Man, O man,
if ever there was an Advent sermon, this is it.
(Notice, I didn’t claim it is a ‘good’ sermon,
just that it is inherently an Advent sermon).
I won’t lie, this vision thing of Isaiah’s,
right now, today,
at this moment in history,
I have to preach hope,
So then I turn away from Isaiah and say,
“Let’s look at the Gospel instead.”
And there he is, right on cue,
John the Baptist:
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand,
and he will clear his threshing floor
and will gather his wheat into the granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Can’t beat that,
sounds more like the world we know –
punishment from the top down
instead of Isaiah’s vision
of peace and equity
from the bottom of the food chain up.
I am an optimist,
and relentlessly hopeful,
but sometimes hope is a twelve round
boxing match in the ring of the soul.
Right now, looking around at the world,
hope is bloodied like Rocky Balboa before the bell.
Hope gets in a few good jabs now and again
but The Nasty
over in the other corner
has brass in his gloves,
and each punch lands hateful
on the bruised
and battered face of hope.
Isaiah is the corner man,
or cut man as they say.
Isaiah sponges the wobbled fighter of hope
with ice water,
applying adrenaline-laced Vaseline to our cuts,
dabbing the bulge around the eyes
with an ice-cold iron to staunch the swelling.
He checks our vision to make sure it is clear.
He talks to us with calm and reassurance.
He reminds us of our strengths,
then cautions us to guard our weaknesses.
When the bell sounds
he lifts us up
and pats us on the back
and assures us
he is there waiting
for the next time we get a minute to rest.
the corner man for hope.
I spoke of what I know about hope,
and all of that was honest and true.
But it is a battle not a cakewalk.
Hope is arduous
and not for the faint of heart.
It is so much easier
to be grim
and cynical in our world.
Really, it is.
We can so easily bend
the gray cloud of despair
down around our heads
so that it rains wherever we go
and thus fulfills bitter prophecies.
We can do that,
it actually makes us feel powerful
in a way hope never does.
We like cynicism, really we do –
it feels good.
that’s what I’m talking about!”
we get to declare
whenever any bad thing happens
because we predicted it.
I told ya!”
we get to say out loud
when disappointment rains down on the moment.
Sometimes we don’t even need to say it
to feel the satisfaction.
We can just give a knowing look and gloat.
Honestly, I think more than anything else,
even more than the reign of scientific
and economic worldviews,
hope is the primary cause
of rapidly disappearing Churches.
Really, hope is the problem.
You know those big, glamorous
with television audiences
and online ministries that rake in
tons of money and viewers?
The message of those places
is not really hope
it is wishful thinking.
It sounds like hope
but is just the opposite of hope.
It is actually cynical,
disguised as hope.
You see, the so-called Prosperity Gospel
boiled down to its crude equation,
says that the blessings of God
We will get what we deserve
if we believe and do the right things.
Sooner or later
we will get what we ‘want’
if we just believe right.
will be fulfilled, is the promise,
and our fulfilled desires
will be the sign we are blessed.
It is reward for the righteous and,
often left unsaid,
deprivation for the unrighteous.
According to this false-hope Prosperity Gospel,
the rewards for our right thinking
and believing are economic –
maybe even celebrity and fame,
as if those are a blessing.
It is the top-down equation
that we like so much better than
the bottom-up vision of a hapless guy like Isaiah.
This is tricky now,
so stay with me
because by promising
material, physical, even social well-being,
the Prosperity Gospel reinforces our cynicism
in an ironic
and paradoxical way.
Without our ever realizing it,
the Prosperity Gospel propagates
the worldview of consumerism
with its dog-eat-dog order we call Natural Selection.
Equating God’s blessings
and material well-being
sounds theologically pleasing
because its language is all blessing and happiness.
But that language disguises
what is actually a top-down,
deny the margins kind of theology
that is very much at home with consumerism.
In fact, it is not a prosperity gospel at all,
it is a consumerism gospel
and it is a perfect fit
for a culture operated by profit margins,
Wishful thinking for the masses
means believing that God’s blessings
are material security,
and status-driven achievements,
that have us looking good
and feeling good
and winning the game.
But authentic hope,
the kind Isaiah’s poetry points to,
knows that looking good
and feeling good
and winning the game
are nowhere to be found
as the criteria of blessing
in the kingdom of God.
has absolutely nothing to do
are not even a gleam in God’s eye – ever.
