|Today’s scripture reading: Isaiah 36:1-3,13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4||Sermon audio:|
Last Wednesday, Robert Bailey stood on a stage in Queens, New York and received a check for almost $344 million. Robert Bailey is an African-American machine worker, now retired from the United States Postal Service. At age 67, he has won the largest prize ever in the history of the New York Lottery. With the money, he plans to get his mother a house and some land, to travel and invest the funds, and also to give something meaningful back to the city of Manhattan. This enormous jackpot came overnight, but the moment also took a lifetime to arrive. Bailey has been playing the same six numbers on lottery tickets purchased every day for the past twenty-five years. The odds of him winning were around 1 in 115,000 but he knew it was possible, so on a rainy Saturday morning in October he bought the winning ticket. He kept trying for that win despite losses every day for decades, trusting in what he knew could be true despite all the odds against it. It’s become a lifelong habit for him now. Even on his way to the award ceremony, he stopped for more tickets, telling a reporter, “I’m going to ride this out. I can’t stop now.” Robert Bailey is the latest example of people who believe in what appears to be impossible, who live their lives in pursuit of that goal, and who have the uncommon joy of seeing their faith vindicated.
It’s that sort of faith in the unlikely but nevertheless possible future that guides the prophet Isaiah in our reading today. I don’t know the odds of the massively outnumbered Hebrews surviving an attack by the far superior Assyrians, but it didn’t look good at all. The Assyrians had invaded Judah and destroyed its cities one after another. They backed the Hebrew people and their puny army into the walls of Jerusalem, their last stand. It seems certain that Assyria will do to Judah what it has done to many others before, conquering them in battle and taking its leaders into exile as punishment. The Assyrian commander—standing in for pragmatic voices everywhere—calls the Hebrew people to reasonably consider the chances that their King Hezekiah’s refusal to submit would lead to an eventual victory. He casts a chilling vision of the human consequences when Jerusalem is besieged, and suggests how much better it would be to consent to Assyria’s rule. Against the idea that God would save the people, the commander points to all the ruined cities before who had claimed the saving power of their gods. Jerusalem would be just another example. King Hezekiah’s fearful leaders bring reports of all this to the prophet Isaiah, but Isaiah tells them that the facts on the ground are not the only facts at play. There’s also the fact that the God of the universe, the creator of the cosmos and guarantor of the Hebrew people, stands ready to assist. God desires peace rather than coercive, bullying violence like that of the Assyrians. Isaiah says that God will work—perhaps imperceptibly but also inexhaustibly—to bring about a lasting, permanent peace. This is the unlikely but still possible future that the prophet trusts in, despite the odds. History tells us that Assyria did indeed abandon its siege of Jerusalem, just as surely as Robert Bailey finally got his winning ticket.
I’m not going to compare being part of the church to buying a lottery ticket very often, but there is something parallel about this life of faith. Isaiah, the other prophets, and Jesus himself hold out a vision for our future that flies in the face of what we see every day. In days to come, Isaiah says, God’s presence will be unmistakable. God will be in the center of all things, like the North Pole star around which everything else turns. God’s light will be manifest throughout the earth, as a lighthouse shows the ways of safe passage. God’s justice will settle every dispute, so there will be no more need of war. Deadly weapons will become instruments of life instead. Swords will be beaten into plowshares; spears into pruning hooks. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” These are the visions of peace which we hear about from Scripture, and I know they still sound as far-fetched as they did to the Hebrews long ago. Nevertheless, people have been inspired for generations by these possibilities that they do everyday actions over years that help carry this vision along. In other words, we buy our tickets because we believe that another world is possible. We believe in a God of faith, hope, love and peace even though the world is often anything BUT those things. This church—alongside every other church, synagogue, mosque, temple, and place where people of good conscience gather—keeps that vision alive. We inherit such faith from our ancestors and baptize the next generation into it so they too can await the coming of God’s holy realm. And because of that vision for what’s possible, people do the everyday small actions of love and compassion that make peace more likely in the long run.
For what does your heart yearn today, beloveds of God? For a healing of relationships that have been torn by the trials of life? For family gatherings that bring harmony instead of division? For work that is meaningful and life giving, rather than frenzied and life-draining?For an end to climate change, with its disastrous fires, storms and diseases? For children to live in the safe embrace of nurturing adults with time to nurture their growing? For wars to cease, and for a peaceful home around every refugee? For racism to end, as well as every bias against the differences among us? For love that knows no limits, and proclaims goodwill to all? What vision feels far off and yet so necessary, so real, that we will take everyday action to see it come to pass? This is the far-off but very real vision that we collectively call the reign of God, and that we commit ourselves to every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven”.
The odds are that we won’t see the kingdom of God realized in our lifetimes, but it will come to pass at some point, just as people win the lottery every week. That which is unlikely is still very much possible, and I want to be part of a community inspired by that vision. I want to stand with a people who take great and small steps in the direction of God’s realm, who do our part to show up together—in this congregation and in the broader community—to do the things that make for peace. That’s why we show up here week by week. That’s why we give of our time and talent throughout the week. That’s why we pledge and give, to support the vision ofGod’s realm on earth as in heaven, even though we may never live to see it fully realized in our time.
Because after all, who’s to say what’s possible and what’s not? God’s own prophets, and the people who bear God’s vision in the world, have seen the kingdom of God coming for millennia, even to the present moment. We believe with them that the peace that Isaiah speaks about is not only possible, it’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of time, and of simple, trusting communities that show up and buy our tickets on the peace train. This is our time to do our part, and this is God’s time to keep the vision alive in us and others. I’m not normally a betting man, but I will wager everything I have on that. Amen.
Cover image: Robert Bailey accepting his lottery winnings, taken by Chang W. Lee and posted to the story on nytimes.com.