A homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
This Advent season, I have been studying and listening to the Prophets. The time in which these prophecies were written seems ancient and also, just like today. Wars rage; rulers are tyrants; people are suffering. And yet, in the words of the Prophets, the vast transcendence of God becomes immanent, real, tangible for us in our human condition as we long for a complete change in the social order. The prophets, like Isaiah, give us visions of a world which we hope for, but that is yet to come.
That world seemed far away to the people for whom Isaiah was writing. That world still seems far away to us, with mass shootings and ideological polarization, and the widening gap of income inequality which leaves the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. We, like those of Isaiah’s time, are also crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
We may look to the prophets to soothe our souls. But prophets reveal what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. That’s always been the conundrum of the prophet.
We enter into our Christian heritage through the prophetic imagery of the Hebrew people. Israel was a nation chosen by God for relationship; through that relationship God would be revealed to all people. When God’s chosen people fell away from the Covenant that bound them together with God, the prophets called it out and invited repentance so that there could be reconciliation: restoration of the divine-human relationship. Abraham Joseph Heschel puts it this way, “[Prophets] had to remind the people that chosenness must not be mistaken as divine favoritism or immunity from chastisement, but, on the contrary, that it meant being more seriously exposed to divine judgment and chastisement.”
No one likes to be chastised, neither children nor adults. But this re-alignment of our thinking beyond our own desires brings us into open-hearted readiness for divine love and grace.
Prophets rise up when difficult truths need to be spoken; prophets speak those truths to those who need to be shaken out of complacency; prophets offer us an opportunity to crack open the status quo and move into alignment with a new way of being. We need the prophets: today, not just in history. They speak hard truths, and invite us to align our lives with God’s vision so that we can fully experience the Good News which is for all people.
Our Advent lessons from the prophet Isaiah remind us that we are living into this season of expectation not just for our own well-being, but for the betterment of the world God envisions for all of God’s people. We…each of us and all of us…are the instruments through which God’s transcendent love is made imminently known in a world that so desperately needs it. We catch a glimpse of that longed-for world in today’s lesson:
“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,-Isaiah 2:4
neither shall they learn war any more.”
Friends, that is a prophetic vision that I can get behind. The world in which we live is filled with war and violence. Gun violence and mass shootings every day in the United States, wars and conflict in Ukraine, Ethiopia and Yemen. Humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Taiwan, Iran…not to mention COVID-19 and our global climate emergency. We are in a state of agitation and unrest, distrust and disruption are always the leading news. We learn war as a strategy and as a way to order history in this country and throughout the world.
What would it mean for us if we didn’t learn war anymore. What would that even look like? Not learning how to play games that “one up” one another. Unlearning conflict as a way of life.
I’m wearing a pendant today that was a gift from a doctoral advisee named Lisa. Lisa worked as a social worker for military families and understood from all her training and experience how war and trauma were interconnected in ways that shaped everything about her life, her family and all of those around her. Through her, I came to understand the impacts of war on soldiers, on families, on communities in ways that transformed the depth of my experience. My intellectual knowledge of war evolved to an empathic understanding of the magnitude of the effects of war on our humanity. We spoke often about spirituality as a grounding force in the midst of so much pain. When Lisa graduated, she gave me this pendant, a labyrinth, something that held special significance in my spiritual life. It was a very symbolic gift.
This lovely pendant reminds me of my time working with Lisa, but its story extends far beyond that mentorship. You see, this lovely pendant she chose for me used to be part of a nuclear weapon system. It is heavy; I feel its weight whenever I wear it. The copper that was used to make this bronze alloy necklace was part of the American nuclear arsenal contained in an underground bunker in Missouri, where I once lived and completed my doctoral studies. This metal, specifically, was part of a weapon system designed to carry launch signals to Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Nuclear Missiles at the U.S. missile site in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
During the 1980’s, the slow process of decommissioning and disarming nuclear weapon systems began. I remember the time, the political debate, the tension. And even as I remember all of that, I feel in the weight of this pendant that the metal I wear around my neck could have been part of a missile system that detonated nuclear weapons and ended countless lives. It speaks to me of possibility and reality: of the continual walk that we are making in this world which can turn toward war or turn toward peace. Wearing it makes me ask: is conflict worth it? Is there a way through whatever we are going through that will lead to peace, not war?
We haven’t yet experienced the fullness of this vision Isaiah foretold. We continue to harbor war in our hearts, even those of us who want to think of war as the “last resort.” What if it isn’t? What if God’s reign of peace is our final destination? Can we envision our lives together in that re-cast vision of God’s plan for us? Can we feel the weight of it in our bones?
We continue to live into the “now and not yet” of the words of the prophet Isaiah. Even in our celebrations this holy season, have we fully taken in these prophetic words and images from centuries before Jesus’ birth? We are still learning war as a means to survival, a means to an end. And the Good News that our lessons from the prophet Isaiah in this season of Advent offer us is that war is not the end of the vision that God has for God’s people. There is a divine vision beyond our human divisions where there is no need to learn war. Where we are disarmed of the capacities for destruction. Where our greed, our lust for power, our desires for control are not the end of story. Where there is a divine God-ness that amalgamates our differences and makes us into something new. It means we are not what we once were, headed on paths of destruction. It means we are something new, remade, and repurposed..
Perhaps the opposite of war isn’t peace. Perhaps it is grace.
The world in the days that Isaiah foretold was expecting a great and powerful leader who would crush and vanquish the enemy. The world received a tiny, vulnerable infant who taught us to love those who hate and persecute us, who healed those who were outcast and who gave blessings to the poor, the hungry, and the meek. Have we truly opened ourselves to receive that grace? We turn to this cycle of renewed openness, preparing ourselves to receive the gift of the incarnation every year, and my hope is that this year we can pause, and pray and truly learn to open into that gift more fully. It is a gift, at times beyond our capacity to comprehend.
In the Good News of today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples into a different vision where it isn’t the planful, methodical, controlling efforts of our lives that bring about God’s reign. Instead, it is the preparation of our hearts, the openness to God’s transformation of our lives and of our world. We are asked to be ready, to open our eyes to a vision of how God sees us. Our belovedness to God doesn’t inoculate us; it calls us to repent of the wars, the conflicts, the enmity that may be a part of our lives in this world, but that aren’t part of the divine vision for God’s people. It calls us to turn our hearts and our vision to God alone, walking each step of this life with an awareness that the center to which we are drawn is the heart of a loving God, even if our path meanders toward and away from that vision. The path always leads home. And that home was made ready for us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
As you open into this season of Advent, be ready for God’s vision to surprise you.
Be ready, says Jesus, for the unexpected hour when God’s vision is made known in your life.
Be ready to be repurposed; be ready with each and every step you take.
Be ready, not for war, but for grace.