A sermon preached on the First Sunday in Advent by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on November 28, 2010
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Well… Happy New Year, everyone! I know, I know, it’s still November – but it’s also the first Sunday of a new liturgical year – The First Sunday in Advent. Today is a new beginning, and one in which we begin to tell the story over again. This is the start to a new cycle in our liturgical calendar and in the readings from the lectionary, which throughout the year will rehearse for us once again the story of salvation.
And guess what? This new beginning starts us off just where Christians ought always to be – with a message of hope.
During this four week season of Advent, we are preparing for the coming of Christ. And part of what that means, of course, is the coming of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the story of Emmanuel, “God with us.” But before we get to that part of the story, we’re reminded first today of prophets who envisioned the coming of Messiah, the Christ. We hear today from Isaiah his vision of the peaceable kingdom, and in the next two weeks we’ll hear about John the Baptist, the one who came to prepare the way of the Lord – the coming Messiah who would make the crooked paths straight. And finally, we’ll hear the story of the angel appearing in a dream to Joseph telling him that his wife Mary will bear a son – a son they are to call Emmanuel, which means, God with us.
This First Sunday in Advent is a sort of hinge that connects us to the ending of the last cycle and the message we heard last week of Christ the King – and the consummation of all things when the world really does come to reflect the values of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught and showed us how to live. Today we’re reminded of the hope that pervades the biblical story, when we hear the prophet Isaiah speak about a time when the people of all nations will come together and “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This is the vision that drives the rest of the story, and that’s why we tell it here today. We all know, as the writer of Proverbs says, that “without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Any of you who work in business, you know the importance of having a vision to the success of your enterprise. Those of you who teach, you know how important it is to look forward and envision the kind of people you’re helping to form through education. Health care workers, you know how important it is to imagine health and wholeness for the people you care for. With Isaiah’s vision, we have a picture of God’s intended future for us. And without it, we would surely perish.
But, there is always a struggle within us – a struggle between imagining a hopeful outcome to the story on the one hand – and a disastrous one on the other. We humans apparently have an enormous appetite for imagining the worst. We often seem to feed on fear and pessimism. The primitive core of our brain (that part we share in common with reptiles) is programmed to make us alert to any and all threats, and if we allow ourselves to be governed by those primitive instincts, we’re constantly on the defensive, and imagining that the world is a dangerous place and is likely to only become more so. Just think about how much our news media capitalize on the things that alarm us, make us suspicious, turn us inward and cause us to be fearful; and how little they portray all that is right and good in the world. Bad news sells; good news doesn’t.
The prophet Isaiah is appealing to a different and much more highly advanced part of our brains – the cerebral cortex – the part that makes us uniquely human. He wants us to imagine and bring into our consciousness a vision of the world God intends for us, and then bring that into our wills and live it out in our actions.
Jesus lived in a time when people were afraid of the future. Apocalyptic expectations were rampant. We hear them reflected in the gospel reading for today. Expectations of the great and terrible Day of the Lord caused fear and dread, but also, strangely, a sense of eager longing and expectation – fear because it would be a time of great turmoil and disruption to the status quo – but longing and expectation, because it would be a judgment upon all that was wrong with the world, and usher in the long awaited Peace that people everywhere desire. And, as we heard two weeks ago, the gospel writers (in this case Matthew) were writing with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. They had already witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Surely these were the great and terrible events that would usher in the final Peace!
In Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story, we hear the Lord responding to those who wanted to know when all these things would come to pass. Jesus, however, shows little interest in when it is to happen. No one, not even the Son of Man, he says, knows the day or the hour. He is interested in only one thing: that they stay awake. Be conscious! Don’t worry about when! Don’t focus on all the things you’re afraid of – keep on living, and doing the things people do (eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage) because you can’t do one thing about all of this anyway! Just stay awake! Be aware!
Paul makes no direct reference to this story, but he says something similar to the Romans: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…”
So, he says, wake up! If he were speaking to us today, he might say, “don’t be caught asleep or living out of your subconscious anxieties. Practice what the Buddhists call mindfulness. Be aware! Be guided by your vision, and let that vision show you how to live.”
Well, you say, all well and good, and beating swords into plowshares sounds great, but it’s just not a realistic vision. It’s too idealistic. Spears into pruning hooks? Ain’t gonna happen. No more learning war? Way too “pie-in-the-sky.” One of my rabbi friends likes to quote the Dalai Lama, who recently said this:
Neither peace nor war exists independently of us. Political and military leaders have grave responsibilities with respect to peace – but they too are members of the society that we as individuals help to create. Peace in the world depends on peace in the hearts of individuals; this depends on each of us practicing ethics by disciplining our negative thoughts and emotions, and developing basic spiritual qualities.
And I’d say that one of those basic spiritual qualities is for us to act “as if” the thing we envision is really coming into being. That, of course, is sometimes hard to do, but it makes so much sense when you see it in action.
For example, you can just imagine that in a place like Albania, where people lived in such isolation and under such a brutal regime for so long that it would be really easy to live with very low expectations and just generally pessimistically. Many of Albania’s poorest people live in the tiny bunkers that were built during their isolation to protect people from a nuclear holocaust that their leaders had convinced them would take place. But now, they are also turning those relics of conflict and paranoia into agents of peace and prosperity – literally beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. By working with the Heifer Project, they have brought in a breed of Alpine goats, a French breed well-suited to the local environment and are turning these relics of a fear-based defense economy into goat shelters that provide opportunity and possibility and prosperity. The project is helping families create their own small-scale dairy goat farms to improve family nutrition and income and reduce unemployment, in much the same way that our Goats for Rwanda project will do.
What would it mean for us to transform our own fears into actions that support a vision of a different kind of world – the kind of world Isaiah describes, and Jesus came to teach and to live? I read recently of a woman who was afraid of Muslims. So, what did she do? She reached out to a Muslim woman in her town and invited her to her home so that she could get to know her. Or how about the man who was afraid of losing his home when he got laid off from his job – so he invited another family who had lost theirs to live with him.
Advent is the season of waiting and watching with eager longing and expectation. It is the season to be reminded of all our deepest longings and highest hopes – those yet unfulfilled, for peace, and a world without fear, without war, hunger or conflict. It is our reminder to stay awake and not to fall asleep or become subject to our fears.
Jesus has shown us the way to this place. And now it’s up to us to stay awake – and to walk in the way.