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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Begin By Waiting – Advent 1 – 2013

Let me begin by saying ‘Happy New Year.’ 

We all live under many different calendars.  Our kids measure time by the school year which begins in late summer and ends with the final days of summer vacation.  In the Salvation Army our fiscal year begins in October.  (Don’t ask me to explain why.  I can’t.  I don’t understand it.  I just have to acknowledge it.)  We have the civic calendar that begins January 1st and ends December 31st.  But the Liturgical calendar of the Church is not directly tied to the school calendar, the fiscal calendar, or the civic calendar.  It begins, today, with the first Sunday of Advent.  So, let me be the first (or one of the first) to wish you a Happy New (Liturgical) Year.

And we begin by … waiting.  Maybe that strikes you as odd.  Why does this new year begin with waiting; why does the liturgical new year begin with waiting?  We’re ready. Set. Go! Bang! The starter’s pistol is fired and the runners launch themselves from their starting blocks… but we wait. 

The world around us (at least here in the U.S. of A.) has already flung itself headlong into the frenzy that is the ‘holiday season.’  We’ve already seen the discouraging reports of tramplings, and fist-fights, and even shootings that mark the annual orgiastic capitalist high holy day- Black Friday.  But we begin by … waiting.  In the stores and on the radio and in television commercials you will be hearing Christmas music, some of it secular and some of it sacred, used to sell everything from dog food to Cadillac cars, but we are … waiting.  People are planning Christmas parties, and New Year’s Eve parties, they’re sending invitations, and decorating the hall, but we are … waiting.

Let the world rush past us. Let them run.  Let them twitter and shake.  Let them burn their energies and spend their passions. Let them have the hustle and bustle, rushing from store to store and from gift to gift and sale to sale; we will wait.  Qoheleth – the Preacher – author of Ecclesiastes was right:  there is a time for everything.  There is a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pull up.[i]  There is a time to celebrate and there is a time to wait.  We will celebrate Christmas, and joyfully, in its proper time, and when we come to that time we will celebrate it in its fullness.  But to fully appreciate the fullness of joy found in Christmas we need to begin by … waiting.

“It is waiting that attunes us to the invisible in a highly material world.  In contemporary society, what counts is what we can get and what we have. … Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world. It slows us down.  It makes us think.  It makes us look beyond today to the ‘great tomorrow’ of life.  Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste of the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow (Chittister 61-2).”[ii]

If we don’t take time to appreciate the important things – if we don’t linger over them, meditate on them, and treasure them – we’ll find one day they’re all gone and that we’ve spent all our resources on vanities and exhausted all our energies on futility.    This morning, as we wait, we will consider the word that the prophet Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  But we must begin with the vision of what he say going on around him.

Though it seems likely that the prophet Isaiah was a member of the aristocracy (since he moved in and among the royal courts) he was not naively unaware of nor was he unconcerned about the situation “in the streets” outside the palace walls. The prophet was not starry eyed jejune. Neither was the prophet an eternally optimistic Pollyanna.  The first chapter of the book attributed to the Prophet Isaiah is located squarely in the squalid reality of day-to-day life.   He wrote about the sin and rebellion of the people, the violence, and murder, and bribery.  He described the empty sacrifices they offered at the temple, their trampling of the poor, and their calloused disregard for the indigent.  He decried their unfaithfulness and denounced their rebellion. He exhorted them to stop what they were doing and to “reason together” with God himself.  Interspersed within this chapter are calls for repentance and the glimmering possibility of hope, but these are all but drowned out by the noise of their unflinching depravity.

But wait…  Though this is what the prophet saw in the streets of Jerusalem and in the corridors of power, he saw something else besides.  What comes next is the word that the prophet saw concerning Jerusalem and Judea.  That word that he saw[iii] isn’t so much a prediction of what will happen in the future as it is a vision of what the future could be.  He sees a word for the future as it can be.  He dreams a dream of the world as it could be, as it will be when it’s guided by the word of the LORD

The word which Isaiah, the son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations
and shall decide for many peoples;
and 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.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.[iv]

What kind of future do you see?  Utopian?  Dystopian?  Is it a future of hope or a future of despair.  Do you see a future where things get progressively better for humanity, or a future where things get worse and more calamitous?  Can you even see a future for humanity? Is it already too late for us?

One of the prophets of our own age, Martin Luther King Jr., said in one of his final sermons before his assassination, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind. … It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and non-violence.  It is either non-violence or nonexistence.”[v]

In ages past, armies could kill thousands and tens of thousands in military campaigns.  But our  weapons have progressed so far from swords and spears that it’s now possible to kill millions in an instant – to poison and destroy the earth, cripple and maim an entire generation.  We have the technological ability to destroy ourselves and our world in a flash.

And still we continue to ignore the words that the prophet saw. We continue to beat our plows into swords and our swords into bombs.  We continue to beat our pruning hooks into spears and our spears into bombs. Instead of using our resources to build instruments of production (symbolized in the prophet’s vision by agricultural tools – tools used to grow food and to feed people) we neglect the poor and use our resources to build bigger and more powerful tanks, faster planes, and smarter bombs. The United States spends more on defense than the next the countries with the next ten largest defense budgets - combined![vi]  We continue to teach our sons and our daughters to fight and to kill, we train them for war.  We ignore the prophet[vii] and fail to realize his vision of the future. 

During this Advent season we are preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.  How can we do that while we continue to prepare ourselves for war? Can we not see the word of the prophet?  Are we still so blind?  Perhaps this is why the prophet calls “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD,” – because we’re still living in the darkness. 

I will admit that I lose hope sometimes.  I look around and think that not much has changed in the nearly 3,000 years between chapter one of Isaiah’s book and today.  We still have violence, and murder, and bribery, and injustice, and empty religion, and indifference towards the poor. 

But when I take time to wait, when I take time ponder all these things in my heart, when I meditate upon on the word that is seen among us, I can see the way that the world has changed and is changing.  [H]owever dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing "We Shall Overcome." We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[viii]

We begin this new year, we approach this holiday season, we enter into Advent by waiting – taking time to prepare ourselves for the advent of the Prince of Peace, born on that day, born again everyday in our hearts.  We meditated upon the word that the prophet saw, and we dream with him of the way that things can be – the way things should be – the way that things will be when we see the Light of the Lord born into the world, and born into us.

[i] Ecclesiastes 3: 1 - 8
[ii] Chittister, Joan, The Liturgical Year, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2009.
[iii] Does that strike you as an odd sort of phrase?  The Word that he saw…He’s mixing his senses, seeing what he should be hearing, just as John did in his revelation.  Perhaps the prophets had Synesthesia, the neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. -  Thus they could see and word and turn to see a voice.  
[iv] Isaiah 2: 1- 5 Revised Standard Version
[v] Martin Luther King Jr. – “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” – March 31, 1968 - 
[vi] See this graph.  Or this one.  
[viii] MLKjr. “Remaining Awake…”


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