a sermon on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 and Isaiah 11:1-10 for the Second Sunday of Advent
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but somehow during the fall semester of my senior year of college I managed to get a very coveted ticket to a public address by Nelson Mandela. At the time, I had become active in a student group committed to discussing issues of race on campus, and I was just beginning to understand a bit of the history of apartheid in South Africa and the importance of Mandela in dismantling it. On a cool November morning, a couple friends and I drove an hour or so up to Memphis, Tennessee, to hear Mandela speak in hopes that it would help us understand a bit more of our own history. My home state of Mississippi has a very unpleasant history of its own on matters of race that can fairly be described as a slightly less severe version of the apartheid that marked South Africa, and in those days thirteen years ago it had only recently begun to come to terms with the violence that had marked the Civil Rights Movement in the state 40 years earlier as some of the perpetrators of murder and violence were finally being brought to justice.
My friends and I arrived well in advance of the publicized start time, but the church that seated 5,000 was so full already that we ended up in the next to last row of the balcony! The room was filled with schoolchildren who had been raising money and collecting books to present to Mandela to support charities in South Africa, and everyone was waiting to hear from this beloved international icon and peacemaker who had come to Memphis to receive the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum there. After a glorious introduction appropriate for such a figure, Mandela offered a brief address—of which I remember nothing in particular—yet it was clear that the 5,000 of us in that church had just experienced something we would never forget simply because we had heard this incredible man speak.
Nelson Mandela has been on many minds over the last few days after his death on Thursday, and I’ve found it difficult not to associate him in some way with the words that we hear in our scripture readings for today. These readings give us another image of life on God’s holy mountain, the grand and glorious destination of our Advent journey this year, the place awaited by generations where the fullness of God’s new creation will be revealed. According to Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11, this place will be filled with justice and peace. Here the poor will be judged with righteousness. Here faithfulness will be the belt that holds everything together. And here creatures will set aside their enmity and dwell together in deep and real and full peace.
The psalmist and Isaiah both describe a special and unique leader—perhaps a man like Mandela—who brings God’s people together into this beloved community. This leader judges the poor with righteousness and decides with equity for the meek of the earth. She defends the cause of the poor of the people, gives deliverance to the needy, and crushes the oppressor through this new and different way of life. He speaks a word that captivates everyone and invites a new way of justice to prevail. And this leader is guided all along the way by the spirit of the Lord that brings wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge for the good of all creation. Isaiah identifies this leader as “a shoot… from the stump of Jesse,” and for centuries Christians have identified this one with Jesus, yet there are certainly others like Nelson Mandela who have also embodied large parts of these words over the centuries, ranging from some of the better kings of Israel and Judah to quiet and humble leaders around us who embody God’s way of justice and peace. All these women and men, though, ultimately point us not to themselves but to the way of life that leads us to this holy mountain. They help us to live lives that point others to this place. They give us courage to bring about big or little changes in our midst that will be our part in God’s work of setting aside all hurt and destruction. And they show us the way of faith, hope, and love as we join the journey to this holy mountain.
You see, the holy mountain that stands as the goal of our Advent journey is not a clear and definite place. We won’t find it on any human map. We can’t stop at a gas station and ask for directions to it. And even the best GPS won’t know the way to get there. While we get little glimpses of what life might look like on God’s holy mountain from texts like ours today, we need generous, just, and righteous leaders like Nelson Mandela to help us on the journey to this holy place. Faithfulness and peace are at the core of this community, and so a new and different way of life emerges where there is nothing to fear and the danger and pain and hurt that have divided people for generations can be set aside. Here all people have the things that they need as leaders put their attention on those who are in need, and prosperity comes for all through this attention to justice and righteousness. Ultimately there is no hurt or pain or destruction in this place, for instead the focus is on building up the whole community so that God’s transformation can take hold.
As beautiful and simple as all this seems, this way of life on God’s holy mountain is incredibly difficult for us to pull off. Even the most talented leaders like Nelson Mandela are rarely successful in bringing together the disparate factions of humanity that mark so much of our world. The beloved community that takes these things seriously and seeks to embody God’s preference for the poor and the divine emphasis on peace and justice is a direct threat to those who seem to hold great power and build their livelihood on division and strife. And even the occasional glimpse of the peaceable kingdom described here, with the fears of children and the created order set aside, disappears all too quickly when someone speaks up to give voice to the uncertainty that everyone else has kept silent.
Yet as hard as it is, the journey to God’s holy mountain demands that we set aside our fear and uncertainty and start the journey toward this way of new life as best we can, right here and right now. Some steps on this journey are big and huge and substantial, requiring dramatic change in our hearts and minds or the action of government and leaders to stop marginalizing the poor, dehumanizing those who are different from us, and ignoring the needs of those whom we’d rather not see. Some of the changes that are needed to help us get to God’s holy mountain are certainly beyond our immediate individual or even congregational reach, and the sad reality of our polarized political system of these days makes it unlikely that any of them will take hold anytime soon.
Yet the difficulty of these bigger changes that confound us in these days does not excuse us from changing things in the smaller corners of the world where we can make a difference. We can insist on fair treatment for those closest to us and work to embody a new way of justice and righteousness in those places where we have control or influence. We can let mercy and grace prevail in our judgments of others and especially the poor. We can advocate for those who do not have a voice in the halls of power so that they might enjoy the privilege of life abundant. We can set aside our cries for vengeance and retribution in favor of a new way of peace. And we can refuse to let fear control our actions and keep us from living together with those whom we simply assume are different. And throughout it all, we can pray for the spirit of the Lord to rest on us too, to bring us wisdom and understanding, to offer us counsel, might, and insight, to reshape our priorities and focus our hearts and minds on God as we make our way to God’s holy mountain.
While we can’t make the holy mountain of God happen on our own or overnight, we certainly can look for these and other little ways to be a part of God’s transformation of our world each and every day, and we can join in the legacy of people like Nelson Mandela and so many others who have given us such wonderful examples of this kind of life and living in their witness before us. So as we go on this journey to God’s holy mountain, may God open our eyes to the destination of our journey so that we can join in the work of peace, justice, righteousness, faithfulness, and deliverance and be a part of God’s new creation, walking in the light of the Lord each and every day until all these things take hold in each of us and in all creation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.