Advent Sunday

Isaiah 2:1-5  In the days to come

Reflection by Mart the Rev

The countdown begins!  Christmas is coming.  We all know what that means in terms of focus and energy – presents, food, heat, travel or travelers, fatigue, and then rest…until the Boxing Day sales!  But when the church says ‘Christmas is coming’ we are talking of the Hope of the World having entered our story, thus, as people of faith, at this time of year, we remember and re-engage with all that that means.  Advent is a kind of reset button as we lay behind us the year that has been and submit to reordering our priorities in the light of God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ.  This season is a kind of rebellious one – we declare our belief that the old orders must pass away (this despite our tendencies to cling to the past!), and we look for the new thing God is doing among us (this despite our wariness around change).  This is also the season for refreshment – bring it on, the church says – out with the old, in with the new.  The justice of God coming down upon the people, the tables are being turned, the weak made strong and the strong humbled.

 Tell out, my soul, (we sing) the greatness of his might! Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight, the hungry fed, the humble lifted high!

Oh yes, this is kind of like the rebellious 60’s all over again… out with the bland, the blind, and the conformity, and in with the new world order.  Bob Dylan The times they are a changin’, Peter Paul & Mary’s If I had a hammer, Joan Baez and The Seekers each doing versions of When the stars begin to fall. How many of you were there?  How many of you remember being swept along by the idealism and the clamour of the 60’s?  Do you still have some of the clothes?

 All across the nation, such a strange vibration, people in motion.
There’s a whole generation, with a new explanation, people in motion, people in motion.
For those who come to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

Of course, you know that the 60’s wasn’t the first time people were articulating a new vision for how the world could be.  It is as old as the hills.  Humans with their backs up against the wall have often dreamed a future world into the present, and by articulating it, they have somehow been able to harness the kind of energy that makes change possible.

It is this kind of imagination that is behind the eschatological-type language in the Bible.  Eschatology… the ‘end of the world’ language in the likes of Isaiah and even in Jesus’ teachings.  We are usually scared off by it, but actually there usually needs to be a poetic quality to the kind of language needed to help people to see beyond the weight of the ordinary. When we want to inspire imagination, we don’t pull out a ‘how to fix it’ manual and read that to the crowds – just imagine that!!!  No, we need to employ more figurative language.  Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech is a fine example of the kind of language needed to enable hope to inspire the present.  That’s how eschatology functions, making the future present, even if the stars haven’t quite fallen from the sky – yet!

Can we have a big vision of hope to frame our way of seeing the world?  Surely!

There is a whole lot of back up against the wall in the scriptures.  I would say that most of the Bible is the story of the little ones confronted by the powerful ones… Israel was often in anguish. The David and Goliath story is replayed in various forms over and over.  The early church suffered the same position – fighting for its place against the institutions of religion and empire… persecution could have overwhelmed them but strangely, it empowered them.

There’s the Psalms with ‘my enemies surround me, Lord don’t leave me here in this anguish,’ and the Prophets, ‘the day is surely coming when the great reversal will occur ‘In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills.’

That is Isaiah… articulating a vision of what could yet be despite the Assyrian assault and the exile in Babylon.  Life had become incredibly complex, and people had begun to lose heart and sensed God’s abandonment… ‘How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ they sung in lament.

For a people in a disorientated state, Isaiah finds a poetic corridor to stumble down and articulate.  He introduces an eschatological framework for understanding reality. Things had become too difficult to see through the usual rhythms of daily life… gone was the stability of a day framed by waking, eating, working, and resting.  Life had been turned upside-down.  The usual way of seeing had become lost to the people.  When despair sets in a new way of framing reality has to be uttered.  A new hope has to be articulated.  The Prophets found a language to express that for now Israel will have to understand time in another framework – the sense that time will be fulfilled one day, even one day soon, but not yet… not yet.  In the meantime, as we wail our protest, we will find our comfort in the promise of tomorrow coming.

