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Yahweh’s School of Promise and Possibility

November 28, 2016

“Yahweh’s School of Promise and Possibility” Isaiah 2:1-5 © 11.27.16 Advent 1A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In 1894, a report was published that called for an established academic curriculum for high school students. Written by a distinguished group known as the Committee of Ten, the document called for schooling that developed what it termed the “‘invaluable mental power’” of judgment. Young Americans of every class and background needed a demanding and focused course of study if they were to take on the “profession of citizen” and have a “‘salutary influence’” on the life of the country.

Nearly a century later, the National Council on Education and Testing argued in its report that there were certain things every student needed to know and be able to do in order to “‘promote educational equity, to preserve democracy and enhance the civic culture, and to improve economic competitiveness’” (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1995: 65ff). More recently, earlier this year, a respected educator observed: “Language—particularly reading comprehension—runs on a common knowledge base shared between readers and speakers…. When schools fail to build [a] common knowledge base among our children…we are essentially condemning them to something less than full literacy and citizenship” (Robert Pondiscio, “What Every American Should Know,” http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/articles/2016-01-11/top-10-civic-ideals-and-cultural-principles-that-every-american-should-know). He went on to make his contributions to a list being compiled by Eric Liu, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program.

We might wonder these days whether there can be any such thing as common knowledge, given so many news sources, both fake and real, and so much disagreement about what and who is important and why. The syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker has asked: “What happens to democracy when an uninformed, misinformed or disinformed populace tries to make sound decisions? The simple and terrible answer is, democracy fails.” She then offers an analysis: “We’ve reached this critical juncture thanks largely to the digital revolution. Until relatively recently, most people relied on a limited number of trusted news sources, which provided a basis for what we referred to as ‘common knowledge.’ The country more or less also shared a set of common values.

“Today, of course, we have thousands of news sources—millions if you count social media. Everyone can pick his or her own outlet for consumption as well as a venue for invention. Personal journalists—that is, anyone with a smartphone to photograph or record video in real time—have created virtual newsrooms of one that can communicate with countless others through tweets, retweets and created buzz on fact or fiction” (“2016’s Biggest Loser,” http://www.cdispatch.com/opinions/article.asp?aid=54396).

We could have the same debate or discussion—and we do—about what everyone needs to know in order to be and act like a citizen of the kingdom of God. About 10 years ago, Stephen Prothero published his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. In America, he says, “faith without understanding is the standard; here religious ignorance is bliss.” He goes on: “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the Seven Sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates” (1). After outlining the problem and solutions, he provides a nearly one hundred page dictionary of religious literacy.

Prothero wrote for both the religious community and the public square. Specifically for the church, PC(USA) pastor Rebecca Kirkpatrick offers100 Things Every Child Should Know Before Confirmation. She penned the slim volume because she found as she began to teach confirmation classes that students were coming without the basic knowledge of Bible stories and concepts they needed to connect the scriptures with their personal experiences, ask faithful questions, and find their place in the community of faith (3).

The prophet Isaiah might contribute to the conversation by offering the Torah as the compendium of knowledge for the people of God. That Hebrew word is typically translated “law,” but Torah is really better rendered as “instruction.” Isaiah had attained doctoral level competence in Torah studies at Yahweh’s School of Promise and Possibility* in Jerusalem.  Located on Mt. Zion, this holy academy envisioned by the prophet is a school where imagination and dreaming of a new day are encouraged and modeled. It’s where hope is nurtured, resilient trust in the promise of God is rewarded. That’s what makes his poetry so compelling for Advent, this season when, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, we look “beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be that is not yet” (Texts for Preaching:…Year A: 2).

Isaiah saw Jerusalem as the center of Torah learning, with Yahweh himself as the Teacher par excellence. In the catalog would be subjects like conflict resolution, peacemaking, compassionate action, fair decision-making, and workshops on making farm implements out of the weapons of war. The student body would be as diverse as the world. Representatives of all nations, even Judah’s enemies, would be welcome. And the Lord would act as judge, meaning arbitrator, mediator, should any disputes arise, showing how differences are settled peacefully.

In the sharing of his dream, the prophet was inviting the city to consider possibilities, to wonder “what if”? He hoped his appeal would change things, that the citizens of the alternately holy and apostate city would work to make a difference. If the religious language he used didn’t strike a chord, what about his appeal to national pride? Who wouldn’t want Judah to be an example to every other country?

But his strategy seems to have failed. The people of Jerusalem were in reality vulnerable in the eighth century BC, sometimes living in fear of foreign invasion, at other times flourishing through the intervention of other powers outside the nation, depending on the decisions of the Judean king. Nobody in his or her right mind would have thought Jerusalem would be the destination spot for all the peoples of the earth. It was squeezed on one side by Egypt and on the other by Assyria, who were not much interested in learning from the God of Judah. Neither the kings nor the priests would have been much good at teaching in Yahweh’s school, anyway. Given a test on the subjects they were to present, they would have failed miserably. The king and his commanders and courtiers were skilled in diplomacy, but not justice; in strategy, but not in caring for the needy; in besting an enemy in battle, but not in how to achieve victory over despair and hopelessness. The priests might say the right religious words and know the rituals by heart, but their solemn prayers were a hurtful cacophony in the ears of God, the sacrifices of hundreds of bulls a travesty of worship. And what nonsense about using the resources of war to make tools for farming! If they were turned to other purposes, the rich elites would have made them into furniture or art, not implements for producing food for the poor. But Isaiah persisted in such foolishness, and invited the people of God to “walk in the light,” to own the vision of a new day and be an example of what could be.

If we are heirs of the kingdom, in a line that stretches back to Isaiah’s day and before, we too are invited to own the vision of the prophet, to matriculate in Yahweh’s School of Promise and Possibility until we attain mastery of every subject. We are called to be a community that learns what God has to offer, that walks in his ways. We are to be a winsome and compelling example, together and apart, of new possibilities, of the results of sitting at the feet of the Lord. We’re bidden to learn justice and teach compassion, to make peace and model faithful discipleship.

We learn the ways of the kingdom in much the same way as we learn any skill for living. We watch. We taste. We touch. We practice. We gain experience. We explore and ask questions. We try and try again; we fail and learn from the failures. Walking in the light of the Lord begins with crawling, then leaning on supports to stand upright, then gaining strength in spiritual legs that will carry us on our journeys. We respond to the beckoning of our Divine Parent to come; we rejoice in learning a new and important skill.

In this school of God’s Word, we have the very best Teacher or as he’s often called in the gospels, a Master. Our first thought might be that such a term casts us in the role of servants or slaves. Indeed, one of the elderly members of my church in Alabama used to refer to Jesus or God as the “Ol’ Master,” saying the words for some reason in dialect. But “Master” also implies the attainment of extraordinary skill, the amassing of long experience, someone who has reached a level in a trade or profession so high that he or she can teach others. So someone may be a master electrician or gardener, mechanic or musician, golfer or chess champion, martial artist or captain of a ship. All are skilled folk who have disciplined themselves in a trade or sport, have insights to offer, and are recognized as authorities to be respected.

Jesus is just such a Master for us, the Teacher par excellence that Isaiah envisioned Yahweh to be. In his life he both learned and modeled the qualities of the kingdom of God the prophet promised would come. He taught us by his deeds and words to ask questions; to listen to the voices of those on the margins; to see God at work in ordinary tasks, everyday events, and common people; to care for the needy; to pay more attention to our own shortcomings and sins than those of our neighbors. He has earned our respect by his example of leadership and service.

A recent “Dilbert” cartoon offers an all too common contrast from the world. Dilbert and his colleagues are in a meeting, where their pointy-haired boss tells them he’s too busy to attend a leadership class, so he’s sending them to a “followship” class, putting the burden on them to perform, as usual. Dilbert asks: “Is that so we can learn to follow someone who never learned how to lead?” Ducking the question, the boss responds: “That sounds like a good question for your followship teacher” (Columbus Dispatch, Thursday, November 17, 2016: 6B).

Unlike that lousy boss, our Lord doesn’t expect us to do what he would not. If he calls us to live the vision, to be faithful, to learn from Torah, he has already done so. He is someone worth following, worthy of our devotion and loyalty.

Jesus is the leader, the teacher, the peacemaker, the visionary for whom Isaiah and so many others waited. He was born in Bethlehem, walked among us, taught and loved and died and rose. He will come again to lead us into learnings yet unimagined.

This Advent and indeed every day, let this be our prayer: “O Master, let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free;  tell me thy secret; help me bear the strain of toil, the fret of care. Help me the slow of heart to move by some clear, winning word of love; teach me the wayward feet to stay, and guide them in the homeward way. Teach me thy patience; still with thee in closer, dearer company, in work that keeps faith sweet and strong, in trust that triumphs over wrong. In hope that sends a shining ray far down the future’s broadening way, in peace that only thou canst give, with thee, O Master, let me live”  (http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_master_let_me_walk_with_thee).

*A made-up name, of course.

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