Isaiah 2: 1-5 & Romans 13: 11-14
First Sunday of Advent/ 28th November 2010
Isaiah holds out for us a vision. That’s what prophets do. Less prognosticators of the future, prophets channel God, they’re conduits for God’s voice, they call people to set their sights on things that truly matter, upon God, and then they invite us to align our lives, our thoughts, our passions, every step of our lives in the direction of that vision.
Isaiah holds out for us a vision: “In days to come, the mountain of Yahweh’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains; and shall be raised above the hills” (Isaiah 2:2). Isaiah is speaking of Jerusalem, the city of Yahweh’s shalom, Yahweh’s peace. The City of Yahweh will the place above every place, the focal point of the world. “Come let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:3). Why? So that Yahweh might teach us the way.
Isaiah holds out for a vision: God’s house will be a place of instruction, of learning, where we discover the ways of God, where God’s people are trained to walk in those ways. “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). The ways of God shall be known among the nations. The ways of God shall be followed by the nations. The God of Jerusalem, who has much to teach us, is the God of peace. Yes, there was a time for war in Israel’s long and bloody history. Yes, Yahweh comes across as a warrior God. But here we have a different witness, a different vision. Yahweh’s people will be arbiters of the peace, working for peace: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). In God’s vision, instruments of death and destruction will be transformed and used to plant fields whose yield will feed God’s people, not destroy them.
Isaiah holds out for a vision and invites us to walk toward it, led by the light of Yahweh.
The vision that Isaiah held out for Jacob was in sharp contrast with their day-to-day reality. The vision he sees is not consonant with how the majority would have viewed his world. Isaiah offers an alternate vision. In the verses that follow verse 5, Isaiah knows that all is not well with their souls. Yes, God’s vision is clear. God’s purposes are clear. But Jacob, “for you, have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:6). How? They have been tempted by sorcery and wealth, drawn away by silver and gold, the tinsel trappings of other gods. “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.” Idols have always been a cause a grave concern in Judaism because they knew, as we tend to forget, you become what you worship, so you better be clear about the object of your devotion and passion and obsessions. That thing or person or idea you invest so much authority in and give value to better be worthy of such devotion, because you will become like it. It was John Calvin (1509-1564) who said the human mind is a factory of idols. He’s right. It’s true – we are all adept at coming up with idols that we have created either with our own hands or constructed with our thoughts, invested with considerable authority and power and value, and then worship them forgetting we were the creators. We have to be conscious of those idols in our lives that tempt and pull us away from God, from God’s vision, God’s view of reality. Although Macy’s and the other gods of retail have told us that the close of Thanksgiving marks the start of “the Christmas Season,” we who begin our walk through Advent this morning live in with a different narrative, hold an alternate view, we have a different view of reality, we see things differently, tell a different story, follow a different light.
Advent calls us to be different. It is different. We start this season from a different perspective and, hopefully, and end on December 25 or January 6, in a very different place. Advent sends us down the road less travelled – and, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) knew, “that has made all the difference.”
We often talk about Advent as a journey – we think of the journey of Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem, or the journey of the Magi to the place of the Christ child. And so it is. The metaphor of the Christian life as a journey might be overused and maybe even tired for some, but I still think it’s still fitting.
This first Sunday of Advent we begin a journey together. Not Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. Not the Magi’s journey following after a star. Although their stories are never far away from us this time of year, their stories set the pattern or template for our lives. Instead, as we enter Advent, I invite you to think of it as a journey – your journey toward the place of birth, toward your birth or rebirth, maybe even God’s journey toward you. Throughout scripture, God is always on the move – in the wilderness, in the promised land, sending people here, sending people there, sending God’s Son, the Son sending disciples, the Spirit of God sending disciples. The sending and the journey are central to our experience of God. It’s even implied here in Isaiah 2, in just a few verses. Isaiah gives us a vision and then we’ve invited to walk in the way of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5). We’re given a vision and then given a path and called forward into the future.
