From Isaiah: Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. From Matthew: The Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.
Let us pray: Brukhah at Yah HaShekhinah eloheteinu Malkat HaOlam she’astah nisim le’imoteynu vela’avoteynu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh. Blessed are You Holy One our God, Sovereign of Eternity, who performed miracles for our ancestors in their day at this season. V’imru, let us say: Amen.
I began with one of the traditional prayers of Hanukkah because Hanukkah like Advent is a season of light. Light infuses and perfuses our sacred stories, from the moment of creation to the moment of redemption and every saving moment in between. Holy light lights our way on all our journeys and our lessons today are full of those journeys, full of comings and goings:
Longed for days shall come. Peoples from all nations shall go to Mt. Sinai, whether that is their ancestral mountain or not. Torah, God’s revelation, teaching, instruction and law, all of these and more, comes from Mt. Zion as the presence of God from the new Sinai to all the world. The word of God comes from Jerusalem just as the first torah came from Sinai. All peoples will go from Mt. Zion walking in the light of God. In the Psalm the tribes dispersed in Isaiah’s time shall reunite and return to Jerusalem, to the temple destroyed once between Isaiah and the gospel and destroyed again between the gospel and epistle. And, the gospel ends dramatically promising the coming of the Son of Woman.
The Son of Woman. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth is and was the Son of Woman. That’s the part of the story everyone agrees on. It’s that bit about his daddy that is a matter of faith or controversy. Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child is a child of anthropological human flesh, woman-born, mortal according to the Greek term (huios tou anthrōpou) poorly translated “son of man.” Using the corresponding Hebrew term, (ben adam) God called Ezekiel “earth-child” to remind him of his mortality. In Daniel the Hebrew boys Hannaiah, Mishael and Azariah, who folk insist on calling by their slave names Shadrach, Meshach and Aved-Nego saw divine deliverance in human form and said this one too was somehow a child of earth, (using the Aramaic bar enosh). And Jesus took the title for himself as a woman-born, mortal child of earth and as one who held the power of God in a human form. I know some folk still prefer the old “son of man” translation – even though the Greek anthropos means more “human” than “man” but I can’t get past the truth of Sojourner Truth:
Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
Our wait for the return of this the Son of Woman makes the whole of existence from the Ascension to the present moment one long season of Advent. We are waiting. And while we are waiting, we have work to do and journeys to undertake. The world like our lessons is full comings and goings, especially in this season. Advent is the season of the comings of Christ, first as miracle, next in majesty. And we seem to travel more to mark his coming than at any other time. Folk are coming and going by planes, trains, automobiles and Mega and Bolt buses. If we’re not leaving town we are coming and going to work and malls and the grocery store. Even if we’re not camped out for Black Friday, maybe we’re running in a Turkey Trot or dashing off to get more batteries or a few more presents – and are we out of cereal again? And, most of us are working, coming and going from a full – or almost full – time job, perhaps then to a part time one or two. We’re taking children to school and volunteering, others are coming and going to job fairs, employment centers, job interviews. Some are going back and forth to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the bedside of a loved one. And folk are coming and going to see us, if they can catch us at home or in our office, if we can spare a minute to greet a co-worker, look her in the eye, smile at him and just say hello. Maybe ask how are you and mean it, and wait for an answer. We are busy. And as far as the places we are too busy to go to or are too far away, we send electronic extensions of ourselves, text messages and and emails, coming and going. And did I mention church? Services and rehearsals and committee meetings and decorating parties and, and, and…
We are busy, coming and going. But where are we going as a people? As church? As the Church? As a congregation? As a nation? As humanity? Where are we going and why? Who is leading us? Who are we following? With whom are we walking, keeping company on our way? What are the sights and sounds of our journey? What are our traveling songs? What shall we do when we get there? To us, running on cosmic treadmills in every direction but seemingly going nowhere, Isaiah says, Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God.
How is it that an Iron Age Israelite prophet speaks across time and space and place to us? We Christians are quick to claim these texts as ours, forgetting that they are at best shared texts and that we were late to the party. We forget that we were adopted into a large family of beloved children and we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. But there is another way that these ancient texts speak to us and everyone else whether you believe in Jesus, celebrate his first Advent while waiting for his next or not, whether these are holy days to you or a daze of frenzied holiday consumption – food, drink and consumerism. Isaiah speaks of and to all the nations. All. And that is good news.
In Isaiah’s world there was good reason to look inward, to think only of yourself, to claim God was your god and loved or cared for no one else other than your people. Isaiah lived through the greatest catastrophe of his people in their existence until that time, the fall of the northern monarchy. The division between the two monarchies and even war between them did not break the ties that bind. They were together the tribes and people of Israel; they worshipped the same God, sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in the old sanctuaries. They married each other and traded with each other and sometimes joined together to fight off common enemies – when they were not fighting each other. They were one people in two nations. And then the Assyrians came.
