"We’ve Always Dreamed Of A Better Day”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – November 27, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9


     Before we examine how Isaiah’s passage speaks to our generation, we need to go back in time to a period where there were no Scriptures.  The few scrolls that existed in later times had not yet been written. No one in the general public could read and write.  Stories that revealed the Hebrew’s cultural and religious heritage, were shared verbally much like when Mom and Dad read Bible stories to us when we were children.

    We can still remember those stories, many of which were filled with fearful images.  We relived those moments when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, when people were running for their lives as their cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone, when Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den, when everyone on the earth except for the members of Noah’s family, drowned during the great flood and when the angel of death passed over all the families in Egypt killing all the oldest children.  Such stories are quite compelling and we remember them.

    This week, Lois, Steve and I saw four rainbows over Bermuda’s landscape.  All of us remember the meaning that was given to the rainbow by those ancient Hebrew storytellers.   It was a sign of God’s promise never again to flood the earth.           

    The Hebrews were passing along stories that deeply embedded themselves in listeners generation after generation.  Each story reinforced the idea that the Hebrews were God’s chosen people.  People learned to interpret their history and their individual lives from the understanding that God micro-managed every aspect of life through a system of rewards and punishments.  This is how they understood their covenant with God.  Fear of God dominated much of their religious beliefs.      

    This morning we are going to consider what the prophets predicted as they dreamed of a better day in the future.  A day was coming when the covenant between God and his people would radically change.  The God of anger and punishment would be seen very differently.

    Listen to the words Isaiah used when he addressed God.  “Why don’t you tear open the sky and come down?  The mountains would see you and shake with fear.  They would tremble like water boiling over on top of a hot fire.”  Perhaps Isaiah remembered a story of an earthquake that had been handed down to him many years before when he wrote, “There was a time when you did terrifying things that we did not expect; the mountains saw you and shook with fear.”

    Think of how our lives would be different today if all of us still believed that God communicated to us in this fashion.  For example, suppose all of us believed that God was angry with us when hurricane Fabian pummeled our island in September of 2003. Try to imagine our fear if our teenage son or daughter died and we believed it was the result of God’s punishment for our sinful activity.  These beliefs were so entrenched in the minds and culture of the early Hebrews that no one could have persuaded them that their understanding of God was wrong.

    If we went back in time and told the people that mountains sometimes spew forth liquid rock and that the earth moves not because of God’s anger but because the earth’s crust is shifting underneath of them, no one would believe us.  Suppose we tried to teach them that people die of diseases not because someone sinned in their family, but because of the presence of a deadly bacteria, that no one can see, living in their water supply.  Who would believe us?

    Religious authorities would accuse us of blasphemy.  No stranger would be allowed to explain away God’s wrath.  We would either be stoned to death or thrown out of their village. Beliefs can close the minds of millions of people, preventing them from stretching their minds to reach new roads upon which they have never traveled.

    Isaiah was a brilliant thinker for his day.  He knew God was our Creator and he knew that God was in charge of everything God had made.  He also looked forward to the future where God and God’s people would achieve a greater harmony with each other.   First, Isaiah confessed the many sins of his people when he wrote, “No one turns to you in prayer.  No one goes to you for help.  You have hidden yourself from us and have abandoned us because of our sins.” 

    Isaiah then sowed a seed with his words that would help people reading his material to think differently about the nature of God as they entered their future.  Isaiah’s words were pointing to a better day.  Isaiah chose his words very carefully as he reminded God that God had a role to play in what was happening to the Hebrews.  He wrote, “You, God, are our father.  We are like clay, and you are like the potter.  You created us so do not be too angry with us or hold our sins against us forever.  We are your people; be merciful to us.”

    The first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of Hope for our future when a better day will dawn.  Advent is a series of Sundays that help us to prepare ourselves to consider the meaning of Jesus’ entrance into human history.  All the Major Prophets looked forward to a better day.   Every one of us is wired to look forward to a better future for humankind.

