Advent Directions 1:
Come On Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Advent 1/A • November 27, 2016
Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
Advent is an Interruption
Today I suppose many of us are turning from gatherings at which we celebrated the last great moment of fall, thanksgiving, toward the holiday season. In our house, that will mean brining boxes of decorations down from the attic, sorting through them, telling the stories that go with each one and putting them out. It will mean cleaning and making lists of things to do. Jacquelyn will be working on airplanes full of people traveling for the first time; I will be busy as well, considering our church has something planned for each weekend in December. We’ll all be busy. But here and now, today, God is calling in the midst of our lists and memories and decorating: stop! look! listen!—pay attention. God intends to interrupt us. Advent is an interruption.
The oracle we heard this morning is an interruption. We tend to take the Bible for granted, rarely remembering that somewhere, somehow, someone took bits and pieces, some written, some sung, some remembered and put them together into the books we know today. The Book of Isaiah starts out with a dark word of condemnation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, that Word is interrupted by this prophecy. The same prophecy also occurs in Micah; it’s as if God was saying, “This is so important, I want to make sure you get it so I’m going to repeat it!”.
The Lord’s Mountain is a Beacon
The oracle starts out with something strange because it’s not true today: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains…” [Isaiah 2:2] Now anyone who knows the geography of Judah can tell you that Mt. Zion, where the Lord’s house is located, where Jerusalem is and has been for more than 30 centuries, is not by any means the highest mountain. It’s not the highest in the world; it’s not the highest in that area. What does Isaiah mean? What does God mean by saying that it shall be raised up? One image of what we raise up is the beacon. Since ancient times, people have raised up beacons along shorelines; we call them light houses. Groping along in the fog, sailing in a storm, light houses, beacons, raised up and shining forth are not only a guide but a source of comfort. All sailors know their home light house. Isaiah is asking us to imagine that in the future, Jerusalem is raised up like a beacon, like a lighthouse.
Now a beacon has a purpose and the purpose is to draw travelers. But this vision of Isaiah is astonishing because the travelers it imagines drawing include…well, everyone! “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’” Who does Isaiah have in mind, who are these “many”? Only a moment later, Isaiah pictures the Lord judging between nations, making clear who the many are: all of us. Amazingly, surprisingly, it’s not just the nation of Judah, it’s not just the children of Abraham, it’s everyone, everyone is being summoned to walk in the light of the Lord.
All of us together, all of us walking together: that’s not our best thing as people. What we are best at is figuring out how different we are. In this culture, that often has to do with skin color. In other cultures, it has often has to do with religion. In some cultures it’s a matter of birth. Jacquelyn and I have been watching a series about Queen Elizabeth II, and the British royal family and it’s made me wonder what it must be like to have your whole life dictated by the family into which you are born. India has a system of castes and even today, though legally banned, the caste into which you are born influences your life. We mark differences by clothing, food, custom. When we come to a meeting, for example, we assume we will sit in chairs; two thirds of the world’s people don’t use chairs. How can we meet with them?
God’s Future: Inclusive
So when God asks us to imagine all of us together, walking together, it is an interruption; it is not what we normally do, it is not what we ever do. When will this be? “In days to come…” So now you know: now we know, this is where we are going, this is God’s vision of our future. This vision has three parts. First, it is inclusive: many come, nations come, peoples come and when they come, they are coming up from where they are to a higher understanding. This is not just a trip, it’s a pilgrimage, a place to experience God’s Word as a living reality: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” [Isaiah 2:3b] God means to interrupt our journey and invite us to a pilgrimage. Like a mariner anxiously wandering who suddenly sees the loom of a light house and knows his or her position, God is creating a beacon to show us where to go.
God’s Vision: Peace
Second, this is a vision of peace. “…they shall 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.” [Isaiah 2:4b] Did you catch the last part: war forgotten—“neither shall they learn war any more.” Rick Atkinson has written a series of books with a painfully detailed account of World War II. His account focuses on the individual experience of people caught in the war and in his first volume, An Army at Dawn, he traces how plain American men had to learn to become killers in order to win battles.
War is not natural; it is learned. Yet thinking over my life, I can’t think of a time we weren’t at war. I grew on stories from World War II and was born as the Korean War ended. I loved playing with toy soldiers and my friends and I endlessly acted out little battles. Perhaps like you, I remember the fears of nuclear war and atom bomb drills in schools. I was formed intellectually in the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and ordained as the Vietnam War ended. Much of my adult life has been lived with the rhetoric of a war on terror. What if that were interrupted: what if we stopped learning war?
God’s Vision: Walking Together in the Light
The third part of this vision is simple: walking together in the light. Isn’t this what we do when we are with someone we love? Early on in my relationship with Jacquelyn, I remember vividly how she told me, “I want someone to hold my hand.” We all want someone to walk beside. Bruce Springsteen’s song, Land of Hopes and Dreams, imagines a great train on the way to a land of hopes and dreams. He sings,
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
And then he goes on to describe the passengers on the train,
This train…Carries saints and sinners
This train…Carries losers and winners
All of us: saints and sinners, winner and losers, all children of God, all together, all on a pilgrimage.
Today and Tomorrow
This is not where we are today. We are still divided into groups. We are still learning war. We are still walking so often in darkness. That is our present. What Isaiah preaches, what God means to do is to interrupt that present with a hope about our future, a vision of that future.
Have you seen glimpses of this? I have and often the glimpses come in a particular circumstance. The Snow Goose is the story of a hump-backed man with a hand shaped like a claw so hurt by the way others draw away that he himself retreats. He’s a painter and a photographer and a sailor; he buys a lighthouse and a salt marsh in England and there he lives alone, sailing the shore and caring for birds. His name is Philip Rhyader, but no one calls him that; to the villagers who whisper about the ogre out by the lighthouse, he’s “that odd looking chap” or simply “Rhyader”.
But one day a girl from the fishing village comes to him, holding something: a wounded goose. She’s desperately afraid of the ogre by the lighthouse but she’s heard he has healing powers. So she goes to him, shows him the goose. Together, they work to splint the bird’s wing, together they nurse it back to health. Her name is Frith and one day, he hears something strange and wonderful. The goose is almost healed; she’s happy. And she calls him Philip. In the act of healing, Philip and Frith have become friends.
Advent is an Interruption
Isaiah’s vision is a reality meant to interrupt the reality we take for granted. Today as we begin the season of Advent, God means to interrupt us, interrupt our shopping, interrupt our plans, interrupt our lists to remind us that we are not people of the present: we are people of hope. I have seen the present but I have seen this vision sometimes, I have caught glimpses of it, and those most often when, like Philip and Frith, people share together in some healing, some peace making, some gathering. Then indeed, then quiet as a breeze or the beam of a lighthouse, everything is interrupted and I hear, we hear, the call to come up, up from where we are, to the hope of God’s vision; to come up and walk in the light of the Lord.