The Assyrians swept across West Asia gobbling up nations and peoples. They were vicious: parading the heads and body parts of the dead on spears, peeling the skin off their victims, piercing the lips of their captives and attaching leashes to them. When they invaded the northern monarchy, there is no reason to think they changed their ways. The biblical authors won’t say how bad it was but nine and a half tribes of Israel simply ceased to exist. Of those who survived the Assyrians, nearly thirty thousand were deported and survivors of other Assyrian conquests were imported to work the fields. The poorest Israelite survivors and the conquered peoples in the former capital city, Samaria, merged and became the Samaritans. Their descendants were reviled as non-Jews because of the differences between Samaritan Judaism and Judean Judaism and because of their multiethnic heritage.
Isaiah would have witnessed all of this and had no reason to talk about the love of God for all peoples, including the Assyrians, except… He had a vision from God. He saw a new world. A world in which the violent and the vicious will walk with those they have victimized, but not as victors. Isaiah saw a vision of peoples coming and going in peace, every bit as unimaginable as prophesying an end to the Syrian civil war – the Syrians are the descendants of the Assyrians and the ancient empire included what is now Iraq and Iran. Even the psalmist seems to think we can pray for the peace of Jerusalem and make a difference. What are we to make of these impossible visions that have now become our visions because these scriptures have become our scriptures?
One day, things will be different. One day, folk on this planet will no longer be seemingly perpetually at each other’s throats. One day a rocky hill, too short to be a mountain if you’ve seen the Rockies, Adirondacks or Alps, but a mountain if you live in a desert land – one day that mountain and it’s God will draw folk, all kinds of folk to a new world characterized by the justice of God founded on the word and words of God. One day. Isaiah doesn’t tell us when but assures us it’s coming.
Isaiah saw all the world turning to his God, his temple, his mountain. His is a stunning ecumenical and interfaith vision. He sees a joyful liturgy of procession to the God he proclaims as inviting, welcoming and transforming. It’s a beautiful vision but let’s reality-check Isaiah: Can we see it? A free Palestine? Israel at peace with the Arab nations. Jerusalem open to all who love her? Peace in and between Iran and Iraq and other nations? An end to anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and Europe? An end to every kind of religious oppression? An end to all violence, all war, everywhere? See the vision, don’t just hear it, see it:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
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.
Can we see it? Do we believe it? Do we believe God can, God will, change the world? Again and again if necessary? Isaiah and Micah, one of them quoting the other or perhaps both of them quoting another prophet: one day there will be no more war, ever. Against all the evidence around him Isaiah prophesied and I believe he believed, even though he wouldn’t see it in his day, even though there has been no end to war since his day. Truth is things got so bad one day that the prophet Joel saw another vision turning this vision and its prophecy upside down and inside out, reversing the word and words of God to and through Isaiah and Micah:
Joel 3:9 Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war, stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Yet the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah endures. The days are coming. Christ is coming. We are waiting. Someone once asked me why I bothered praying for peace when the world was full of violent and vicious thugs from street corners to presidential palaces. My response was:
We pray not because we believe it is magic, not because we are certain that God will do what we ask, but because we can and we must. The world’s burdens are too great and too many for any of us to bear, its problems impossible in our strength, knowledge and capacity. We pray knowing there is a God who hears, loves, aches and moves. We pray knowing our ancestors prayed for freedom until they died, not receiving it in their lifetimes, passing the mantle of prayer down through the generations. We don the ancestral mantle of prayer because it is our time. And we pray knowing that we may die before we see peace in the world. But we pray because we know the world will see peace whether we, our children or our children’s children live to see it. We take up the garments of prayer passed down through the centuries until the time comes to exchange it for a burial shroud and pass it on to the next generation.
Isaiah envisioned this new world in spite of the world he lived in. The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to this new world nearly eight hundred years later. The coming of Jesus, his life, his teaching, his example, his love, his compassion, his power, his suffering, his death and his resurrection lay the foundation for this new world. And we, we are to build upon it. Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. We have work to do. We have love to give. We have people to feed, clothe, house and for whom to care. We have children to nourish and nurture. We have lonely elders to comfort and offer the gift of our company and companionship. We have estranged relatives to reconcile. We have broken systems to renew, repair and restore. We have peace treaties to negotiate. We have plagues and diseases to cure and heal. We have a planet to tend and heal. We have a gospel to preach and the same gospel to live. We have prayers and praise to raise, offerings to offer and gifts to give. We have neighbors and strangers to welcome.
Come, let us walk in the light of the Living God. Amen.