Sermon: A House on a Hill

02 December 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
December 2, 2007

First Sunday of Advent

A House on a Hill

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Like the Temple Mount that Isaiah lifts up in our text today, our meeting house,  The Congregational Church of Brookfield, literally is a “house on a hill.”  We’re not only at a crossroads where five roads meet, we’re at the crest of a hill.  - I’ve come to enjoy coming back for night meetings and seeing our beautiful, white steepled church emerge from the darkened woods.  One Wednesday night last winter, when I was coming up Silver Mine Road, I caught a beautiful glimpse in that side window of bells flashing in the warm light – and I happened to be listening to a CD of Joni Mitchell singing, “These are the good old days.”  It was like the sound track to a movie of our church life, and it is a moment of pure contentment and joy that I will treasure forever.

We are so blessed here, many of us, to have experienced the love of Christ through our worship and the love of our neighbors here at our church.  We have each had moments, I’m sure, when we have caught a glimpse – even if only for a brief shining moment – of God’s hope and vision for our congregation, like my peek through the meetinghouse window that dark night.  And many of us have been inspired to share that hope and vision with others – whether with a friend at work or with our neighbors in need here at home and overseas, through our various outreach projects. 

You may not know this, but if you ask many of our new members how they came to our church often the story sounds like the one shared with our Deacons last month by Tania Nunes-Warner.  She works with Cindy Field at Bethel Health Care, and each Monday she said she saw Cindy come into work with a renewed brightness about her, and often a story about how great church had been the day before.  Tania said she couldn’t really believe our church could be as good as all that; she had little hope, after some of her negative church experiences in the past.  She said Cindy invited her to church MANY times before she finally said “yes.”  But when Tania witnessed for herself the warm welcome you gave her, she returned again and again as a visitor, and came to believe the joyful worship and fellowship of our faith family was indeed genuine.  The spirit of Christ really did appear to her to be alive here, as she got to know many of you who do as Paul says – living honorably as people who “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” not just as a phony Sunday mask, but as a real way of life.

If you’ve been a member of this church a long time, or your whole life even, you may not be aware of how often churches fail to live out God’s vision for us.  People have been deeply wounded by petty disputes that break churches apart, in the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul describes in Romans.  But churches like ours are growing because we have claimed Isaiah’s vision of becoming a “house on a hill” so full of God and God’s love that people for miles around “stream” uphill to our beacon of hope. 

The miraculous and transforming presence of God, Isaiah suggests, is powerful enough to make formerly hostile nations literally flow like a stream up some 700 feet to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  This was a powerful image for Isaiah’s people who lived in the violent 700s BC when prisoners of empire could be taken away in chains, with no human rights or recourse to legal help – and when the nation with the mightiest army would call the shots for the world.  (Perhaps not so unlike today.) The military forces of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians surrounded the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah on all sides, and were all powers to be reckoned with.   So to think that THOSE conquering armies would someday flow voluntarily into a covenant of obedience to God’s law of love and justice must have seemed to Isaiah’s people a wild hope indeed. 

Today, as we begin another church year with the season of Advent, we are called to wait for the coming of the Messiah with that same tiny flicker of hope burning in our own hearts that Isaiah called his people to bear. With our nation at war overseas and children dying here at home because of inadequate healthcare, with toxic waste dumps and nuclear weapons proliferating and global warming threatening all life on the planet – God’s people are called anew in this age to keep hope alive.  Into the storm of this world’s 24-hour feed of bad news, we are called to proclaim the Good News of hope to pour souls drowning in fear and paralyzed by helplessness and depression. 

How in the world can one church do that?  How can our church today fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision a truly become the “house … raised above the hills [where] all nations shall stream to it”? Perhaps we should do as Paul advises in Romans:  “to wake from sleep … to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

There is a fable I’ve heard told about the nature of evil.  It seems there were three apprentice devils who were trying to impress Satan with their plans to destroy all of humanity.  The first apprentice suggested telling people that there was no God, but Satan rejected that idea.  The second suggested they tell people that everything that is sinful or evil is really OK, but Satan rejected that suggestion too.  Finally, the third apprentice said, “Let’s destroy all of humanity by telling them they have no hope of ever really changing anything.  Let’s make them believe there’s nothing they can do.”  Satan loved that plan, because he knew that people would be happy to have the excuse to just sit around and do nothing.

The Good News for us, members of the Congregational Church of Brookfield, is that we get to be a part of a congregation that doesn’t believe that lie.  We actually take pleasure in getting up to do things – in fact, we have a hard time sitting still! We don’t always do things perfectly here – we can’t, since we are none of us a perfect person.  But we don’t let our brokenness as individuals stop us.  We come together as believers in the resurrection through our communion with Christ in THIS church.  As we gather at His table of hope, we discern His Spirit alive in this place, and we are bold enough to get up and DO something to make the world better. 

I know many of you who have been working so hard on our refugee resettlement ministry these days, celebrate with me the safe arrival of Nafie, Suhair and Mutaz to our little cottage.  It is a tremendous blessing for us to be able to find a way to help out, in a small way, in God’s work for peace and justice in this world – to be able to offer a ministry of outreach and hospitality to a family displaced by war.   Margaret Mead, the great humanitarian and anthropologist was once quoted as saying, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  The little things we do to foster hope DO matter, when we take the risk of actually PRACTICING our faith in the world, to take a stand for justice and peace.  That’s what it means to be called to “put on the armor of light” or “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

As God’s people we are called to shine the light of hope on all kinds of hopeless causes, such as world peace, a vision as ancient as Isaiah’s – as we pray for peace each Sunday, as we light the peace candle each first Sunday for communion.  This past week, a new round of Middle East peace talks have begun in Maryland, led by President Bush, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, and Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel.  What difference will these make?  They will make as much difference as the people the diplomats represent DECIDE they will make.  Hamas leaders have denounced the talks; an Israeli newspaper dismissed them as a “summit of low expectations,’’ but others are clinging to hope.  One Israeli official said that at least Olmert and Abbas seem to have “good chemistry,” and although the 40 other nations represented have not been at all friendly, at least people are gathered at the same table.

God calls us to this work of peacemaking – we are called to keep hoping, and to keep trying. We must close our ears to that demonic voice that whispers, “abandon hope – nothing you do will change anything.” It’s our job as people of faith to remain awake and aware of the issues, to follow what’s happening in the world instead of allowing ourselves to be numbed out with the kind of empty worldly pleasures that Paul denounces.  How much better might our world be if more of us could devote as much energy to the struggle to change the world as we devote to escaping it?

This Advent, may we continue to heed Isaiah’s call to be a people of justice – offering to the world a hope so irresistible that pilgrims will continue to stream through our doors.  And may we continue to bear with courage the light of Christ, which Paul promises will shield us like armor from the evils of this broken world, which threaten to drag us down into hopelessness and despair.  Putting on the spirit of Jesus, Paul promises, will lead us from the temptation to turn Advent into a season of mere revelry instead of a real celebration of the coming Kingdom of God. With the help of Christ we can keep the flame of hope alive.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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