No Comfort for the Empire

An Advent sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

December 8, 2019

Isaiah 40:1-11

The Empire Strikes Back is not my favorite of the original three Star Wars movies. The ‘new hope’ of the first film seems to dissipate. Even though the Death Star had been destroyed, the Imperial Troops of the Empire have driven the rebels from their base and sent them fleeing across the galaxy.

As the film begins, the New Hope has vanished and the rebels are hiding on an ice planet, Luke is attacked by a wampa. They are unable to stay more than 2 steps ahead of the Empire.

By the end of the movie, their base has been destroyed, Luke has discovered bad news about just who, exactly, his birth father is, and everyone who isn’t frozen in carbonite is on the run. As the droid C3PO would say, the odds of hope’s survival are 725 to 1.

The Empire is striking back and the good guys are getting clobbered.

Real life feels like that some days too.

Our political discourse continues to devolve while our understandings of ethical behavior and constitutional values seem diametrically opposed between one party and the other. The Empire of lies, power, and meanness dominate the news cycle.

Our income inequality is at an all time high. Twenty five percent of American workers make less than $10 an hour, which puts them below the poverty level. Americans in the top one percent of earners brought home FORTY TIMES more income than the bottom ninety percent. The Empire of wealth at any cost allows us to blame people on food stamps for our deficit, while ignoring the cost of tax cuts for the people who have more money than they could ever use in one hundred lifetimes.

I could go on. The Empires conspire to make us think their power is complete and it isn’t even worth standing up to their might.

The Jewish people in exile surely understood that in ways we can barely imagine. Sent to exile by one foreign ruler, at the mercy of another empire to destroy the one that had destroyed them. The Empire had been striking back on them for a long time.

The author of this passage in Isaiah is told by God to cry out and here is Isaiah’s response:

‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.”

It’s not a rousing endorsement of humanity, that description of us being like grass. But you look at the news, and we see people mown down like grass. We see people treating other people as if they are not even as valuable as the flowers of the field.

The Empire still strikes back, and people are dying in a pandemic of violence, war, and homelessness.

When people feel like pawns in a system that is bigger than their control, unable to get out of the mess, it feels like the Empire has Struck Back.

And for Israel, who was dealing with a striking Empire, God instructed the heavenly court to “comfort, comfort ye, my people”.

I think there are days we are the ones in need of comfort. I think there are also times when we seek our comfort at the expense of others. Wherever we are on the comfort needing spectrum, I hope we can examine the way our comforts— our privilege and power— sometime contribute to other people’s harm.

Comfort, comfort ye my people is God’s instructions. And then a voice cries out to prepare a highway for our God, to level the mountains and raise the valleys, to pave a way in the wilderness for our God.

It’s a long way home from exile. One can imagine the image of buses on a highway, headed home would be a comfort for people who had expected to instead travel the Oregon trail in conestoga wagons.

But leveling mountains and raising valleys is hard work. Moving millions of cubic feet of dirt from there to here is not an insignificant task.

In order to comfort, comfort the people, we’re going to need some backhoes and heavy machinery.

And sometimes the enormity of the task leaves us ready to despair. The Empire is big. It is strong. It puts lots of money in the pockets of politicians and controls the ads on facebook.

Who are we, members of a smallish congregation in Boise, to build a highway for our God, with our spoons, sandbox toys, and other building implements that don’t seem quite up to the task?

Last month, we sent $15,000 you raised to RIP Medical Debt, which in the face of the enormity of debt in the world is only a drop in the bucket. Yet, with that money, they were able to purchase $1,687,438.91 of debt, helping 971 people in the state of Idaho.

This is how we make a highway for our God, shovelful by shovelful, bringing peace.

In the Empire Strikes Back movie, after the rebel base is destroyed, Luke Skywalker heads to the Dagoba system to learn from the Jedi Master Yoda. His fighter plane crashes into a swamp when he lands. In this scene, Yoda tells Luke to use the Force to lift the fighter plane out of the swamp.

We must unlearn what we have learned.

The crisis facing the Hebrew people in exile, the scourge of violence in our country today, the global refugee crisis, the growing problems of climate change—pick an issue—any of them seem like 13 million cubic yards of mountain standing in our way. Any of them seem as hard to tackle as lifting an x-wing fighter out of the swamp with the power of the Force.

We must unlearn what we have learned.

What have you unlearned in your life?

I’m unlearning the racism that informed the world in which I was, we were, raised. I’m unlearning the way I ignore its effects, just because they don’t impact me immediately.

I’m unlearning sugar. I’ve stopped eating sugar in order to help the inflammation in my knee and it is causing me to unlearn what and how I’ve eaten.

I’m unlearning the idea that vulnerability is weakness. I’m trying to learn that vulnerability is part of what it is to be human.

I’m unlearning the lie that only skinny women get to wear swimsuits.

I’m unlearning my belief that we can continue to use fossil fuels at the same rates we have in the past without harming our planet.

I’m perpetually unlearning messages of the Empire—money is power, power is virtue, and profit is king.

I think so much of what Jesus showed us how to do was unlearn what we thought we knew.

This person is unclean and should be banished and avoided? Jesus touched them and healed them.

This person works for Rome and should be shunned for working for the enemy? Jesus ate dinner with them.

This person is a woman and we all know women shouldn’t preach? Jesus’ first post resurrection appearance was to women. The first people to proclaim the resurrection were then women.

Jesus continuously spoke and worked against the empires of wealth, and might, and violence, helping us unlearn their messages.

So much to unlearn we have.

Prepare the way of the Lord, we are told. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Maybe preparing a way involves unlearning the things that no longer work, that no longer lead to life, that no longer are true. Moving aside our mountains of prejudice and stubborn insistence on being right.

“It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

After he heard about the roadwork God wanted begun, Isaiah cried out that people are like grass and what could we possibly do in the face of such a task?

Notice God’s answer to Isaiah.

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!

Isaiah is instructed to use his voice. To get up to a high mountain, presumably one not flattened in the road construction, and lift up his voice with strength. Here is your God.

Friends, now is the time to let the world know of God’s love. The world needs to hear us preach God’s message. Comfort. Comfort ye, my people. The world needs to unlearn what it has learned. The Empire will not win. God’s word is what will stand forever.

The Empire may keep striking back, but they too are like grass, which fades and like flowers, which wither. The Empire does not have the last say.  It is the word of the Lord which will stand forever.

At the end of Empire Strikes Back, the hero Luke Skywalker is in a light saber duel with the evil Darth Vader. After Vader tells Luke the results of his ancestry DNA test, and cuts off his hand in fatherly love, he tries to get Luke to join him to defeat the emperor, so they can rule the galaxy together.

Many of you know a few years ago I was Pastor Vader for Trunk or Treat, and I have an affinity for Darth Vader. When the original film came out, my friends all had Princess Leia on their Star Wars t—shirt. I had Darth Vader.

In Darth Vader I recognize someone who had been wounded, gotten on the wrong path, and who didn’t unlearn what he needed to unlearn. He thought the best way to defeat evil was to be more evil, have more power, and not until it was too late, and in another movie, did he start to unlearn.

To prepare a highway for our God, a straight path in the wilderness, we’re called to join together and get to work, unlearning the things that don’t lead us to life, that don’t lead to the flourishing of all.

Let us do our part to prepare the way. Hope and peace are on the way.
May the force be with us all.

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