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The Grace of Being Like Grass

A sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Adam Bixby on Unsplash.]

The sermon notes from our “Out of Time”-themed Advent resource picked out a phrase from today’s readings that I would not have expected.

There were an unusual number of phrases in today’s readings that are frequently quoted, any of which would NOT have surprised me as a starting point for a biblical commentary:

Given the Out of Time theme, the commentary could have explored the claim from the epistle reading that, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

This perspective-shifting reminder could call us into reflection about the differences between our experience of time compared with God’s, a reflection that could do a lot to open our hearts and our minds to the significance of God choosing to enter time by being born as a human child.

Or there’s the iconic introduction of John the Baptizer in today’s gospel as, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

That’s probably the most “Advent” message there is. Our Advent banner hanging by the church office literally says “PREPARE.” Plenty to say about how we might go about obeying that command in our time and place.

Of course, the gospel reading also offers us the contrast between John’s ministry and Jesus’. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

As Lutherans we don’t tend to go too far down the road of what that Holy Spirit baptism might mean, but that also means that there could be some fertile ground to explore about what is really being promised to us, and how cultivating a readiness to receive the Holy Spirit’s life-changing power might be an important part of preparing for the advent of our Lord.

Taking another approach, and given the trauma unfolding in the Middle East with the suffering of so many Jews and Palestinians caught in a conflict that has been handed down to them by their leaders and by prior generations, perhaps the prophet’s cry is the word we most need to hear today: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”

I know that I would treasure a word of comfort today.

Even the psalm has one of those quotable lines that I know without really knowing the context: “righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

It could be really meaningful to explore this imagery, understanding how those two values support and nurture each other to such a degree that an act of intimacy captures their connection.

But NONE of these familiar phrases were the direction the commentary writer, Justin Kosec,[1] decided to go. No. He starts out by asking the question, “What is grass-like about people?”

Now, to be fair, this question does not come completely out of left field.

It comes from Isaiah’s response to the promise of God’s comforting, way-making intervention for a people who have suffered long enough.

When the prophet hears the promise he proclaims it, because he knows that the promise is a reflection of God’s character, but he also offers a curious half-challenge: “What shall I cry? All people are grass….”

Read in the context of the whole passage, we can understand what Isaiah is saying. The assurance of comfort comes from the Lord’s mouth, along with the command for the prophet to “cry out” this message, and Isaiah can’t help but ask:

“What’s the point of me explaining all this to a people who are so ephemeral and inconstant? You are going to do what you are going to do, God, because of who you are… and that’s good news. But don’t expect the people you are doing it for to really grasp what is going on.”

The prophet is using an unflattering metaphor for people to make a point about grace… to say that the promise of release, and provision, and a-way-where-we-can-see-no-way is a promise that is all about who GOD is, not about who we are, so we can trust it EVEN WHEN WE ARE AS FRAGILE AND INCONSTANT AS GRASS.

That is what Isaiah means when he compares people to grass.

But that wasn’t exactly the commentary question. It didn’t ask what Isaiah meant. It asked what is grass-like about people?

And even though my first reaction to that question was to think, “What? Why go there when there is so much else to talk about in these scriptures?”

Actually, it’s a really good question. More than that, it’s a question that genuinely pulls in every single one of the more “quotable quotes” that I listed off at the beginning of this sermon.

What is grass-like about people? Well, our timeframe is pretty temporary compared to God’s... the God for whom a thousand years are like a day.

And we need to understand that about ourselves if we are ever going to actually trust God. We need to understand that we are working from a very temporary timeframe, whereas God can see the big picture.

It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the crisis of the moment because – in the grand scheme of things – we don’t have much more than a moment. At least, not in this realm of experience that we have access to now.

This brevity of our time frame can make us anxious, More than that, it can make anxious for God to adjust to our sense of urgency.

But maybe, instead of trying to pull God into our time-limited perspective, we need to remember the promise that – in the face of our impermanence – “the word of our God will stand forever.” And God’s word has promised us forever… even though we can’t see it yet.

What else is grass-like about people? If we think of grass not as each individual blade, but rather as the whole field, then we can add to this analogy the recognition of the cyclical nature of our lives.

Right now, in the Northern Hemisphere, we are in the season of browning grass. No matter how persistently we fertilize our lawns or how vigilant we have been about raking up fallen leaves, none of us expects the grass to stay green all winter long, right?

And that might be a bit depressing when we are longing for more light and color in the long winter months, but it’s not scary.

We aren’t worried that our grass will stay brown and dead forever. When the season shifts life will spring up again.

And there is a comfort in that reminder that our lives – and not just nature – are cyclical. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God….When you are in a fallow season, a season where light and warmth are in short supply… it is only a season. We are grass-like. Spring is coming.”

And that reminder of the growth cycle speaks to another way in which we are grass-like: the truth that growth doesn’t just happen without being cultivated.

This was the Psalmists point in the song with its vivid imagery about righteousness and peace kissing.

This image comes in the context of a psalm of praise, describing God’s work of restoration. As the people turn to God with faithful hearts, God blesses their land with peace.

The rest of the psalm is sprinkled with the language of growth: faithfulness springing up, and the land yielding its increase. The imagery of the harvest reminds us of the good things about being “grass-like.”  We can grow.

And in that growth, we have a gardener. Our hope lies in the promise that we don’t have to create peace on our own. It is grown and cultivated as we lean toward the light of God.

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading.

What does our grass-like nature have to say about the call to prepare the way of the Lord? Or to the promise that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit?

As far as the first question, I think it’s a challenge to interrogate where we find ourselves in that call.

There were plenty of people in Palestine when John was preaching, and the prophecy was not applied to all of them, only to John…so maybe we should avoid taking too much honor OR too much responsibility on ourselves.

But also, pay attention to where that way of the Lord is to be prepared… in the wilderness. There’s a lot of grass in the Judean wilderness.

We might not always be the loud voice crying out the message of Jesus’s coming, but we might be the ones who need to adapt, even shift our roots, our attachments to make space for what God is doing.

And while that might sound like a lot to ask of grass we are not JUST grass.

We may be grass-like in a lot of ways…we may have a very limited perspective of time, caught in cycles over which we have little to no control… we might not always grow in the direction that nurtures peace, and we might not be the ones with the prophetic voice proclaiming the message of God…

But we are not just grass. We are also the people to whom Jesus has come, with the Holy Spirit, and that has CHANGED us.

That commentator, Justic Kosec, with the weird grass question put it like this:

“Jesus is just goodness, all the time. Jesus is fruitful harvest, every day. John can only baptize with water, a vehicle for God’s goodness that ebbs and flows with the desert season. But Jesus provides access to God’s goodness that can never run dry. Jesus is the godly response to every kind of human fragility and every form of human inconstancy. Jesus brings consistency and never-fading love into the human frame.”

So, yes, we are grass-like. We are fragile and inconsistent. We need a lot of grace. But we have it. We have more than grace. We have God, the Holy Spirit, with us. And that changes everything.

Thanks be to God.

[1] December 10 sermon notes from Out of Time from Barn Geese Worship. Used by permission.


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