by Jonathan Shively
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
The lights that have been hung already, the Christmas carols that are being carried on the radio, the relentless press of holiday advertising all align this week with the beginning of a new lectionary year and the arrival of the Advent season’s first Sunday. Can the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth be far behind? No, it is not, but today’s texts urge us not to rush to the manger’s side too quickly. Today’s texts ask us first to create some space for this impending arrival, and to recalibrate our vision in order to see the God who will dwell among us.
Today’s texts are about readiness, not for the onslaught of holiday festivities and churchly obligations, but rather a readiness to surrender ourselves to a world vision that is radically different than the one we inhabit most days. Be awake. We know that Christmas is coming, but how much of its spiritual urgency is lost in the bustle of our preparation? Be ready. God’s inbreaking may well upset our shopping carts and our appetites.
Typically Advent is a celebration of what we already know. We use words like “wait” and “hope” and “anticipate,” but they all seem to line us up for the big reveal of Christmas eve. The invitation in today’s texts is toward a hope that is based more on a promise than a definitive outcome. We are told to live in the light, and yet we have very few tangible experiences with the full illumination that is suggested. We are called to the mountain of God to learn lessons about things that we only have small experiences of at the most, inklings of at the least.
And we are called to be ready, for a day and hour which no one knows when it will arrive.
Readiness is not simply a passive waiting, however, which is why Advent is so important. It is an active preparation for an end that is nearly impossible to see and for which we ultimately will not be responsible. It is preparation that defies strategic plans and flies in the face of constructing logical, predictable outcomes.
My faith family, the Church of the Brethren, is a living peace church (although often referred to as one of the three historic peace churches along with the Mennonites and Quakers). Our peace testimony and non-violent practices are not so much a resistance to war as an embrace of a ridiculously hopeful confession that, because God’s word goes before us into the world, and because God is the primary actor in the drama of salvation, we live as if God is indeed in charge of the outcomes. Ours is a call to tend to that which offers life; tools and methods which inherently lead to any death are to be abandoned.
The Isaiah text tells us that as the Word of the Lord goes out, the people (me, you) go to work transforming the tools of darkness and death, swords and spears, into tools of light and life, plowshares and pruning hooks. Our work is to transform, to the best of our ability, those signs and symbols that are more closely aligned with the darkness than they are with the light. In re-purposing the instruments of violence and war, a declaration is made that the mistrust and despair of a fallen humanity will no longer supplant confidence in God’s ability and desire to act in the world. These activities are not rational; they are hope-full. They are Good News for the world.
During this advent season may we be awake not to that which makes sense, but rather toward the light of compelling hope and undeniable promise.
“Advent is not a period of Christmas preliminaries but a season in itself, with its own integrity and its own announcement. Advent proclaims the coming of the Lord, but that is not the same as saying that Christmas is coming.” (Craddock, et al. Preaching Through the Christian Year: A. p. 9)
“This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.”
“Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way as gives us breath:
Such a Truth as ends all strife:
Such a Life as killeth death.
“Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.
“Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.”
-George Hebert (in The Oxford Book of Prayer)
I know not why God’s wondrous grace (Daniel W. Whittle & James McGrahan, tune name El Nathan – CM with refrain)