Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
First Sunday of Advent
“In days to come, … they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2)
Preaching on the First Sunday of Advent fills me with some sense of apprehension, since it was on this day that I preached one of my first sermons after being ordained as a young curate, only to be told by the rector at the staff meeting on the following Tuesday morning that it was a sermon “I need never preach again.”
And worst of all, he was right. It was terrible.
In retrospect, it was a rather anemic sermon about the symbols of Advent: the Advent wreath with its four candles, the use of purple vestments, and so on and so on. I think what the rector called me on was that religion that remains at the level of symbols doesn’t really have much oomph—it is rather cold and sterile, keeping any real encounter with God at an arm’s length.
And the weakness of that sermon was made all the more ironic because the theme of Advent is precisely opposite: it is all about how God takes the initiative to bridge the gap between the human and the divine, to come among us as one of us.
So let me see if I can do better on this First Sunday of Advent. I want to begin by playing a bit with the word “anticipation,” because this season evokes a sense of expectancy and anticipation that something is about to happen. Over the next four weeks, for instance, we will hear Isaiah, one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, thundering forth in anticipation that God is going to do something great—swords beaten into ploughshares (as he has it today); the wolf lying down with the lamb (from next week’s reading); the desert rejoicing in bloom (on the third Sunday); or a young woman bearing a child, whose name shall be nothing less than Immanuel, God with us (the fourth Sunday). Isaiah wants us to know that we are on the brink of something spectacular, he wants us to be full of anticipation.
Now, the word anticipation can mean a variety of things. If I say, “I anticipate being late,” I mean that I am running behind schedule, and wish to inform someone of my late arrival—it’s anticipation as planning. If on the other hand I say at the end of a letter, “I anticipate your response,” it is a way of establishing an expectation—it’s anticipation as pressure. Or, if I say, “I anticipate doing well on the exam,” I am expressing confidence in my preparedness—it’s anticipation as forecast.
The kind of anticipation to which Isaiah wants to draw us, however, is of a different sort. For him, anticipation is openness, vulnerability. Isaiah lived at a time when the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon, having been forcibly removed from their homeland. It was a time when the people felt threatened, suspicious of the stranger, defensive, living by the sword.
But then into their midst, Isaiah comes with an ability to see beyond the uncertainty and anger of these circumstances, to look for a time when God would set right what had gone wrong. And his core message becomes this: if the people want God to restore their fortunes, they must first open themselves up to the demands of justice and peace, “walking in the light of the Lord.” While the desperation of their circumstances may encourage them to retreat behind defensive barriers, only a risky but necessary turning to God’s paths of peace (beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks) will truly allow something new and better to emerge. The people’s instincts toward anger and aggression, in other words, will only lead them deeper into captivity; but God’s ways of justice and peace alone can lead them out of their captivity and bring them home.
Today, of course, we begin a new year in the Christian church, when we start to tell the story all over again of how God has acted to bring us all home in Jesus Christ. And you know already that this retelling is not a sequel. It is a rerun. For the next twelve months, we are going to say and do pretty much what we said and did for the past twelve months: follow the life of Jesus through his birth, his ministry of preaching and healing, his crucifixion and resurrection, his ascension, and his gift of the Holy Spirit to the community of his disciples. I’m sorry to say that there is no suspense, there is no surprise ending: you know it all already.
And yet there is anticipation, which keeps us turning the pages, because we have no idea how we are going to hear and receive the story this time around. We really don’t know how God will use the retelling of Jesus’ story, to remake us from within. We have no idea what we might hear, as if for the first time. We simply have to be open to what God might do, and be ready to respond.
In seminary, I always hated Bible content exams: the kind where you’re given a passage, and asked to identity where (if at all) it occurs in the biblical text. I always had the experience of thinking about at least one of the passages, “I’ve never heard that before in my life, so it surely isn’t in the Bible!” And then it would turn out that there it was, right in the middle of some super-familiar text like the creation story or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Silly me! Wrong answer. But I did at least learn that God does indeed have a way of surprising us with the unexpected, right in the midst of the familiar. Hence, our anticipation.
And I think that the reason the story catches so often catches us by surprise , is the nature of the story itself. The story that we tell—year by year, over and over again—has no real ending. The story has a message (that in the risen Jesus, sin is forgiven and life is given anew), but then when Jesus just leaves the disciples standing on a hill outside Jerusalem, there comes a kind of open-endedness that feels more like an ellipsis than a period. Rather than coming to a conclusion, the story opens up to include whatever comes next.
That’s why Matthew, in today’s gospel, is so eager to encourage us to watch for the Lord’s coming. The story of Jesus is not yet over, and the next chapter to be written is the one that includes us. And so, the question is put to us, what will our appearance in the story look like? Will it be of the sort that the prophet Isaiah envisioned, where enmity is put away in the name of justice and peace? Or will it be of the sort that is fueled by anger, resentment, mendacity, and egotism?
In the present moment, we are all only too aware that these are not just hypothetical questions, but that they are questions that we live with everyday in our interactions with our fellow citizens, and even with our own consciences. But the good news is that we can wrestle with these challenging questions with a sense of anticipation that the Lord will not sit silently by, but will enable us to “cast away the works of darkness” (as our prayer for the day put it) to live and work for a better day.
So as we enter into this Advent season, be prepared to hear the story we begin again, as if for the first time. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the troubles of the day, or by all those symbols of light and color (as a young preacher was once distracted himself), lovely though they are: but look with anticipation for how Jesus will come to you in this new telling of his—and your—story. We are all depending on it. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016