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100th Anniversary of Armistice Day | Sunday, November 11, 2018
9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

In the Midst of the Present

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 20
Isaiah 2:2–4

We know that for nations as for us the law of love learned from Jesus Christ is the hope of the future. . . . Are we ready to be at peace with all, not merely by indifference to them, but by the spirit of love . . . not through fear but through a great yearning to serve One who so serves us?

Cleland B. McAfee, “The Fundamental Questions” (preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church on September 15, 1918, two months before the end of World War I)


Did you know that we have incredible archives, a veritable treasure trove of history and memories? Thanks to people like Louise Howe, Ann Rehfeldt, and countless others, we have well-preserved records of who we have been and what we have done as the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago throughout our years. I took advantage of that fact this past week when I spent several hours combing through Fourth Church monthly newsletters from 1918.

Here is a little of what I learned: By the time the Day of Armistice was announced, Fourth Church had counted 283 members who had been deployed to fight in the Great War. We also had eight men whose blue stars had become gold stars in their deaths. In addition to those serving at the front, we had five members who were active overseas through the Red Cross and five members who were active with the YMCA, another important organization of support during the time of war.

Along with listing all of the names of those serving each month, we would include pictures of some of them in each newsletter, along with publishing letters soldiers sent back home. Reading those letters from the front was a powerful experience for me. Listen to how one of them described what he was living: “You couldn’t see men smashed and killed around you and know each moment might annihilate you and bear it, except by walking into a sort of sleep, as you might read Dante’s Inferno. The exhilaration of battle—there’s no such thing, expect perhaps in a charge. It is simply a matter of willpower. As for being without fear, I met no such person under this barrage, though most played their parts as if they were without it.”

What I found fascinating about that particular letter is not only what the writer said, but also that Fourth Church pastor John Timothy Stone decided to publish it anonymously. I am not sure exactly why, but after doing some research on how soldiers were instructed to speak and not speak about their war experience, I assume it was Dr. Stone’s way of trying to protect its author from being accused of cowardice, due to his honesty about the horror of war and his willingness to write what he was seeing.

Most of the letters we published did not include this kind of bare-knuckled candor. They tended to be sunnier, speaking of memories from here or of how much they looked forward to seeing friends and family again. But not that one letter. In addition to what I read to you, the author described in detail what three days on the front looked like, felt like, even smelled like. He held nothing back from his pastor or from his congregation. Because of his detailed writing and vivid descriptions, you became transported into his time and place, down in the foxhole alongside him as shells exploded all around. I’ve wondered how his pastor, Dr. Stone, felt as he caught a glimpse of what that young soldier saw and experienced. Undoubtedly it informed his prayers and his preaching.

The prophet Isaiah had been given the powerful spiritual gift of being able to use his words in a way that helped transport into his time and place those who listened to him. He offered vivid descriptions of both divine judgment and restoration, visions that enraptured his audience, helping them to see what he saw, hoping that their experience of the vision would not only inform their prayers but actually change their lives.

A quick reminder of who Isaiah was: According to biblical historians, the prophet Isaiah “ministered in and around the city of Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. During Isaiah’s life, Judah’s northern neighbor Israel first attacked Judah, and [then Israel itself] was later conquered and destroyed by Assyria.” Though we cannot point to the precise time when Isaiah spoke these words in chapter 2, it is quite likely he articulated this divine vision shortly after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 (Karl N. Jacobson and Rolf Jacobson, “The One Who Will Be Born: Preaching Isaiah’s Promises in a Harry Potter Culture,” Word and World, 2007).

In other words, more than likely Isaiah spoke God’s promise of peace and unity breaking out between the people of all the nations of the world to a group of broken people who had just been defeated in war, people whose nation had just been taken over by a more powerful one that wanted to control their land and their lives. The people of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, are standing in the midst of rubble, homes destroyed, holy places desecrated, families dispersed or dead. Yet into their pain and disillusionment, Isaiah promises that all was not done just yet. Their story was not over. God was still God.

Now our English translation has Isaiah beginning his words of promise with “in the days to come.” But that translation does not really do it. The Hebrew is more complicated. Preacher Steve Montgomery puts it this way:

The literal Hebrew is a bit more nuanced. [Rather than “in the days to come,” you could say] “In the back of the days,” or better yet, “In the midst of the present.” For Isaiah is suggesting that the present moment is ripe . . . pregnant with God’s presence. [So it could just be that] the prophet [Isaiah’s] gift is not to see magically into the future, but to have a spirit which discerns the mystery of the present—the mystery that our history and our lives are lived against a larger reality. [The mystery that] there is more than meets the eye! [The mystery that proclaims] the day when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” is nearer than we can imagine! (Steve Montgomery, Advent 1 sermon, 2010, www.day1.org)

Montgomery’s recognition of this shift of focus is powerful, for when we use this more nuanced translation of the Hebrew, we hear Isaiah saying “In the midst of the present, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; in the midst of the present, all the nations shall stream to the presence of God.”