We may personally benefit
from things going well in the kingdom of God,
but we may also have to sacrifice for things to go well.
In fact, it could even happen that our self-interest
may actually have to be denied,
or even extinguished,
in order for things to go well
in the kingdom of God.
It is never,
about us, personally.
The kingdom of God
is about the KINGDOM
not you and me individually.
And authentic hope knows that.
Hope is all about the collective creation,
not even about our own species in particular.
whether with economic language
or theological language like the Prosperity Gospel,
is always about consuming.
It is about exploiting our appetites,
It is about somebody profiting
from our desires
no matter whether fulfilling our desire
is good or bad
for everyone else.
It is about profit.
It is about arranging the society
around making money off of other people,
any way we can.
The more money we can make, the better it is for us.
When that happens,
according to the Prosperity Gospel, we’re ‘blessed.’
When we are the top dog
eating the meat of the lesser dogs,
we are blessed.
whether as an economic principle around
which we organize the society,
or as a theology
around which we organize our church,
is about exploiting the needs and desires
of other people for somebody’s profit.
In such a scenario, for example,
medicine is no longer about healing;
it is a commodity to be purchased
if you can afford it.
Housing is no longer about shelter,
it is about bundling mortgages
in such a way as to make more money
from people who cannot afford to live in their homes
with interest, for decades.
Security is no longer about caring for one another
and looking out for each other’s needs,
it is about buying insurance in case bad things happen.
But we can only get that insurance
if the odds are extremely in favor
of the insurance company making a profit from
It is about the funding of public works
with taxes that everyone pays,
but the more money you actually have
the less taxes you actually pay;
so that public works are actually
funded more by people with less money
instead of more.
the way Isaiah envisions it,
is very much the opposite
of the prosperity theology and consumerism
that has come to own our lives
and define the world around us.
is why hope can be so exhausting –
it is a battle against all odds,
and a trudging upstream against a fierce current.
Here is the deal on Isaiah’s so-called
peaceable kingdom vision:
It is not in the lion’s best interest to eat straw.
I mean really, no one can imagine
a happy, straw-eating lion.
Here is an fierce example of Isaiah’s vision
embedded in our world.
Veganism is not likely a choice that gets made
by following our desires for something yummy.
It is a choice that gets made
by looking out at the valley
and seeing that the environment suffers
in multiple ways
from our obsession with copious amounts of meat,
which also happens to be driven by a small segment’s
compulsive thirst for profit.
Veganism or vegetarianism,
or a diet that vastly reduces our intake of beef and pork,
would be one of those choices
that is made not because of our self-interest, our desire,
but because of the common good.
I am speaking as a meat-eater by the way,
but I can see the difference between
the self-interest of my desires
and the common interests of my species.
Hope agitates me
toward a life-style change I haven’t made yet.
That’s just a little example.
The difference between
the authentic hope of Isaiah
and the wishful thinking of our consumerism
and consumeristic theology,
is quite clear.
says that greed is good for the marketplace
when it comes to economics,
and that the goal is to win rather than lose
when it comes to the accumulation
of resources and wealth.
The assumption underneath this wishful thinking
we call consumerism
is that it is a dog-eat-dog world
and therefore it is better to be a big dog
than a little dog.
the Isaiah and Jesus kind,
understands wishful thinking,
and recognizes the way we have constructed
our world is a dog-eat-dog coliseum for fighting.
But authentic hope
has a vision
for the re-construction of our world.
can see that it would be possible
to construct a world
in which the role of the big dogs
is to nurture and support the needs of the little dogs,
and therefore enjoy the benefits of the common good
instead of only those of self-interest.
Authentic hope also knows
that it is not possible to construct this new world
with the use of coercion.
Coercion is the tool of big dog usury and profit,
and bringing about a new creation with coercion
will simply sow the weeds of the old world
into the fabric of the new.
So a different way must be found.
All the more reason
that authentic hope attracts few followers.
Still, as tired as we feel at any given moment,
getting ready to go into a new round
with cuts and bruises from the last round,
I know that authentic hope
is the only true hope.
The lion will probably never eat straw,
but it is possible for us to create a world,
one small community at a time,
in which the big dogs
tend to the needs of the little dogs
instead of eating them.
I chose that hope.