world now. In other words, waiting around for the Promised Land isn’t the best use of our time. For all we endure, for all our suffering and pain and disease, for all our addictions and family strife, for every struggle we face simply by waking up in the morning, there is cause to dream for a new day now and to identify ways the Messiah is already in our midst. That’s not easy. Even for the most faithful Christian, cynicism is a mighty foe. Cynics will say our time on earth is all about losing, not winning. It’s hard and tough and the only place we’ll ever really find Jesus is on the other side. Well, I beg to differ. I think Jesus is very much present in this world. And if time on earth is all about losing, then I’m happy to report that Jesus is already here for losers like us. Jesus is for losers like Judy Lafferty, the human resources manager for a grocery store in her hometown, who called 911 this past week. During her exchange with dispatchers, she described events in the store in articulate detail despite the terror of having witnessed a gunman murder an innocent hostage in front of her. With incredible presence of mind, she found her way to a secure office to try to get help for the others who were there. Something within told her to do that. Something inside told her to care about other people, some of whom she didn’t even know. What is it – who is it – that causes people like her to serve as an advocate for life, as a benefactor for those who can’t help themselves? In the lives of one family today, there is great sadness, but in the lives of people like Judy Lafferty, a living shoot of hope is sprouting forth from the stump of death and despair, even as we speak. Jesus is for losers like Sara McDonald, one of our oldest active members as she approaches her 95th birthday later this month. Sara recently made a significant gift to this church and she called the other day to acknowledge a letter of thanks I had sent to her in Houston, where she now resides in a retirement community. We had a good laugh about her many gentlemen friends in that place, one a 90 year-old whippersnapper named Saul and another named Glen who, on his birthday the other day, in joyful celebration of 103 years on this earth, turned around at lunch and kissed Sara…on the mouth. Never kissed by anyone before that way except her late husband, Sara, in her beautifully refined southern drawl, said to me, “I just thought I’d diiiiiie.” I’m sure Glen felt the same way. But we spoke mostly of Sara’s story of life and loss. She told me of her difficulty as a child taking care of her sick mother, of battling cancer herself and of the loss of loved ones who meant so much to her. Sara McDonald would gladly tell you she’s a big loser but, because of that fact, her faith after nearly a century of life is stronger than ever. “God really takes care of us when we believe,” she said, “and I am living proof. I am incredibly lucky. I love God, and I love First Presbyterian Church so much.” His delight is in the fear of the Lord, says Isaiah. In the life and losses of Sara McDonald, her dream for a Jesus in the here and now has already come true. Jesus is also for losers like Lena Wiley, whose work with some of Mississippi’s poorest citizens goes largely unnoticed. Despite being saddled with her own personal challenges, Lena reaches out almost every day to those no one else seems to want to help. She told me recently about numerous folk whose only income is $623 per month from the government and $40 in food stamps, folks literally freezing to death in unheated homes, folks dying because they are unable to afford the $2,400 per month it takes for two prescription drugs to treat their disease, folks for whom she must care in the middle of the night when law enforcement officials call her home for help. In many ways, she is our version of Mother Teresa and if anyone knows anything about losing, it is surely Lena Wiley. Yet, she told me her faith does wonders for her life and vocation. “I see miracles happen every day,” she said. I give insurmountable problems to God every day, and every day, they are solved.” I wonder if any of us could sustain that kind of hope dealing with people at destitution’s door on a daily basis. I wonder if we could see, as she does so clearly, the coming of Messiah has already happened in the darkest corners of society. Jesus is for losers like them, just as he is for losers like us; we, the ones on chemo for growing tumors, we the ones unemployed for yet another month, we the ones so lonely, we the selfish, whose lofty assessment of ourselves obscures a world so desperately in need, we the addicted, the deeply depressed, the grieving; we the lost. Jesus is for losers, friends, not just on that day when there will be no sunset and no dawning, but right here, right now, in the midst of our twisted and broken lives. But we can’t see that until we look for it! The only way to know that Isaiah’s dream is already in the process of being fulfilled is to look for ways Messiah has already broken into our lives. We can’t begin to understand the future with God until we understand the present with God – God for us, God all around us, God in us, God with us…Emmanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace now, and that’s why we need Advent. Because to miss the fact our Lord walks with us and cries with us and rejoices with us on a daily basis, to miss the justice and mercy going on in our midst by way of God’s people here and everywhere, is to miss the essence of the gift – that it isn’t just for some nebulous day to be revealed at a time of God’s own choosing; it is also a gift for now, when we need it the most. Have you looked to see how Jesus is breaking into your life lately? Have you thought about how he is breaking in the lives of others through you? The tree is up at our house now. All the lights work, for once. The stand is doing its job without a guy-wire to shore it up and, in looking at it each night, there’s this feeling something good is about to happen – something to anticipate, something promised for another day that will make this whole damned struggle of ours worthwhile. And that something is love, coming down from on high to save the world, to give us hope to go on until we’re all home, safe at last in the arms of our God. Amen.