Now we must interrupt the prophet to make sure we understand what he just said when he offered the vision that included all the nations. By saying all the nations, Isaiah meant all of those “non-Israelite peoples who stand or have stood over against Israel: Egyptians, Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Arameans, Canaanites, and countless smaller groups who over the centuries have warred and struggled with those who live in the tiny land of Israel” (John Holbert, article with reflections of Isaiah, www.patheos.com). Those nations, those that God’s covenant people had always known primarily as enemy and threat due to lived experience, they are the ones Isaiah proclaims will stream, flow like rivers, to God’s presence. Again, he is proclaiming these words to a conquered people. Your enemies, Isaiah says, will be fellow travelers on the way of God.

Furthermore, Isaiah continues a little later, in the midst of the present, the Holy One shall be the one to judge between the nations and the Holy One shall be the one to arbitrate for many peoples. In response to God’s justice, in response to God’s teaching, in the midst of the present, those many peoples shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; in the midst of the present nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

And all of this, Isaiah proclaims to a people standing in the wreckage of war, wading through the remnants of their destruction, all of this is already beginning to happen. So you have to be willing to see it, Isaiah challenges them. You have to be willing to recognize that our history and our lives are always being lived against the larger reality of God. You have to be willing to pay attention and live into the trust that God is already at work, bringing these promises into being. The challenge for God’s people, according to Isaiah, is to live each present day as if this promise, this vision Isaiah offers on God’s behalf, is true. The challenge for people of faith in both Isaiah’s time and in our own time is to live each present day always on the lookout for glimpses of God’s larger reality, even when—perhaps especially when—wars and rumors of wars continue.

Don’t you wonder how the prophet’s message was received by those standing in war’s destructive wake? Don’t you wonder how the prophet’s message would have been received by our honest soldier as he sat in the foxhole? “I know what it looks like,” Isaiah is telling them. “I know that pain and tears and fear are running roughshod over creation. I know your eyes have seen too much and you cannot un-see the violence, the horror we can inflict on each other. But what I am telling you, the prophet promises, is that there is much more going on than only what you can see. I am telling you, I am promising you, that even as you stand amidst the rubble of war, even as you sit in that foxhole with shells falling all around, even as you see news of another senseless mass shooting and fear the next one is just around the corner, in the midst of the present our God is at work. In the midst of the present our God is already bringing about restoration and healing. In the midst of the present our God is already working out God’s justice, and there will be a day when all of creation responds.” “Our lives,” Isaiah proclaims to us, “are always being lived in the shadow of the larger reality of God. Can you see it yet?”

Another way to hear Isaiah’s words would be to borrow from Luke Timothy Johnson, who teaches at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. Professor Johnson states, “Faith does not know a different world from the one measured and calculated by science, but [Faith] knows the same world differently (Luke Timothy Johnson, “Peace Is More Than a Christmas Wish,” www.day1.org).

Because of our faith that God is at work in the midst of the present, because we know the same world differently, we do things like sign up to be a tutor or go through anti-racism training. Because of our faith that God is at work in the midst of the present, because we know the same world differently, we present our children for baptism or take them to Sunday School so they might learn how to know our world differently to0. Because of our faith that God is at work in the midst of the present, because we know the same world differently, we show up at interfaith vigils for peace and take Communion to homebound members as a reminder we care, God cares. Because of our faith that God is at work in the midst of the present, because we know the same world differently, we take a shift on the Night Ministry bus or we choose to be more generous with what we have in order to strengthen the work of the church for the next generations.

We do these kinds of things and others like them because we trust what Isaiah said when he promised us that in the midst of the present God is already bringing about the time when nations will not learn war anymore and weaponry will be transformed into tools for food. Our lives, our history, are always being lived out against the larger reality of God. And as Professor Johnson said, that means that though we know the same world everyone knows, we know that same world differently, because we know it through the vision of our faith.

In the same Fourth Church newsletter that I found the anonymous letter written by our soldier, there was also a note that had been sent from the Reverend Harrison Ray Anderson stationed in France. As many of you know, Harrison Ray Anderson would end up being called to follow John Timothy Stone as pastor here at Fourth Church, but at the time of World War I he served as a chaplain to soldiers on the front lines. He wrote his letter while he stayed in an old French mine located 42 feet under the ground. Here is what he said: “It isn’t very often a chaplain can have a service here, but tomorrow I am to have one for some of my men living in a mine (like mine), and I am to preach there within sight and shooting of the Germans at 10:30 tomorrow. I am going to tell them that faith and hope and love abide in spite of war. A wonderful text!”

Faith, hope, and love abide in spite of war. With his daring proclamation of promise to his men standing in the wake of war’s destruction, Chaplain Anderson stood in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah. In the midst of the present, Harrison Ray Anderson would preach, God is at work. It is my hope that the soldiers gathered for worship amidst the violence of war might have been able, if only for a minute, to catch a glimpse of God’s larger truth of restoration and healing and peace, that through their lens of faith they might have been able to know their same world differently, as a world in which God’s faith, hope, and love do indeed abide in spite of war all around. And that their vision of God’s larger reality, nourished by the faithful preaching of Chaplain Anderson, bestowed upon them a powerful sense of God’s presence, as surely it did for Isaiah’s people, as surely as it can do for us all.

In the midst of the present, Isaiah proclaims, God is still working God’s purposes out. May we see what Isaiah saw. May that vision nurture in us the tenacious hope required for those who desire to know this same world differently in order to participate in all that God is doing for justice and for peace in the midst of the present, here and now, where we stand and sit and live. Amen.