    Listen to the words of Isaiah that were written in an earlier chapter. God is speaking.  “For a long time I have kept quiet.  I did not answer my people.  Now I will lead my blind people by roads they have never traveled.  I will turn their darkness into light.” (Isaiah 42:14,16f)

    Jeremiah also recorded God’s words, “A day is coming when I will make a new covenant with my people.  I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.  No one will have to teach anyone about my relationship with my people because everyone from the least to the greatest will know them.” (Jeremiah 31:33f)

    When Jesus began his ministry he shattered the understanding that the Hebrews had about God.  In Isaiah’s day, such teaching would have been unthinkable.  Even during his ministry, Jesus’ revelations about God’s nature were interpreted by the religious authorities as blasphemous.  He was not teaching rebellion against Rome; he was teaching that the Kingdom of God was inside of us.  

    What we are looking forward to, symbolized by the Candle of Hope, is a future that will be brighter and better than anything we have ever known.  What Jesus taught would eventually shift the consciousness of people all over the earth away from believing that God was responsible for the future of humankind to an understanding that we are.  This was a massive shift in thinking.

    Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is like when a woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the entire batch of dough rises.  (Matthew 13:33) This is what happens when people meet Jesus.  They cannot keep it to themselves.   Jesus taught, “Greater things than these will you do.”  (John 14:12)

    Even though there are still vestiges of a terrifying and judgmental God that carried over into the New Testament, for the most part Jesus would teach his listeners that God loves them just as they are.  God wants his children to feel encouraged.  God wants his children to know that he pardons their ignorance.  God wants to nurture them, to enable them and to inspire them.  Jesus was ushering in a day, a day that Isaiah could only hope would come.

    God is our parent just as Isaiah suggests.  Every informed parent knows, however, what happens to children when parents micro-manage their lives.  No informed parents want their children to remain dependent on them.  They want their children to enter in the world confident, enthusiastic and eager to pursue their dreams.  God made dreaming of a better world part of our design.   

    The best thing parents can do for their children is to remain their cheerleaders as they develop skills they currently do not have.  Struggling with wanting to try again when they fail is the best training.  Struggling to develop greater personal confidence after being rejected by peers is great preparation for life.  We know that the best sea captains are those whose skills have been tested and polished by being in extreme weather-conditions.

    The shift away from God being solely responsible for our future to the understanding that we are is in evidence right now in most parts of the world.  When people begin to dream of a better day it produces conflict with those that do not want change.  It produces tension within male-dominated societies that want women to remain covered up so that only their eyes can be seen, remain uneducated and forbidden by law from entering the work force. 

    Humanity is right on schedule.  Our dreaming of a better day is why people are streaming into the streets of major cities in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, the United States and the United Kingdom.  Here in Bermuda, the dream for a better day is what inspires the members of our political parties to remain in opposition to each other.  When government policies are not working to serve the people in any nation, the accountability of the party in power is called into question.  Nothing like this has ever happened on this scale in history.   

    These struggles are healthy because we now live in a new world where information about everything is instantaneous.  Governments can no longer hide from other nations what they are doing to their people.  Citizens can no longer be lied to for very long.  Politicians can no longer behave and say one thing privately and then live in the public forum in a manner that suggests that their lives are dedicated to public service. Even small minorities living in abject poverty in obscure parts of the world have a voice that the world hears.   

    Currently, millions of people feel as though the countries in Europe are economically out of control.  What has happened is that every country’s excesses are painfully coming to an end. Believe it or not, what we are experiencing right now is the best thing that has happened to the human race for thousands of years – the consequences that come when nations behave as though they are not part of a larger world community.

    This is a day of human accountability, a day when God can no longer be blamed for inflicting punishment when we choose to short-circuit the design of how God wired us. Remember, we were created in God’s image.  When world leaders or nations become rogue in their arrogance of self-sufficiency, that decision has consequences for all of us.  Because people want something better, they rise up and give voice to a different vision.

    The acceleration of change is forcing us to live and work together whether we like it or not.  What has caused this day to come is our ability to dream of a better world rather than constantly petitioning God to make it happen for us.  God will not do the homework that is ours alone to complete.  

    What is happening now is that we are living witnesses to the unfolding of this budding new world that Isaiah envisioned thousands of years ago.  Rather than becoming fearful of what is happening, we should feel grateful that this day is finally here.  The world’s cultures are coming together in community.  Our experience, as painful as it may be for a number years, is being tempered by our fascination that we are alive to witness it.