The Lessons for the 1st Sunday of Advent (Year A): Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and, Matthew 24:36-44.
I had decided to take a chance on visiting the Tremiti Islands, an hour’s ferry from the mainland port of Termoli. The only way to get there is to ride the ferry that departs from the mainland at 7 o’clock every morning and returns from the island every afternoon at 5 o’clock. The morning that I rode over the sea was like a gorgeous sheet of glass, mirroring the clear sky. It was smooth. It made for a pleasant trip. I soaked in the breeze, delighting in the sense of adventurism that I felt. I visited the island and its natural beauty, and I visited the monastery and had mass at the church of Saint Mary by the Sea. I had lunch and walked around the town. About mid-afternoon, I began to hear a common refrain among the locals, “Nicolo is disturbed.” Apparently, this was a local way of saying that a storm was brewing. And as I came to the port, I could see the squall lines and could feel the blustery, hurling wind. Where there was once a gorgeous sheet of glass, there were now violent, white-capped waves. “Is the ferry still going to go back?” I asked the pilot somewhat apprehensively. “Oh yes, this is nothing,” he said with a little chuckle. Where once there was an intrepid adventurer, there was now one sea-sick soul.
I held up remarkably well for the first 15 minutes, but a volcano was brewing, and it wasn’t on the shore. It was in the pit of my stomach. The pilot took one look at me and noticed that my face was the color of avocado and simply told me, “Sit down, find the lighthouse on the shoreline and focus on it.” And so I did. There it was, what I would come to learn was Faro Punta del Diavolo – Devil’s Point Lighthouse, on the rocky shore across the frothy sea. And I kept my eyes on it. As I did so, I began to visualize life back on terra-firma…in a warm, dry setting, with a cappuccino and croissant. And after a while, my stomach became calmer, my head cleared. I began to breathe deeply. “I’m going to make it,” I thought with brand new assurance. And I did!
The world in which Isaiah lived was a choppy, chaotic, unjust, warring world. Indeed, Isaiah’s prophetic career was exercised during the ascendency of Assyria, and their irresistible lust for power and plans for world empire. Israel, the northern half of David’s former kingdom, would be conquered and utterly destroyed. The southern half the kingdom, Judah, to whom Isaiah was speaking, was storm-tossed, becoming a vassal by the powerful Assyrians to the north and menaced by the Egyptians to the south and west. The king and his advisors were occupied with what they needed to do to protect themselves. Events were getting out of their control. Fear was running rampant. Trust in their God and belief in the covenant waned.
As for their internal life, human life became valued on the basis of wealth and possessions. “I got mine, you get yours!” And as the winds of greed whipped up and the waters of corruption frothed, the people began to sink. The neediest of the needy, orphans and widows, were neglected.
But out of that turmoil, out of that storm-tossed world, there was a voice that stood out. A voice of God’s voice; a vision of God’s vision. To the world that was warring and killing and groping and sinking in the angry sea, Isaiah rose up and called out:
…Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,Isaiah 2:3-5
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;
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!”
Now my question is this: Was Isaiah just being a foolhardy idealist, impractical and other-worldly? Or is it possible that he was the only realist of his age, that his vision penetrated more deeply into the essence of reality? Isaiah was no grinning Pollyanna, trying to get everyone to play the Happy Game. Only about ten percent of his sayings are what we might call “promissory”–projecting the promise of God in the midst of an idolatrous people. But he had a vision, a vision of God’s vision. And the thing that separated him from the others was that he actually believed that message from God, that the sickness which overcomes us and draws us toward the myriad of our violent insecurities must be stopped! The future has always depended upon people, at least a remnant of people, fixing their hearts, minds, and souls on an alternative vision…on a landmark established by God. And without that vision, the prophet says, the people perish.
But the prophet Isaiah wasn’t simply pointing to the future; he was speaking also most clearly about the present! Did you notice how Isaiah began the prophetic word we heard this morning? “It shall come to pass in the latter days,” reads the RSV translation. The phrase is beautifully constructed with a context both pointing to the future, forward to an expected Messiah, and anticipating a present becoming, a waiting in the midst of something already happening.
Notice the candle that we lit this morning, and the circle of the Advent wreath in which it is placed. That first candle is just the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year, that big wheel of time that every year turns us from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas, to the waiting of Lent to the joy of Easter, to the waiting of Eastertide to the joy of Pentecost, to the joy of life in ordinary time and back again. It circles back to the beginning. Yes, we light one today and two next week and three the week after and four the week after that, in a way pointing to the future. But we also light the candles in a circular wreath, recognizing that as we await the future, we keep awake in the present.
The Advent wreath, like Isaiah in his prophetic utterance, suggests that the present moment is ripe. Or, to use an appropriate Advent term, the present is pregnant with God’s presence. I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to any of you, but I’ve never been pregnant. Many of you have, however, and maybe you remember the feeling of the first movement, the first wiggle, or kick. Maybe some of you fathers, or big sisters and brothers, remember waiting patiently to feel the movement of a child in the womb. It’s sometimes subtle, almost imperceptible. So, we remain still and quiet. We wait so that we might be sensitive to the hidden reality.
Maybe the prophet’s gift to us this Advent is not to see magically into the future, but to have a spirit that discerns the mystery of the present, the mystery that is our history, our story lived against a larger story of God and creation. It’s the hidden story that God’s presence is here, now, and that God’s vision is ready to be born.
The day when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” is nearer than we can imagine! Do we believe that? Can we give sight to the vision of the prophet? Jesus did! He staked his very life on that vision. So, the question before us this Advent is whether or not we will keep awake, watch, and be ready to claim the vision, not in the future but in the midst of the present?
When I was young, preschool or kindergarten, we made these pottery figures of the creche scene during Advent in our CCD class (Catholic Sunday School, except on Wednesday). I made a sheep! It was beautiful, maybe the most beautiful sheep ever made by anyone in the history of time and beyond – aside from God of course at the creation! I was proud of my sheep and I was going to take home that sheep for my mom on the last Sunday of Advent so that she could put it with Mary and Joseph as we waited for the baby Jesus. I saw my parents waiting down the hall and I got excited so I started to run toward them and I fell. The clay figure – that most beautiful of all clay sheep – spilled out of my hands and shattered into what was assuredly a hundred tiny pieces. My father squatted down, and in the way that many father’s do, hugged me in his big arms and said, in an attempt at consolation, something like, “It’s okay. Don’t cry. It doesn’t matter.” My mom, wiser in such ways, quickly intervened. “Oh, my,” she said. “It does matter.” And she cried with me. She scooped up the pieces and would place them in our creche when we got home.
The world was created beautifully, with a divine vision set before us, but along the way, we have broken some things. On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah tells us that God has again set that vision before us, but along the way to that vision, we have broken some things. Sometimes we did it intentionally, and sometimes we did not. Some relationships have been broken, and responsibilities messed up. And the brokenness is at all levels…in our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world. And it matters.
But you know what matters even more: It matters that we can make it right again! It matters that in the midst of a stormy voyage, with bristling winds and frothy seas, we can set our eyes on a godly vision, where sword shall not be lifted and war learned no more. It matters that we can catch sight of the shore and walk in the light of the Lord. It matters that we can take the broken pieces and place them in the creche, awaiting and anticipating the Word become flesh. It matters that, in the name of the Messiah, we can bring healing where brokenness lies. It matters that as we watch for, prepare for, and hope for the coming of Jesus, we can claim that Jesus has already come and we can work for God’s kingdom of justice, love, and peace…right now, in the midst of our present.