"The Dance of Scripture"
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on December 10, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
December 10, 2017—Advent 2B
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
When you are dancing with a partner, there is almost always a balance between pulling apart and coming together. It’s a matter of tension, in which you use the weight of your partner as something you can use to anchor you as you lean out, and pull you in as you return; to lift you up and to throw you out.
So too, is the literary tradition of the Hebrew Bible. There are these parallel structures: stories set beside each other, phrases set next to each other. And while they might appear to be set as either comparisons or contrasts, synonyms or antonyms, they are rarely one or the other.[i] Instead, they interact. They are both. They are meant to expand our imagination and our understanding of things, using each other as contrast and counterbalance.
Just so, with today’s psalm, in which mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Which is such a beautiful set of verses, and the images at first seem simply harmonious and natural to us. But if we take a moment, and look deeper, we realize that they come in the midst of a psalm that describes surprising outcomes, that describes a reversal of fortunes, looking toward a future that was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. The land had seen misfortune, the people had known iniquity. But now, now, mercy and truth have met. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Which is beautiful. Which speaks of redemption. Because these things are not always so. Mercy and truth are not opposites; but they are not synonyms either. The same goes for righteousness and peace. They live in tension, they create counterbalance: leaning out, and drawing in, like jitterbug partners.
Think about it. The truth of a story does not always suggest mercy as the reasonable result. Maybe not even as the correct result. People do terrible things to each other. People are selfish and careless. People are malicious and hurtful. People are murderous and hateful. That might well be the truth, the facts on the ground, as it were. So why on earth would mercy be there? The facts are the facts, and truth is the truth, and there is no room or need for something like mercy.
Perhaps not. Mercy must always make room for the facts on the ground: for the full depth of what has actually happened, for the damage that has been done. Mercy cannot be willfully blind or dismissive; otherwise it is cruel. Otherwise it lacks the true power and depth that can only come when you make an honest interaction with the truth, and yet still have something to say. Something to add.
Because mercy has something to say to truth. Mercy can transform the cold hard facts of the matter, which only seem to lead in one direction. Mercy can open up doors and perspectives that the truth had not originally seen. Context, perhaps, to give texture to the story and why it unfolded as it did. Redemption, for sure, to suggest that even a tragic story might lead into life somehow. Mercy can expand the truth of the situation, because no truth starts out whole. No set of facts explains everything. There is room for a dance, in which mercy and truth can meet together: in which the faithlessness of Israel, perhaps, can meet the mercy and faithfulness of their God, and a new start is possible.
Which brings to mind today’s passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet asks: “What shall I cry,” which might well be “Why should I preach?” What can I possibly say, when the people are like grass, when they are about as constant as the morning dew? And though a preacher might well be sympathetic to the sentiment, the response is emphatic: The Word of our God will stand forever. Though the people stray, God will bring them back. He will feed them. He will tend them. The people are faithless and weak. Dear God, we are indeed faithless and weak. But our God is faithful, and God’s faithfulness will carry the day.[ii]
Mercy and truth will meet. They will dance their dance of pulling apart and coming together, and redemption will come to pass. Especially once righteousness and peace eventually kiss. Righteousness, which so often draws us into conflict. Righteousness, which demands that the people of God speak out and act against unrighteousness, against injustice, against the powers and attitudes of this world that run counter to the dream of God. Righteousness, which dances a wild tango with peace, never letting peace forget that peace doesn’t just mean calm and niceness and going along. Peace, which reminds righteousness that the shalom of God never promised a conflict-free life. But also, that shalom always requires everyone to examine their own conscience and motives, to be willing to come together, to give up the zero-sum game we often try to make of righteousness.
Righteousness and peace will kiss. And that will be really hard, complicated work for all of us. Because they aren’t synonyms, and they aren’t antonyms, and none of this is as cut and dried as we want it to be. It requires that we enter the confusion. Perhaps that is the beautiful darkness for this week of Advent: the darkness of incomprehension. A scary place, but nonetheless one in which there is something to be gained. Because we are there to wrestle with things. We are there to gain greater comprehension of an issue, greater understanding of another person or perspective; greater appreciation for how little we can ever truly grasp.
And there is wisdom in that. Wisdom in being able to recognize the things we don’t fully know or understand. Because that leaves us open. Open to see in 2 Peter not just a threat that the world will end in fire, not just an eye toward a coming political and spiritual upheaval, but a reassurance to a community in crisis. There is here, amidst all his vivid imagery, an actual calming influence: an appeal to maintain a sanctified, holy life in the midst of all the current and coming brouhaha.
Wisdom too, in hearing John the Baptist proclaim to us that repentance is actually good news. Good news, evangelion, which was so often used to describe the latest conquests of the Roman Empire, here used to describe the victories of the Kingdom of God. Which begin in the hearts and lives of individual citizens of that Kingdom. In your heart, and in mine: when we repent, when we turn, when we turn ourselves toward God and enter the dance of mercy and truth, of righteousness and peace. GOOD NEWS. Victory.
This advent we are concentrating on the beauty of darkness, of how we should enter into, rather than running from darkness. Because there are gifts there. Because it is the source of life and growth. Because it acts not as the enemy of light, but the counterbalance: pulling away and coming together, and dancing us into the Good News of the kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Sermon Brainwave podcast, SB573 “Second Sunday of Advent,” posted 12/2/2017.