Message for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A (11/27/2022)
As we turn the page to a new church year, we’re all keenly aware of the holiday that’s on the horizon. Decorations have been up in stores and on our neighbors’ houses for some time now, so it’s nearly impossible to ignore. But, lest we zero in too quickly on that quiet scene in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, the First Sunday of Advent asks us to zoom out and take a wider view of God’s story. Advent isn’t simply a season of waiting for the festivities of December 25th, a time to pause and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ birth. No, Advent anticipates God’s entry into our existence in every phase of history, and even in the end of time, what Jesus calls “that day” in our Gospel from Matthew, “the coming of the Son of Man.” That first Christmas, Jesus came among us as an infant to share our humanity; in the end, he’ll come to signal that time is being fulfilled, and that God is with us – Emmanuel – once and for all.
And, here we are, somewhere in between.
The good news is that we don’t have to live in fear of “that day,” although some have made a fortune selling us a terrifying vision of the end; neither do we need to fret over when it might be. “About that day and hour,” Jesus says, “no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” I’ll never understand those end-times prognosticators who think they can calculate what Jesus insists even he doesn’t know. Don’t obsess over the timing, he implies, but don’t doze off either. “Keep awake… for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
In other words, the life of faith is a perpetual Advent, an ongoing season of watching and waiting for God to come into the world. It’s a matter of patience and attentiveness; it’s a matter of hope.
And, if you’re anything like me, hope is hard to come by these days.
Today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah is one of the great poetic visions of the end of time, and one of my favorite passages of scripture. Still, I can’t help but shake my head when I read it today: “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; / 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 plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; / nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more.”
Isaiah pronounced that promise over 2,500 years ago in a time of persistent warfare between Ancient Near Eastern powers. And indeed, there is nothing new under the sun, is there? How are we to take seriously the promise of God’s final peace in a world where historical shifts in power have only relocated the conflicts from here to there, and where disempowered people have always borne the brunt of the ceaseless violence and hardship? Can the ways of the world ever really change such that a dream like Isaiah’s might someday be realized? If you’re skeptical, you’re not alone. “Advent proposes impossibilities,” one interpreter puts it plainly. “The fitting first response [to a vision like Isaiah’s] is bafflement.”
Christian history itself gives us plenty of cause for doubt. Far from advocating the kind of peace that Isaiah envisions, the church has often beaten the war drum even more loudly than others. In the 1970s and 80s, for instance, American evangelical leaders openly scorned efforts to reverse the mid-20th-century arms race, casting an alternative vision of American military supremacy as a mark of our national moral superiority and God’s power over evil. In his best-selling book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Hal Lindsey unabashedly advocated for rearmament not only as a practical foreign policy, but as a religious imperative. According to Lindsey, “The Bible was telling the United States to build a powerful military force, to ‘become strong again.’” The ideal was not swords pounded into plowshares – that is, weapons of war converted to resources for building up community – but quite the opposite.
When even self-proclaimed people of faith abandon Isaiah’s vision of peace, what chance does it stand? In fairness, we might be inclined to set it aside, too, and cling instead to little comforts that are within reach – little comforts like the lights of Christmas. “It is so much easier,” writes another interpreter, “to pin our hopes on Christmas gifts and holiday feasts than it is to open ourselves to the possibility of believing in the seemingly impossible.”
Hope is hard to come by, to be sure; nevertheless, hope somehow springs eternal. For me, it’s precisely the unlikeliness of Isaiah’s dream that makes it compelling. I love the way one interpreter describes the power of the prophet’s poetry: “There is an imaginative boldness, or perhaps rather the courage of desperation, in this vision” because it defies the widespread violence that threatened to overwhelm the people of Israel at the time of Isaiah’s writing. The courage of desperation. What does it mean to double down on a dream of global peace when peace seems so decisively out of reach? What kind of courage does desperation inspire?
Maybe you’ve heard of the unexpected events that occurred at Christmas in 1914 on the battlefields of World War I’s Western Front. These events have collectively been called the Christmas Truce, a series of spontaneous and unauthorized ceasefires that brought enemy combatants together in a spirit of peace despite the otherwise horrific conditions of the war.
After dark on Christmas Eve, as British soldiers sat freezing in muddy trenches on a battlefield in Belgium, for instance, they heard voices coming from across No Man’s Land. The Germans were singing carols. Some of the British started singing back. And suddenly, as one soldier reported,
we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again.” The voice was from an enemy soldier, speaking in English with a strong German accent. He was saying, “Come over here.”
One of the British sergeants answered: “You come half-way. I come half-way.”
What happened next was as miraculous as it was strange. Guns fell silent, and soldiers from both sides cautiously emerged from the trenches and began to meet in No Man’s Land to exchange greetings, and eventually gifts of tobacco and wine. Similar meetings took place on other battlefields along the Western Front, with reports of makeshift Christmas trees, impromptu haircuts, and even a rousing game of soccer. “We did not fire [a shot] that day,” another witness recalled, “it seemed like a dream.”
Nothing like 1914’s Christmas Truce appears to have happened again during World War I, and as we well know, the bloodshed would not come to an end with that Great War. Still, the Christmas Truce was a beacon of possibility, shedding light on the combatants’ shared humanity and their common longing for peace. I wonder if it was the courage of desperation that compelled those soldiers to defy the logic of war that day, the same courage that inspired Isaiah and other prophets through the ages to articulate an improbable vision of “peace on Earth and goodwill for all.”
It may seem like a distant dream, but God’s promised future nevertheless “casts its gleam into the present,” to quote the first interpreter again. So, “come,” friends, “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” and let him “guide our feet into the way of peace” until it finally comes to pass.
 Paul Simpson Duke, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 7.
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 111.
 Stacey Simpson Duke, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 6.
 Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 2: Prophets, as cited at members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources/2022-11-27/2374#resources.
 “WWI’s Christmas Truce: When Fighting Paused for the Holiday,” A.J. Baime & Volker Janssen, www.history.com/news/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts.
 Paul Simpson Duke.
 Luke 1:79.
Liturgy © 2022 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Creator of the Stars of Night”; text: Latin hymn, 9th; tr. Hymnal 1940, alt.; music: Plainsong mode IV; text © 1940 Church Pension Fund. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-706920.
“Come Now, O Prince of Peace”; Text and Music: Geonyong Lee; Premissions: The Korean National University of Arts; All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-706920.
“Rise, O Sun of Righteousness”; text: Christian David, et al.; tr. Frank W. Stoldt, b. 1958; music: Bohemian Brethren, Kirchengeseng, 1566; text © 2003 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
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