The Universal Wrapped Up in the Particular

Isaiah 12:2-6 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

Jeremy Richards

Imagine this: it’s a sunny, summer day, and you decide to get out of the city and go for a hike in the Gorge. You’re looking for something that’s becoming increasingly hard to find, even in the great outdoors around Portland: solitude. You want to get away from other people, away from the sound of traffic, away from fluorescent light bulbs and computer screens, away from the smell of exhaust fumes, away from all the things that stress you out. You want to feel the sun on your face and the breeze on your back. You want to hear the subtle, calm sounds of creeks flowing and birds singing. You want to smell earth and wood and flowers.

As you pull up to your favorite, secret hiking spot, there’s a crowd bunched together at the trailhead. Oh no, has your secret spot been discovered? What are all these people doing here? You park your car and turn off the engine. When you turn off the car, the folksy music you’ve been listening to to make you feel like a real outdoorsy person also turns off, and you hear someone shouting. “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU TO FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME? …EVEN NOW THE AX IS LYING AT THE ROOT OF THE TREES; EVERY TREE THEREFORE THAT DOES NOT BEAR GOOD FRUIT IS CUT DOWN AND THROWN INTO THE FIRE.”

Oh man. Just your luck. There’s a raving lunatic at your favorite hiking spot. You want to get back in your car. There are other places to go, more trails to hike. But you just have to get a look at whoever it is that’s speaking. Who is this guy? There are trees, bushes, and one of those disgusting outhouses that you only use in an emergency blocking your way.

As you come around the corner and get your first clear view, you aren’t disappointed. This was worth seeing. A man with frazzled hair and a giant beard is standing on a rock shouting and throwing his arms in the air. What’s more, he’s wearing animal skins. Not nearly as breathable and moisture-wicking as your new Patagonia shorts. Why are people listening to this guy? How has he drawn such a crowd? Who are these people?

For the first time you peel your attention away from this crazed man, and are almost as shocked by the diversity of the crowd as you are by the man they’re watching with rapt attention. There are a few people, like you, in hiking clothes, who seem to have simply happened upon this spectacle. But there are others who clearly came on purpose.

There are business women right next to houseless men. There are stiff looking men in suits and ties standing next to queer youth with faces full of piercings. There are members of every race present. There are intellectuals and those with developmental disabilities. There are skinny and well-fed, young and old, working class and white collar, athletic and disabled, policemen and criminals. There are even a few pastors from the biggest churches in town present, though they’re huddled together and don’t seem too happy about what’s being said.

But these pastors are the exception. Most people have totally bought in, they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. You can see it in their eyes: expectation. They expect something’s going to happen, but they don’t know what, so a few shout out, “What should we do?”

Because you’re a member of Grant Park Church, and your pastors being talking about apocalypse and prophets lately, you think you know the answer. This guy definitely thinks he’s some kind of old school prophet, calling people a “brood of vipers” and talking about some apocalyptic event that’s just around the corner, going on about axes and winnowing forks and trees and unquenchable fire. It’s all a bit over the top, a bit dramatic. So your pretty sure you know what’s coming next.

You figure he’ll talk about the end of the world, the old age passing away, the new age dawning. He’s already started down that path, “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” he asked, and then he spoke of a future figure who’ll come and “clear his threshing floor.” Sounds pretty apocalyptic. Maybe he’ll make some critiques of this current age’s social sins, like the ones you heard about last Sunday when your pastor preached on the prophets.

But he surprises you. In response to the question, “What should we do?” he looks at the individuals in the crowd and speaks to them. To the business woman he says, “Don’t be preoccupied with making as much money as you can. Instead, be content with what you have, share with those who have less.” To the group of policemen he says, “Don’t racially profile. Don’t assume the worst in people. Remember you are there to serve, to keep the peace.” To the scholarly he says, “Don’t consider yourself better than others because of your education. Instead, be humble, and realize that you have much to learn from others, especially those who have no formal education.”

You’re confused (and by the way, you also now, without realizing it, have been drawn in by this strange man). How can individuals and their actions matter in relation to the passage we heard only a couple weeks ago, about signs in heaven and on earth? How does a minute individual like you, or like me, fit in to such sweeping prophesies about the future of God?

And what of our problems? Aren’t they small, no matter how large they seem to us, in comparison to the larger problems our world faces: famine, poverty, civil wars, and the like? How can this prophet – John you think they called him – speak of individuals, isn’t God much more concerned with cosmic events. In the words of the psalmist, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

When we consider apocalyptic prophecies, when we’re confronted with social sins that fracture our world, when we read yet another report about the environmental devastation that’s destroying the earth, what are our problems to God?

How can God care about our stresses at work, our anxieties about our future, our loneliness. Even more substantial troubles like trauma, abuse, depression, poverty, and other life-changing circumstances seem trivial in light of global warming, constant war, and political instability.

