This is the day that the Lord has made…
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the beginning of a new church year in which the lectionary readings will yet again lead us through “the narrative about another life in another world–the one that God wills and gives.” (Brueggemann) Isaiah’s vision is a vivid reminder of this. God’s story is a counter story to the Babylon story. It shows up when we are not expecting it—even when we are sitting down in the food court to enjoy our Sesame Chicken from Famous Wok after a busy morning of Christmas shopping.
The setting of the Isaiah text may have been Babylon. Many of the people of Israel had been there some seventy years. The memories of God’s promises, of God’s faithfulness in earlier centuries, were ancient history. Some were nostalgic for the way things used to be back in Jerusalem. Many had gotten settled. After the second and third generation Babylon was now home. Whatever Babylon offered appeared to be all there was. Their dreams, hopes and desires hardly seemed any different from their Babylonian neighbors.
The call to us this morning from the Hebrew scriptures is this—don’t be lulled into thinking that the Babylonian dream for the future is all there is. The word this morning is to stay awake because sometimes it’s hard to tell where the Babylonian version of Christmas ends and where the biblical version begins.
The Babylonian version makes room for God language—as long as it is a God who comes on our terms, into our dream, to meet our needs within our program, our project, our crusade.
W. H. Auden expresses the way we often want God to come into our lives:
O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them…. Leave the heavens and come down…. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his homework, and introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.
The first question of Advent is this: How are we living into God’s future as a counter story to the Babylon story?
We will consider three directions that emerge from our texts.
First we see that living into the counter story centers on worship. We see this in Isaiah’s vision. We see this in the apocalyptic vision of John.
The worship that is happening is global—all nations are coming to the house of the Lord. The worship that comes from the house of the Lord is established through Jerusalem. It is in the hill country in Judea where the Word will take on flesh. The Word of the Lord is rejected by Babylon on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. It is this Word that is imaged as the Lamb upon the throne in John’s vision (Rev. 5:6). This is the center of our worship.
Thus it is that Stanley Hauerwas says that “worship of Jesus is the central act that makes Christians Christian.”
During Advent, we are being called once again by the church and by the biblical story to worship the God who is not limited to the small visions of how things must be by the way the world works. The God we worship is the God of newness and difference. Worship…liturgy is an interruption to the Babylonian version of Christmas because it reminds us that “the Mighty One, after submission to a woman’s pains” is “helpless on a barn’s bare floor.” (Luci Shaw, Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation)
The expression on the faces of the observers in the food court remind us of the wonder that comes with contemplating this mystery of the holy being uncovered in the midst of our ordinary lives in shopping malls and food courts.
The biblical vision of God’s future involves discipleship.
In a time when the memories of God’s promises, of God’s faithfulness in earlier centuries, were long gone—ancient history—Isaiah’s vision boldly anticipates an alternative to the accommodated Babylonian lifestyle. Isaiah’s vision disrupts our lives focused on building houses, planting gardens and going to work for the Babylonian dream.
In a day when Babylonian politics and economics provided the basis for a better future, Isaiah speaks a contrasting word. Many people will 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.” (v. 3)
The biblical vision of God’s future involves discipleship because we are a part of God’s future coming. We pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven—this day. We ask that God will give us our daily bread—this day. The bread we ask for is for the world. A biblical vision of God’s future cannot be separated from learning to walk in his paths so that God’s future can come on earth as it is in heaven, so that all can have bread to eat.
Our reading from Romans helps us discern the timing of this vision. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…”
The letter to our brothers and sisters in Rome almost 2000 years ago makes an urgent appeal. The urgent appeal to the church 2000 years ago is still a timely one today. The appeal is this. Because the day is near, let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Because God’s future comes through us, we are called to stop living for partying and getting drunk…getting high…running from our pain. We are called to be bodied creatures, but not to extreme indulgence in sensuality. Other behaviors are addressed, including how we behave as sexual beings. How we communicate with one another and what the attitude of our heart is as we communicate.
All this is part of discipleship–learning to walk in the ways of the LORD. Advent is a season of training and preparation—discipleship. We are preparing for Jesus to be born in the stable of our hearts, so that the life of God may be expressed in the world… whether we are single or married. That it may be expressed as we have and raise children, as we learn to be friends, as we go to work in the world. As we care for foster children…the mentally disabled…the refugee and the poor among us.
Discipleship is necessary if we are not to just settle for the Babylonian version of Christmas…the Babylonian version of the future.
Discipleship shares the same root as discipline.
The choir was able to bring a different reality to the food court because they had submitted to the discipline of being a choir. They were in the habit of offering their individual gifts and time to a community that practiced the singing of songs together. They practiced songs and music that they didn’t even write themselves, but that became incarnated in new ways in the present as they entered the discipline being a choir. Does being the church require any less?
The biblical vision of God’s future is of a peaceable kingdom. In this word which Isaiah sees—God is the judge between the nations. This is a dramatically different story than the Babylonian version of the future. Empires presume that the security of the world, that the path to peace depends on the strength of their military—on the robustness of their economies.
The biblical vision of God’s future offers an alternative script. It is a script which seems foolish to those who are responsible for ruling the world and making sure things turn out right. The biblical vision is dismissed as nice poetic language (swords into plowshares), but certainly not applicable in a world where evil must be restrained.
What will we do with this word we have received?
This word which calls us to trust God to arbitrate. This vision of rocket launchers and F-16s melted down and converted into farming implements. This word that God’s future does not depend on Halliburton and Lockhead Martin. In the prophetic tradition of Israel—and in the story of Messianic fulfillment which we will retell again this Advent season—it is not Babylon, Rome, or America that judge the nations–but a crucified king.
How does the peaceable kingdom come? It comes as we open ourselves to God’s surprising alternatives to the Babylon story. It comes as we are open to the possibility that God can come into the brokenness of our lives and the world and do the impossible.
It comes through an uncontainable God who is willing to be contained in the walls of a womb. A helpless babe who sleeps on a barn floor, who grows up to embrace outcasts and absorb the cruelty of the powers of this world. It comes as we are willing to leave behind the Babylonian version of Christmas.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see that which is not peaceable in our lives and in the world. We are invited to sit with the strange stories and beautiful sounds which will rise up once again in our midst. May we be given eyes to see and ears to hear that this is the day that the Lord has made. May we rejoice and be glad in it. AMEN.