First Sunday in Advent
TEXTS: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).
O Come, O come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lowly exile here
until the Son of God appear
During Advent, the words of this ancient hymn ring true in our ears. We know (don’t we?) what it is to mourn in lowly exile. We know what it feels like to wait—to yearn—for Christ to appear.
Because we know war, and rumors of war—and the incessant background noise of “almost war”—we can pray in earnest:
O Come, Thou King of nations bring
An end to all our suffering
Bid every pain and sorrow cease
And reign now as our Prince of Peace
And because the world we live in is so often characterized by darkness, we know what it means to long for a great light—a dayspring that will cast away the very shadow of death.
Advent is a season of anticipation, as we look for the coming of Christ. Advent gives voice to our yearning. And because we yearn, we can live into the season. Advent itself rings true.
Still, I must admit that I always find the Advent season a tad confusing. I yearn, and I wait, and I hope. “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus!”
But I also remember.
I remember singing these same hymns last year. I remember watching and waiting for—and then celebrating—the arrival of the Christ child … eleven months ago! I remember singing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” And I vividly recall the angel’s message: “… unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Here—at the beginning of Advent—I remember Christmas! And these memories of Christmas undermine the sense of anticipation I know I’m supposed to have throughout the Advent season.
Christmas celebrates the coming of Emmanuel—“God with us”—the Word made flesh. If the birth of Christ is God’s answer to our yearning, then … why are we still yearning? How can we yearn for something that has already happened?
Well—as a bright teenager once said to me—“I guess it’s another one of those paradoxes.” Yes. Paradoxes. Christian faith is chock full of them. One God in three persons. An immortal, infinite God who took on human flesh—with all of its limitations—and, ultimately, died the same death that we die.
We do not usually think of Christianity as a “mystery religion”—and yet, Christian faith is in very large measure defined by mystery. And one of the great gifts of the church year—including the season of Advent—is that it pulls us deeper into this mystery.
The questions that get raised through Advent penetrate all the way to the core of our faith. They get at the meaning of incarnation, the substance of hope, and the shape of history. They get at the nature of faith for people who confess that the Messiah has come even as they wait for his arrival.
To be a Christian is to yearn for One who has already come.
We live between the first and second comings of Christ—between the “now” and the “not yet.” We live—as someone has said—“between memory and hope.”
Our reading from Isaiah touches on these Advent themes.
“In days to come,” the prophet says: “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 … [and] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2, 4b)
It is a vision of fulfillment—of God with us as Teacher of Wisdom and Judge of Righteousness and Prince of Peace. It is a vision of all the nations of the earth streaming toward Zion—a vision in which the weapons of destruction become instruments of agriculture: swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.
This is Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God. This is the hope of Israel, then and now. It is the hope on which the Church is founded.
But when will this Kingdom be established? Just when are these “days to come”?
Some commentators on Isaiah have argued that, whenever those days are, what matters most is that they are later than the time of the prophet. It’s like we are the kids in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?” And chapter two of Isaiah answers, “No, not yet.”
Now, these commentators have different ideas about what Isaiah might have meant.
Some of them—noting that the “swords and ploughshares” theme is echoed elsewhere in the Old Testament—suggest that other prophets—before Isaiah—had applied these oracles to their own times, proclaiming that the day of peace was just about to dawn.
But then it didn’t happen. And so, the commentators argue, Isaiah’s purpose was to affirm that the promises were still true—just not true yet. They say that Isaiah wanted to secure the truth of the promise and then push the moment of fulfillment a little further into the future—into those ethereal “days to come.”
Trouble is, this interpretation makes the prophet into a mere forecaster—and not a very good one, at that! It turns Isaiah into a predictor who cannot even guess when his prediction will come true. He’s just the latest in a long line of predictors who waffle about their own predictions!
The problem with this approach is not simply that it makes Isaiah and the other prophets look silly. The larger problem is that it reduces this ancient promise—of swords fashioned into ploughshares—to a prediction that never quite comes true. And the danger of this interpretation is that it can prevent us from claiming the gift of “God-with-us” in the here and now. And that’s a tragedy, because this gift of God’s presence is for the “now” … and not only for the future.
When we are willing to say that we have lived in “the last days”—that, indeed, we are living in them now …
When we are willing to say that God kept covenant with Israel, even when Israel was unfaithful …
When we are willing to say that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, even though we ultimately rejected and killed that Word …
When we are willing to say that Christmas has already come—has really come—to this world in which we live right now …
Then our hope begins to take on a different shape.
Then our hope becomes not just for an endlessly-postponed future paradise.
Then it becomes something other than wishful thinking.
When our hope becomes present-tense, it turns into faith—faith in a God whose love for us only deepens when we reject him.
It becomes faith in a teacher of wisdom who offers his greatest lessons even as people walk away from him. It opens our eyes to see a Prince of Peace who reigns even in the midst of war and rumors of war.
In turn, this faith encourages our hope. And it keeps our anticipation keen, just as I think Jesus meant to do when he told us that—even though no one knows “that day and hour”—we must always be prepared, for the Son of Man is coming … coming when we least expect it.
Isaiah teaches us how to understand the “now-and-not-yet” that brings yearning after fulfillment and Advent after Christmas.
Last year’s Christmas was not an illusion. No. The good news is that Emmanuel has come! Emmanuel has really come—into that feed-trough, into that barn in Bethlehem all those centuries ago … just as he came once again last Christmas Eve when we sang about him by candlelight. Just as he will indeed return one day “at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:44).
The coming of God-with-us makes it possible for us to yearn for God-with-us. We must discover what we lack in order to know how much we need it. The coming of God-with-us teaches us how to yearn … and it shows us what to yearn for.
It is precisely because the Prince of Peace has come that we can dare to hope for a day when nations will not study war any more.
Because the Word was made flesh, we can yearn for a day when God will teach us his ways.
Because God is with us—even now—we are able to hope, and wait, and watch.
Year after year after year, we’ve sung, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”—and we meant it!
That’s why, when we recite our Communion liturgy, we have the audacity to affirm: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
I suppose it is a kind of paradox: because Christmas has already come—and come again, and again, and again … Because of that, our Advent waiting can begin … again.
So, welcome, my friends; welcome. Welcome to the beginning of yet another beginning.
Welcome … to the future! Amen.
And here … just because I can … I want to give a shout-out to one of my favorite renditions of the ancient hymn: