Advent is my favorite season of the church year. It has a different feel to it than the other seasons. There is a sense of yearning in Advent. A sense of anticipation. It is a time of watching and waiting. A time to remind ourselves that there are forces at work beyond our control.
Let me tell you a story: When I was in ninth grade, I took a baseball in the face. I was playing first base in a youth league. Our manager was hitting fly balls to the outfielders with a fungo bat. We infielders were relaying the caught balls back to the manager. At one point I turned around to look into the outfield for the next ball and whack, the ball was already there, smashing my nose and eye and giving me a shiner that lasted for several weeks. I was in a play at the high school, and the make-up people tried as best they could to cover my black eye, but with my eye swollen nearly shut, the make-up gave me an even more gruesome aspect. The whole incident could have been avoided by the old baseball convention of shouting “heads up!” That is my sermon title: “Heads Up!”
“Heads up!” means “look out!” something is coming your way. Let me suggest that the startling prophecies of Advent function as a divine “heads up!” They are warnings that something is coming our way and we had better be alert. The theme for this First Sunday of Advent is hope. Hope looks to the future. We are admonished to wait, watch, be prepared. Something (or Someone) is coming. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Adolph Hitler, wrote a famous letter in 1943 from prison. He wrote: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other-—things that are of no real consequence-—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” (Letters from Prison November 21, 1943)
Where can we look for clues to what waits on the other side of the door? The church has always looked to the words of the prophets, as we do today. What is the nature of these prophecies and what do they tell us?
The ancient prophecies that we read in Advent are not predictions so much as they are scenarios that describe the ways of God. What might it look like when God in Christ finally comes in all his glory and his kingdom comes in all its fullness? The answer to such a question can only be arrived at by acts of inspired religious imagination. How do we go about that?
We could paint a picture, as the Quaker painter and preacher Edward Hicks did with his iconic “The Peaceable Kingdom.” You may recall that painting depicts in the foreground wild animals and small children lying down side by side, the “lion and the lamb” dwelling in peace. In the background are white men and Native Americans feasting around a table. It is a picture of hope for a new future, a different kind of future, where natural antagonists live peaceably together. Hicks returned to this theme repeatedly, painting 62 versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
The prophets paint their pictures using words rather than brushes and canvass. They speak for God. They say: this is who God is, and this is what God intends, and so this is what the future will look like. The prophets are not clairvoyants, rather they are imaginative poets who see beyond their time to what God intends.
So it is that today the first words we have for this Advent are a prophetic “heads up” from one of our favorite prophets: Isaiah. Isaiah had what we might call “a Zion theology.” Zion was another name for Jerusalem, and more specifically it was the name of the hill on which the temple was built: Mount Zion. Isaiah’s message had three salient and related ideas: 1. God is the great king of heaven and earth, 2. Zion (Jerusalem) is the City which God has chosen to be his Royal dwelling, and 3. the kings of the Davidic line are to be God’s vice-regents on earth.
Our text begins “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” Notice that before the prophecy even begins something extraordinary is said here! Isaiah didn’t hear the word of the Lord, his saw it. How can you see a word of God? You can only see it if it is a vision! So, Isaiah had a vision, and in his vision, he saw a future in which God’s rule is recognized, and where people from all over the earth come to Zion to settle their disputes.
And in Isaiah’s vision Zion/Jerusalem shall be raised up above all cities. It will be an international court to adjudicate conflict, a sort of a “Holy Hague” or Geneva where international law is brought to bear on the world’s conflicts. The nations will honor and acknowledge the authority of God to settle all disputes, and this will bring an end to war. But he will not just bring an end to war, God will bring the beginning of real peace, as the implements of war are converted to agricultural tools. As we might say the war economy becomes transformed into a peace-time economy.
This is how we open the church year on this First Sunday of Advent, with a divine promise about a new future, a peaceable kingdom. There are a lot of moving parts to this prophecy, but one thing for us to especially note is that in Isaiah’s “Zion theology” it is the Kings in the Davidic line who are God’s vice-regents on earth. And in time, hope for the fulfillment of the Divine Promises rested on a figure from the “House and linage of David” (Sound familiar?) who would come in God’s future and be the Anointed of God, the Messiah.
The earliest church recognized Jesus as this anointed one. “Anointed” is Messiah in Hebrew and Christos in Greek. They church saw in Jesus the inauguration of the long-expected kingdom of God. But they looked around at their world, as we do at ours, and saw that this kingdom, though begun by Jesus, was not finished. The lion didn’t dwell with the lamb. The weapons of war had not been beaten into farm implements. There was still injustice and hatred and wars. The rich still oppressed the poor, the strong abused the weak.
But still, they believed in the Word of God as told through the words of the prophets, and they yearned for the fulfillment of the prophecies. And they came to believe that they lived “between the times,” between the coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ when God would bring the promises to completion.
When will God come to us? In our reading today from Matthew Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Now, there are religious folks around who believe they have unlocked the secrets of the Bible and can tell you what will happen at certain times and places, but pay them no mind, for these are false prophets.
Because faith isn’t about timetables. Faith is trust in the one who promises. When someone says “I have faith,” we must ask faith in what? Faith in whom? Faith means trust. And faith is not a good thing if the object of faith it’s not trustworthy.
So, Isaiah’s faith is not in Jerusalem. He’s no fool. He’s been around. He is like the Farmers’ Insurance commercial: “He knows a thing or two, because he’s seen a thing or two.” Isaiah has seen four kings come and go He’s seen some terrible political blunders. And he also knows that Jerusalem is no great shakes, for in Isaiah’s time Jerusalem is the capital of a third-rate little country, whose fortunes went up and down at the whim of her larger and more powerful neighbors to the north and south of her. Why should the nations flock to her for anything?
Isaiah is not deluded. He knows the score. He trusts only in God and believes in a future for Zion only because God wills it; not the mayor or the governor or the king, not the Assyrian emperor or the Egyptian pharaoh, but the living God will come in his own time to bring about that which he intends.
Isaiah can see beyond the competing nationalisms, the corrupt governments, the lax religion to see new possibilities that God will bring about: ”It shall come to pass in the latter days” he says. In other words: “Heads up!” Things are changing. Things you never dreamed of will come about. When? In the latter days? When are the latter days? Who knows? I don’t. You don’t. We don’t.
Still, every Sunday we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And we not only pray it, we work for it. And that is an important part of the mission of the church, to bridge the gap between our present broken world and the kingdom of God that Jesus both preached and embodied. To move toward the kingdom of God we hope for and pray for and work for.
But no matter how hard we work and strive to bring about the kingdom it eludes us. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”
And so, we begin the church year in Advent with a “heads up!” We are reminded to be on the lookout for the new things that God will do; new possibilities that can only come about because God is in the mix.
The same is true of our own lives. There are ruts we have walked in for a long time, and there are scripts we have played out until we know all our own lines, and it becomes easy to believe for both ourselves, as for our world, that what has always been must always be.
We know things are not right. We long and hunger and yearn for a more just and peaceful world. I think one of the reasons we Americans, so rich in so many ways, consume so much, is our failed attempt to fill the hole in our lives that only God can fill. One of my favorite Christian authors is Anne Lamott. She writes, “The desperate drive to own and control in order to fill our psychic holes, relieve anxiety, fix difficulties, and cauterize old wounds takes root at an early age, and is doomed. It is like going to the hardware store for bread. It doesn’t sell bread.”
Advent invites us to look for a different way. You may know the saying from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Methuselah, for it was a quote much loved by Bobby Kennedy. One of the characters says, ”‘You see things and say, “Why”?” But I dream things that never were, and I say, ”Why not?”
Why not imagine a transformed world, a transformed church, a transformed society, a transformed self? Why not? If God is love and God’s will for us is justice and peace, why not a just world where war is no more? Can we imagine such a world? A world without terrorism, a world without violence, a world without mass shootings, a world without refugees, a world without war? To our practical eyes such a vision seems improbable; seems too good to be true.
But faith says, ”Why not peace?” There was a time when the institution of slavery was well established and taken for granted by just about everybody. But some people of faith saw that slavery was not God’s intention for humanity, and they worked for abolition, and they brought it about. So why not the abolition of war as the way to solve the world’s conflicts? Is it not God’s will and intention that wars shall cease?
Real peace may today be only a dream, only a hope, just a prayer for what may come in some future yet unknown. But it is with such prayers, such hopes, such a dream in which God’s future begins, just as Isaiah’s faith was never merely in the worldly forces at work.
It would be easy to be fearful about the future in times such as these. We live on a small planet. Our destinies are as interconnected as the air we breathe and the water we drink. A retreat to tribalism is a step backwards. We move ahead with a faith that looks beyond what we can now see, to the far horizon of hope. “For in the days to come… they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their swords into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn more anymore.”
Imagine that! Today it is just a dream, just a hope, just a prayer, but it is a dream worth dreaming, a hope worth hoping, and a prayer worth praying. Heads up! Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI on December 1, 2019. To hear an audio podcast of this sermon go here.)