The 1st Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

It’s always been easy to believe—or fear—that justice and peace come only through resorting to or threatening violence. So at the start of the church year and entering the season in which human yearning for justice and peace are on full display, our first lesson offers a welcome reset. The peoples—the nations—head for Jerusalem to learn to live peacefully, justly. They do so not at the point of a bayonet, but freely. Justice, peace: in the vision these are embodied in Jerusalem’s life. If we wonder how Jerusalem gets there, in the previous chapter we heard both about God’s initiative (“I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy”) and human responses (“learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”). If we asked Isaiah which is it, he would probably have said “yes.” The nations come to Jerusalem for the same reason that in Jesus’ parables the man buys the field in which he’s found the treasure, or the merchant sells all she has to buy that one pearl. Moses had laid it out: “You must observe them [the statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deut. 4:6) It’s what Abraham and Sarah are called for: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).

This vision isn’t a done deal in Isaiah’s time, hence the last verse: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” That’s our future; let’s act accordingly now.

Something like Isaiah’s vision resonates through today’s psalm: “there are the thrones of judgment, / the thrones of the house of David.” But it’s not yet reality. So: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: … I pray for your prosperity. … I will seek to do you good.” Isaiah had cried “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” In the psalm we hear a response: “I will seek to do you [Jerusalem] good.” We might hear an echo of the psalmist’s words in Jesus’ “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

Jerusalem: a geographical place, certainly. Equally certainly, one of Scripture’s most potent symbols. McCann: “not just a place, but a symbol of God’s presence in space and time.” In the New Testament, between Jesus’ “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19) and Paul’s “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16), the Church, Jesus’ Body, assumes the role of that “symbol of God’s presence in space and time,” a place where God’s nurturing and healing are experienced here, now. So while Isaiah speaks of the peoples coming to Jerusalem, Paul will say: “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

The church as the place to which the peoples turn to learn to live peacefully and justly? This is in fact what drove the growth of the church in the first centuries. The Church Fathers saw Isaiah’s vision being fulfilled in their time. Here’s Justin (2nd Century): “and we, who once killed one another, [now] not only do not wage war against our enemies, but, in order to avoid lying or deceiving our examiners, we even meet death cheerfully, confessing Christ” (Lohfink Jesus and Community 173). And when the emperor Julian a few centuries later attempted to revive paganism he complained:

Why do we not observe that it is their (the Christian’s) benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism (Christianity)? …When…the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us” (Lohfink Jesus and Community 163).

“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed:” that’s still the goal. The nurture of communities—parishes—so marked by justice and peace that the peoples will want to find out what’s going on: that’s still the strategy. So the New Testament letters devote little attention to evangelism (marketing) and a great deal of attention to the quality of community life. As in our Romans reading.

There are intriguing echoes of Isaiah. Paul picks up the light image (“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light!”). More, the “works of darkness” Paul lists (“reveling and drunkenness…debauchery and licentiousness… quarreling and jealousy”) are remarkably like Isaiah’s concerns. We people of God do have trouble trusting God, and so easily revert to “every man for themselves.”

There’s a lot more in these readings. Let me notice two. First, Jerusalem: insignificant from the perspective of the great urban centers in Isaiah’s time: how’s it supposed to matter? How are we supposed to matter? This is why, I think, Jesus told the mustard seed parable. It starts small… God repeatedly starts small: Abraham was 75 when he and Sarah responded to that “Go from your country.” Not to mention Abraham’s outsized concern for his own skin, repeatedly telling Sarah “Say you’re my sister so they won’t kill me.”

Second, what of this “coming of the Son of Man” in the Gospel reading? It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that it’s about only a single grand-scale event in our future. The Son of Man comes repeatedly, and it’s prudent to stay awake. Recall the scene Jesus describes at the end of the discourse from which our reading is taken: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’… And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” The Son of Man comes repeatedly.

Bottom line: God is preparing a better future for this world than we could achieve, and in the multiple Jerusalems, the geographic one and the multiple congregations scattered over our planet, is nurturing that future in our common life. Today’s texts deploy various images to encourage our participation. Stay awake (so Jesus and Paul). It’s no time—we might say—to go on autopilot. Keep choosing light over darkness. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

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