Obviously our personal struggles aren’t trivial to us. Sometimes they’re all we can think about. But how can the God who created the world have time for these personal struggles? How can God have time for us? Surely God has bigger things to worry about. And so, we might think, God has nothing to say to little old us. We’re on our own.

But that’s not what this prophet you’ve stumbled upon in the wilderness says. And it’s not what the prophet Isaiah says, either. Isaiah, one of the great prophets, who spoke of big picture stuff: of kingdoms and rulers, who spoke of God’s future – the one where the wolf lays down with the lamb and the bear grazes with the cow and the children play over the adder’s den, a future where we beat our swords into plowshares and our spearing into pruning hooks – this Isaiah, who certainly saw God’s redemption on a cosmic scope, begins our passage today in the first person. He begins with God’s salvation for the individual. He says that in God’s redeemed future individuals will say:

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is
my strength and my might;
    [God] has become
my salvation.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning begins in the first person, with my salvation, then moves to the second person, you, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” and then finally to the nations and the earth, “…make known [God’s] deeds among the nations…Sing praises to the Lord for [the Lord] has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.”

For both Isaiah and John, the cosmic, apocalyptic hope we have in God doesn’t overlook the individual. In fact, it cannot overlook the individual or it has failed. The same is true of Jesus. Who does Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, say the kingdom of God belongs to? Little children, the most insignificant people in the ancient world. While other movements and revolutions can quickly sacrifice the dignity and welfare of the individual for the success of the larger whole, God’s movement is revolutionary because it cares for each and every individual. No one can be left behind, no matter how burdensome, no matter how little they seem to offer. The value of each and every life is what makes the Good News revolutionary in the first place.

This idea isn’t unique to Isaiah and John the Baptist, but is true of all prophets. The great Jewish rabbi, theologian, and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, begins his book on the prophets with these words:

[Excerpt: first 3 paragraphs of The Prophets, Part I, describing the way prophets care about things that seem trivial to most philosophers. Instead of caring about big, metaphysical questions, they pay attention to seemingly trivial, everyday injustices and react with near hysteric indignation].

 The hope of the prophets – of Isaiah and John and Jesus and all the rest – is cosmic in scope, yes, but it’s as particular as the hairs on your head. Jesus says God cares for every life, even the lives of animals. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” he asks, “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31).

Here at Grant Park, we talk often about big world problems. We do our best to take current events seriously. But I hope that frequent sermons about global injustices and world-wide redemption have not left you personally feeling overlooked or insignificant, as if your personal problems aren’t important. God is “out there” working, yes, but God is also near to us this morning, that’s what our reading from Philippians says, “The Lord is near.” God is here. God is with you, with me, with us.

I hope that through our worship and life together you experience God’s love for you as an individual. That you see your own salvation wrapped up in the salvation of the world, and the world’s salvation wrapped up in your own. God is the God of the universe, and the God of the individual. Christ is the Savior of the world, and your Savior as well.

This past week Randy shared a video with me of a choir singing the song “One Voice.” The song begins with one person singing, “This is the sound of one voice, one spirit, one voice. The sound of one who makes a choice, this is the sound of one voice” then another voice joins, “This is the sound of voices two, the sound of me singin’ with you, helping each other to make it through, this is the sound of voices two” then a third joins, “This is the sound of voices three, singing together in harmony, surrendering to the mystery, this is the sound of voices three.” Then they are joined by the whole choir, “This is the sound of all of us, singing with love and the will to trust, leave the rest behind it will turn to dust, this is the sound of all of us.” Then, a whole multitude of people fills the space, all individuals, all different, but all singing in harmony, “This is the sound of one voice, one people, one voice, a song for every one of us, this is the sound of one voice.” Then they all sing, “This is the sound of one voice,” but slowly the multitude stops singing, then the choir, then the third and second singer, until there’s just the original singer again singing, “This is the sound of one voice.”

This is the tension of being human. We are never fully ourselves when we are cut off from the fate of others, and yet we are never wholly subsumed into the greater whole, reduced to simply a cog in the wheel. Like the crowd singing with the choir, each person fearfully and wonderfully made, singing in their own voice, but singing in harmony with one another, so our song of hope in God’s salvation is born out of our personal experience but finds its home in a collective chorus that fills the whole earth. The beauty of the Gospel is that the particular and the universal are wrapped up in one another, unable to be separated.

Each person here is a precious child of God, made in God’s image, bearer of the divine spark. Each of you are loved as you are. You are not alone, never have been, and never will be. That’s what Christmas is all about: God’s presence with us, God’s universal salvation embodied in the personal – Jesus of Nazareth. The hope of the world enfleshed in a tiny baby in a manger. The universal wrapped up in the particular.

Praise God.