Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard.
On January 30, 1933 world history took a dramatic and dark turn. The faux populist Nazi party rode the waves of social insecurity to power. The reasons are many.
There was German resentment. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, many longed for a strong leader who could help restore the nation to its “prior glory.” There was economic anxiety. Many so-called pro-Germans exploited the Depression and blamed it on internationalism in general, and the Treaty of Versailles in particular.
And there was heightened racism. If only the “true Germans,” the so-called Aryan race, could reclaim their rightful place in German society, they could make Germany great again.
No longer would the League of Nations bully Germany into submission. The Deutsche Volk were tired of who they regarded as feckless and effeminate leaders. They were fed up with what they perceived as a soft and conciliatory leadership class. They needed vigor--a forceful leader who could establish law by decree and power by pronouncement. They needed a strong man—someone who exuded authority who didn't apologize for his race pride. They needed a fearless Fuhrer. They found him in the person of Adolf Hitler.
Within weeks of being named Chancellor, Adolf Hitler went about his unification and synchronization campaign. Hitler attacked the media. He blasted the media as untrustworthy because it was, in his words, controlled by a Jewish elite. Hitler purged government jobs. His “Restoration of the Civil Service” decreed that all government employees must be of “Aryan stock.”
And he attacked the academy. That Spring the German Student Association led the “Actions Against Un-German Spirit” rally at the University of Berlin and other campuses. A bonfire was held and a wide range of authors went up in smoke. Helen Keller, Jack London and Albert Einstein were burned to ashes. This act led the Jewish turned Lutheran poet Heinrich Heine to make a chilling yet prescient pronouncement. “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people.”
It should not surprise any of us that after going after the media, the civil service, and the academy, there was one final place for Hitler to turn his sights. He went after the church. The Fuhrer Principle decreed that all Jews, and even those of Jewish descent that had converted to Christianity, should be expelled from communion.
Church leaders sympathetic to the Nazi movement helped to establish a German Christian Church. In an odd twist of theological irony they referred to themselves as the “positive Christian movement.”
Not all church leaders agreed with Hitler about everything. But many liked his commitment to law and order. Many pastors thought he was a little excessive and eccentric, but they desired a strong national church, and believed that aligning with the Nazi’s was the best means to attain this goal. Then there were those naive Christian leaders who believed that if the Church’s prestige was restored, they could then influence the Fuhrer in a more credible direction. They would have Christian influence on Hitler.
I offer this scene and this particular historical setting in order to frame today’s scripture lesson. The dilemma that the Christian Church faced in Nazi Germany was similar to the situation the prophet Isaiah had to confront. The Christian Church in Germany was forced to ask similar ethical questions as the prophet Isaiah and the kingdom of Judah. What do you do when it seems like your back is against the wall? What are you willing to compromise when it seems like your moral options are disaster and catastrophe? And how do you live in the present when your future seems bleaker than your past?
The prophet Isaiah was trying to encourage the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s leaders were living in fear. The heydays of King David and King Solomon were a distant memory. The days of prosperity and peace seemed far removed. And since that time the nation had suffered a Civil War. The kingdom divided into Israel in the North and Judah in the South. And the mighty empire of Assyria had pretty much taken control of Israel and had its sights on Judah.
This led to a series of unrighteous compromises. Judah’s king Hezekiah forged an alliance with mighty Egypt. Judah invested more resources in military defense than concern for the masses. And their compromise with Egypt, the presumed source of their protection, only hastened the nation’s downfall. They were led by fear not by their faith. They were concerned with self-protection, not with God’s promises.
This is why Isaiah here in Chapter 11 is providing us with one of the central themes of Advent, patience. Isaiah reminds the people that we’ve been here before. Yet God went into the house of Jesse and found David. And from that stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of his roots. For if we remain rooted in God’s soil, in due time, the vision God gave us for a just society shall come to pass.
One is coming. Do not be fooled by imitations. The day is coming. Do not be deceived by gimmicks. The bright morning star shall arise. You shall live in a world of wisdom and understanding. You shall live in a world of knowledge and fear of the Lord. This world will be defined by righteousness for the poor and afflicted. This world will be ordered by equity. This world will know peace and justice. And this world will see the lion and the lamb living in harmony. This is the vision that we must hold on to. We cannot fall into false alliances, or allow fear and anxiety to cause us to stray. “You must have patience,” Isaiah declares.
As you and I prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, we must remember that patience takes a few forms. First, patience must be coupled with preparation. Patience is not passive waiting. Patience involves the right kind of preparation. Why do we hold on to this vision of what a just, righteous, and peaceful kingdom ought to look like? Because by doing so, we are preparing ourselves each day by striving to live it out. Despite the difficulty. Despite the seeming defeats. Despite the drama associated with life, we must resist becoming discouraged. When we become discouraged and let cynicism overtake us, we are hiding from God.
This is what the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel believed. In his classic work Man Is Not Alone, Heschel said that it made sense that the first question asked in scripture is from God to man was “Where art thou?” Adam’s greatest sin, for Heschel, wasn’t that Adam ate the apple. His greatest sin was concocting an alibi. We sin and we hide.