God never leaves us where we are. When it comes to our experience of Yahweh, no one has arrived. We’re not there yet. Yes, God accepts us as we are, but God never leaves us there. God’s acceptance of us always includes a summons – the acceptance means the direction of our lives inevitably change. When it comes to our life in Christ movement is constant, change and growth are constant. God the teacher has so much to teach us, for instruction still flows from God’s dwelling place. There’s so much for us still to learn about what it means to love and be loved, there’s so much still to discover about what it means to forgive and to be forgiven, to receive peace, to be being agents of peace, to be makers of peace. The Spirit of Christ is forever nudging us forward, challenging us, comforting us, yes, but also prodding us on in order that we might grow and grow up into mature people in Christ.
The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965), once said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” He touches upon the fearful side of any journey – whether it’s a trip to the heart of Africa or to the depths of one’s heart, we know there’s some anxiety associated with journeys, going some place new and different. We’re all creatures of habit. We all like our well-worn paths, the familiar surroundings, the things we know. Sometimes we have to leave home, we have go where the Spirit sends us in order to discover the place of birth, the place of hope. Sometimes the journey to Bethlehem – to the place of birth – requires that we leave home, going through new, and maybe even scary terrain. For some, we cannot discover birth or renewal unless we leave home. Instead, we prefer the true, the tried, the tested. There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes, “Unless we change the direction we are headed, we might end up where we are going.” But what are we missing if we never leave home? What are we missing going down the same old path? How many of us drive the exact same road to work every morning and the exact same way home even evening? How many of us take the exact same route to church and back each Sunday, never venturing home by another way?
We have all been through Advent before. We have all heard the stories, heard these texts, and sung, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” ad nauseam (!), maybe we have sung this hymn far too many times and really don’t like all these Advent hymns in minor keys. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe we can take a different route to Christmas this year. Maybe we find a new way to enter into the mystery and hope of Advent. Maybe we can see these next four weeks as a journey – your journey. I firmly believe that the Spirit of the Living God is always on the move and always wants to take us to some place new – to the place of birth, the place of joy, the place of hope, the place of healing, the place of resurrection! This is part of God’s grace, that the Lord takes us from where we are and shows us the place where we need to go. It means discovering what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, the very purpose of our lives. The Italian Jungian psychoanalyst, Aldo Carotenuto (1933-2005) once wrote, “Although we cannot know why were were brought into this world, we can be sure that it was not just to stand there gazing off into space.”
This Advent, perhaps the Lord is summoning you on a different kind of journey. Think of your own life, where are you on that road toward birth? Where does Jesus need to be born in your life? What is Jesus trying to birth in you? Why were you born? Where is the Lord trying to take you? Where are you being led? God’s Spirit summons us to travel, to move, to journey down new paths. It’s difficult to travel in the dark. In Jesus’ world, traveling at night was dangerous. We need light to see where we are going. Today, we have so much light in, natural and artificial, and we still don’t know where we’re going. We think we have so much light and are so enlightened, yet we’re unable to see just how dark the world and people can be. For some, the world is all dark and they yearn for light, even if only for a flicker of light. For some the journey of faith has already taken them into dark realms, into shadow and they long for light.
Light is required for the journey – God’s light. In this season of deep darkness that yearns for it, let us walk in God’s light leading us to that place where something new might be born (again) in us. Let us walk in the light of God – staying close to the Lord, in prayer, in worship. Let us stay close to the light, without fearing or avoiding the darkness. “I cannot cause the light;” Annie Dillard once said, “the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” What is God’s light? Wisdom, insight, instinct, love – let these be our guides. This is the light that shines even in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it (John 1:5).
In the face of the insipid consumerism of this season, in the muck and mire of materialism, be brave to chart a different path. How? Listen to God, seek instruction from the One who knows you best. In the light of God’s light discover something new about yourself this Advent, discover something new about God’s love, seek to discover something new about what the birth of Jesus means to you. What is God calling you toward? What is the Spirit is stirring in the depths of your souls, in your dreams, in your aspirations, in your loss, your pain, your suffering, but also your joy? What is the Spirit stirring up in you? What is the vision that God is holding out for you? With grace and with courage, let us step out and walk in the light of the Lord.
 Aldo Carotenuto, To Love To Betray: Life as Betrayal. Joan Tambureno, trans. (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 1996), 32.