Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44, for the First Sunday of Advent Year A, December 01, 2013
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s horse
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
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 instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Getting Ready for What’s Coming
What’s coming next? We were just with our son Ben over Thanksgiving who announced that a material called graphene is coming soon, and he said, “It will change everything.”
Graphene is a material related to graphite, as in the lead in a pencil. It is exactly one atom thick, so it is transparent. It is flexible, it conducts electricity 200 times faster than silicone, and is so strong, “it would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap,” according to scientists at Columbia University.
Maybe graphene will, as they predict, make solar energy super efficient, creating an energy revolution. But who knows what’s coming? Maybe future bad guys will find ways to use this amazing material to do new kinds of evil in the world. We will have to wait and see.
What else is coming next? What is coming for our nation? our church? our families, our own health? The most obvious truth is that none us knows the future. So what are we to do?
These texts we read on this first Sunday of Advent speak powerfully to us about getting ready for what’s coming in the future. We need their message, I believe, with all of the uncertainty around us, now more than ever.
Both of these texts, Isaiah and Matthew, are about what to do while waiting. Isaiah says, “in the days to come…” but the days have not come yet. Jesus spoke of a coming event that would happen on a certain day and at a particular hour – sometime in the future. Waiting for some future event is exactly what the season of Advent is about: a period of intentional waiting for the coming of Christmas.
We all know Christmas is coming as the calendar advances inexorably towards December 25th, but what will come on that day? We can’t even predict the weather with certainty this far ahead, let alone know what will be happening in the world by then.
Maybe China will try to enforce their sovereign air space over those islands that Japan claims and start shooting down planes. Maybe Israel will do something about Iran’s nuclear capabilities out of frustration with our diplomatic efforts and start a regional war? Christmas will come, but who can predict what will come with it?
This is exactly what these two Advent texts present us with: a time of waiting that has aspects of predictability and aspects of uncertainty.
Isaiah’s Future Vision
The predictable part will be a future of peace and security on a worldwide scale. The nations will come to Zion to learn Torah, God’s instruction. The result will be peace between them.
“… they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
But these hopeful words are spoken only after the prophet’s strong words of condemnation. The words about a peaceful future in chapter two of Isaiah follow the harsh words of chapter one. The prophet has looked around and concluded that the nation is like a sick person, oozing from sores from the sole of the foot to the scalp of the head.
The signs of their sickness are all around. According to Isaiah they have embraced violence as a means – they have blood on their hands, he says. They have left the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen without protection; an indictment of a depraved society. They have conducted a show of worship in form only, without integrity. And so, Isaiah concludes, destruction is coming.
So is this the counsel of despair? How does a far off promise of peace serve a people who face disaster in the mean time?
Isaiah’s answer is this:
“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
The people of God wait for God’s hopeful future in the midst of difficult and uncertain times by their steadfast commitment to continue walking in the light of the Lord.
This phrase, “walking in the light of God” practically became the theme song of the people of South Africa as they suffered under the oppressive weight of apartheid. They would sing, “We are walking in the light of God, we are walking in the light of God.” Many of them were beaten. Many were imprisoned. Some were killed. But they knew they were on the side of justice and that the God of justice was with them.
People of Gulf Shores, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Not because it’s easy. Not because there is no struggle. Certainly not because we can predict how Christmas will arrive this year, or next.
But we know how to wait in times of uncertainty. We know what it means to keep waking in the light of the Lord! It means we keep working and living towards that hopeful vision of peace. We keep learning Torah, we keep listening to the instruction that comes from Mt. Zion. We keep walking in the light of the Lord!
Jesus and the Uncertain Future
Uncertainty about the future is baked into the cake for us as Christians. Jesus himself said,
“about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
It’s almost comic to hear the folks who, in spite of Jesus’ words, think they can predict the future. We do not know what or when, any more than they did in the story of the people of Noah’s day. The party was on, eating and drinking and marrying as normal. But, as the story goes, ready or not, suddenly the rains did fall.
So we too are in the dark. The thief does not announce his presence. But something tells you he is on the prowl; he’s in the neighborhood.
So what are we to do with such uncertainty? Jesus says, say awake. If it’s like a thief in the night, then don’t go to bed. Stay alert.
Alertness to the Present
Alertness for believers is about being present in the moment. We don’t live in the idealized past, and we don’t spend our waking moments caught up in anxiety and fear about the unknowable future. We live in the present. We live in the moment. We are awake to the world as it is and to our place in the world.
This is the way Jesus taught us to live, not as “the Gentiles” who run around frantically worrying, “what should we eat, …what should we wear?” Rather, Jesus teaches us to live as though we know that we have a Heavenly Father who, in this present moment, knows what we need, and that we are in his hands.
“He’s got the whole world in his hands” as the spiritual reminds us, so that today, even with the threat of an approaching thief in the night, we can keep “walking in the light of the Lord.”
Dealing with our Defaults
Living in this way, awake to God’s presence, alert to God’s care is not our default position. Worry and anxiety is our auto-pilot setting. That’s why it is not enough simply to hear a little sermon every once in a while about it. We are far too weak for that to work. We have too many habits of mind that imagine catastrophes and calamities around every dark corner.
So how do we become people who are alert and alive to the presence of God, while living in the context of uncertainty? How do we find the inner strength to keep walking in the light of God, seeking justice for the widows, orphans and non-citizens of our society in the glare of Christmas consumerism and the blare of the fear-mongering cable news networks?
Our Christian tradition used to be filled with people who practiced the daily habit of silent waiting on the Lord. Following Jesus and the whole Jewish tradition that understood that waiting on the Lord required silence, Christians knew that periods of daily silence were essential.
One of these was the anonymous author of a spiritual classic from the 14th century called the Cloud of Unknowing. Written in Middle English, this guide to contemplative prayer says,
“Speak to your mind, ‘Thoughts, you cannot contain God. You have limited skill and you offer no assistance. Be silent!’ Ignore the activity of your mind…”
For lots of reasons, none of them good, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century favored words over silence. Theology and rationality seemed more important than silence in those contentious days.
But happily for us, many Presbyterian and Reformed communities, as well as Catholic, Episcopal and many others have re-discovered silent, contemplative prayer again in our days. We have even been encouraged in this new discovery by neuroscientists who tell us that these ancient practices are actually hugely helpful to our brains, our emotions, and our bodies.
On this first Sunday in the new church year, at the beginning of a new Advent, I want to offer all of us a challenge. If it is not already your custom, then decide to begin the practice of contemplative prayer. Set aside time every day. Maybe you need to start small, five or ten minutes of silence may seem a lot at first. But practice will help.
Make it your goal to pray silently for twenty minutes a day. Get a timer, find a place to be undisturbed and a time that works for you. Use a special word to anchor your thoughts in the present moment. Select a word from your scripture reading, or a word that suggests to you the gracious presence of God. Return to that word each time your wandering mind goes away, and gently bring it back.
By this practice, we will be able to wait faithfully. What is coming next? We do not know; we cannot know; the people of God have never known the details. But we do know that God is working. The days are coming, said Isaiah, the Son of Man is coming, said Jesus. God has got the whole world in his hand.
So even when it looks dark and uncertain, we can keep walking in the light of the Lord by staying awake to the present moment – which, after all, is the only moment we ever have to live. And by the lessons we receive in silence, we will have faith to trust God with our uncertain lives, day by day, and we will have courage to reach out to the widows, orphans, and non-citizens who need us to keep walking in the light of the Lord on their behalf.