I believe this morning that by aligning with the Nazi Party in search of relevance, the Christian Church was hiding from God. By aligning with Egypt in search of protection, the Kingdom of Judah was hiding from God. And how often are we, as individuals, as a nation, guilty of the same? How often do you and I hide from God when things don’t quite seem to be going our way? How often do you and I forget or ignore God’s vision of love and justice in order to seek out our own secret path? Too many people are living in misery today because they sacrificed patience and preparation for a shortcut to perceived success.
“Why am I the only one not thriving?” I have heard students ask. “I volunteer my time to help others. I’ve committed myself to antiracist and antisexist politics. I don’t drink and smoke. Yet why is it that all of the cool kids are joining exclusive clubs? Why are all the popular kids hooking up with one another? Why are the young ladies dancing on the tables, and the guys puking in the corner keep getting invited back to the party? Maybe if I just loosen up a little bit….you know just for networking purposes…”
Can you hear the voice of God saying, “Where art thou?”
“Why am I the only one in my graduating class not experiencing financial success?,” others ask. “I am sick of graduate school. I am tired of playing by the rules at this job when others are getting over. If I just strike this one side deal….If I can just get with those people over there. I know they are shady, but, I can keep it all in perspective….”
Can you hear the voice of God saying, “Where art thou?”
I have even noticed such ethical compromise from the Christian Church in this nation. Many of my evangelical brothers and sisters seem to think by aligning with perceived power that they can upgrade the status of the Christian Church in this nation. They can have access to presidents and kings. They can get funding for their schools. They can influence public policy. Some even believe that they can upgrade the body and blood of Christ to caviar and Cristal, the champagne of “tsars and stars.” Unfortunately, they do not realize that they are reducing the blood and body of Christ to Kool-Aid and saltine crackers. It may taste sugary sweet and provide a fleeting flavor. Yet it's empty. It's void of power and sustenance.
We have to have a more patient view of God’s kingdom—a vision that you and I are willing to prepare ourselves for each day. We must also be persistent in articulating that vision. For it is only in our preparation and our persistence that we can begin to approximate God’s ideal of love and justice. The kind of ideal articulated here in Isaiah chapter 11. And that is the source of our power as people of faith.
Power gained by compromising the core teachings of our faith is unadulterated corruption. Access gained by sacrificing the key tenets of our faith is unbridled idolatry. And alliances formed in the name of realpolitik without ethical principles are nothing more than unmitigated gangsterism.
We need to know that we serve a God who ranks higher than all earthly powers. And thus, we believe in ethical ideals that are stronger than pragmatic and political associations.
Am I suggesting that in this life there is no room for compromise? Of course not. Am I suggesting that in this life there is no need to find creative solutions to complex problems? Absolutely not. But I am saying that we must be careful not to let our pragmatism mask our cynicism. For as soon as the “art of the deal” or “cult of the practical” become our guiding moral principles, we reduce God’s kingdom to the smallness of this world. We toss our Christian moral compasses right out of the window. We hide from God.
Concern for the poor becomes concern for self-protection. Care for the vulnerable becomes you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. And a commitment to justice becomes a commitment to the 11th Commandment: Thou shall not get caught. We end up hiding from God.
This is why we must heed the words of the great American poet James Weldon Johnson
Lest our feet, stray from the places our God where we met thee. Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee!
The words of Isaiah serve as a reminder that we have to show patience. When things don't quite seem to be going our way, we can't get antsy and anxious. When life begins to look a little different than expected, don't go jumping out of life’s batters box.
I use this metaphor intentionally. Because it's based on an early lesson I learned from sports as a kid. I played little league baseball. I was about 8 or 9 at the time, and there was a kid named Jimmy Bethea. At the age of 9, Jimmy could throw a curve ball like a major leaguer. It was pretty scary for an 8 or 9-year-old kid. I can recall the feeling like the ball was coming straight for my head. Several of us when we went to the plate, we ducked out of there when the pitch was on its way. On one occasion, I can remember hitting the ground, as I just knew the ball was going to hit me. Yet when I looked up from the ground the umpire was calling strike.
The next time we were scheduled to play Jimmy’s team, our Coach gave us powerful words of encouragement. He said, a curveball pitcher will try to deceive you. He wants to trick you. He wants you to doubt yourself. But if you just stay calm, remain patient, and keep your feet firmly planted in that batter’s box, you can hit that ball just like any other pitch.
Since I was the leadoff batter, I went first. I went out and looked straight at Jimmy Bethea. I knew he wanted to trick me. I knew he wanted to deceive me and make me doubt myself. So, I stayed calm, remained patient, kept my feet planted firmly, and when Jimmy threw that pitch I watched the ball, swung a fast and powerful swing, and swoosh, I hit nothing but air. Two more swings, and I struck out!
But do not let the fact that I was a terrible baseball player obscure the greater lesson Coach Dennis taught me. A lesson that I've pulled on at so many different times over the years. Life can come at you like a curveball. Yet if you and I are patient, prepared, and persistent, there is no reason to give up hope.
For one day the lion and the lamb will lay down together in peace.
One day the wicked will cease from troubling, and the weary will be at rest.
One day, religious hypocrisy will be silenced, and God’s truth will be unleashed.
And one day, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.