Some of the language can be spooky.  The moon going blood-red, the stars falling from the sky, the day and hour no one knows, for it can be as a thief in the night.  So spooky that we become wary of people who rant this kind of language on street corners while they display all the signs of mental instability.  But much of it is quite familiar, mostly through music, like the negro spirituals with the gospel couched in hopeful songs about the coming day of freedom when there will be an end to their slavery:

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home,
I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry he home,
A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home

The songs of my childhood and the young adulthood of many of you, contained a bunch of folk songs in the tradition of the liberation theme of the negro spirituals – even The Seekers, with the lovely Judith Durham in pink dress singing ‘O Lord what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.’

By the time I was finding a foothold of a faith of my own I was looking for a big picture to grab hold of.  Over in Dublin, Ireland, four guys were making music that contained all the energy and angst of youth coupled with the power of a gospel vision.  It was not the fashion of the early 80’s but there they were, U2 singing about the troubles in Ireland with ‘Sunday bloody Sunday’ and the chorus catch-cry of the Psalmists ‘How long, how long must we sing this song?’  And, harnessing the spirit of the Solidarity Movement in Poland while linking it to an apocryphal vision they sing, New Year’s Day:

‘Under a blood red sky, a crowd has gathered in black and white, arms entwined, the chosen few.
The newspapers says, say it’s true, it’s true, and we can break through.
Though torn in two, we can be one, [and] I, I will begin again, I, I will begin again.’

I guess I am trying to say that we shouldn’t be afraid of the strange weightiness of the world-coming-to-an-end language of Advent.  We need to hear the voices of those who catch a vision of God’s future finding a foothold in the present, especially when things aren’t turning out as we would wish.  And God knows this beautiful world can still be downright ugly!

We need the language of the poets and prophets to articulate what we can’t quite name and get our tongues around.  We need them to stir us and re-ignite in us the kind of passion that does indeed make a world come true.  We also need some kind of unsettling in the ground beneath our feet if we are at all interested in making room for the Lord of life to indeed dwell among us full of grace and truth.

I included the lyrics of a U2 song in your bulletins simply to demonstrate how the prophetic/poetic language can serve us when we are up against it and struggling to express our loss, disappointment, or despair.  The setbacks of life weigh on us and numb us, but even they are to find their place in God’s big picture of heaven and earth being reconciled. Back in the 1980’s Greg Carrol, a much-loved roadie in U2’s touring team, died in a motor cycle crash in Dublin.  Bono (the singer) and Larry (the drummer), came with Greg’s body all the way back to Auckland for his tangi.  Greg had frequently talked of One Tree Hill as a reminder of his sense of turangawaewae, his place to stand… While attending the funeral, Bono wrote the song…

We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill, as the day begs the night for mercy …

The moon is up and over One Tree Hill, we see the sun go down in your eyes.

And in the world a heart of darkness a fire zone where poets speak their heart, then bleed for it.

In the hands of love you know his blood still cries from the ground, it runs like a river runs to the sea

I’ll see you when the stars fall from the sky and the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill.

Of course, U2 isn’t going to appeal to everyone.  But a similar vision of a new world breaking into the weary and torn old is articulated rather well in a musical I bet that the majority of you have enjoyed.  In the Les Miserables musical based on Victor Hugo’s epic 19th century novel, even after the destruction of the 1932 June Rebellion in Paris where it seemed that all hope had been squashed, there’s a curtain call.  The songs of hope cannot be quenched by the silencing of those last voices of resistance – love triumphs.  Even then, even when it seems that the stars have fallen from the sky, even then there is a future hope to reach out for:

Do you hear the people sing?  Singing the song of angry men? 

It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. 

When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums,

there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

In Advent we do our own reaching.  Firstly, we reach back into the prophets and poets who were seeing as best they could, the coming into their midst, of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and secondly, we dare to reach forwards, and place our hope in what God will bring to fulfillment in the days to come.  For we believe, don’t we, that there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!