First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2016
To be a preacher of the gospel is to traffic in absurdities.
Think about it. It’s absurd to get up in front of a group of sophisticated, educated people and tell them to worship a guy who lived and died two millennia ago who not only did not stay dead but also was not just a guy, but also God. It’s absurd to try to explain that we worship one God, who is really three, but who is really one. It’s absurd to suggest that the savior of the world was not a king or general or tycoon, but a homeless peasant who ran afoul of the powers that were and got squashed like a bug. It’s even more absurd to insist that it was from that very squashing that our salvation derives.
It’s absurd for me to stand up here in late November of 2016, with wars raging in Syria and Iraq; with a global refugee crisis greater than any since the Second World War; with a probably mentally unstable despot in North Korea working feverishly to produce a rocket that will be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US; with bigots and hate-filled people emboldened by the results of the presidential election harassing and attacking people and vandalizing or burning houses of worship; with a heroin and opioid epidemic raging here in Ohio; with gun violence raging unchecked in our city streets and more than two million of our fellow citizens behind bars—with all this going on it’s patently absurd for me to stand up here and tell you that Jesus is coming back to make all these terrible wrongs right. It’s absurd to approach another Advent season with a proclamation of hope and peace and the triumph of love.
It’s absurd because we know better. As Mark Twain famously observed, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
While I do not share Mr. Clemens’s dim view of faith, there is an element of it that does ring true, and that is the element of volition. Up to a point, anyway, faith is a matter of the will. We choose to believe or not to believe. I have long held that everything that happens in the world can be explained naturalistically. Even what one might consider “spiritual” or “supernatural” events have scientifically discernible causes. Near-death experiences, clairvoyance, encounters with ghosts, and the like can all be understood without recourse to any explanations outside the realms of biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. There is no compulsion for one to believe in the divine or spiritual realms if one does not wish to. A pure materialist can find ways to navigate the world without intellectual discomfort.
The flip side of this coin is that none of these naturalistic explanations preclude belief in spiritual causes and effects. That’s the volitional element of faith. Just because we can find a scientific way to explain one of Jesus’s healings, for example, does not in any way disprove that Jesus was the Son of God. Modern astrophysics may have given us a picture of the beginnings of the universe that is far more complicated than a literal reading of Genesis 1, but it cannot definitively remove God from the picture. The truth that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is not subject to debunking by any theory of the multiverse or the big bang or what have you. Faith is always an option. It’s not a matter of believing what ain't so, but rather of choosing to see the world in a certain way; of looking behind the facts to the underlying truth.
In the same way, when it comes to history, and the relations between persons and nations, we can let ourselves be blinded by the ugliness of our circumstances, or we can choose to look behind those circumstances and see reasons to hope. We can succumb to the temptations of cynicism—what its proponents like to call “realism”—or we can choose a vision of history that is grounded in faith. Cynicism is easier. Faith takes work.
The prophet Isaiah could have easily given in to cynicism. If you read the verses that immediately precede today’s passage, you get a clear-eyed picture of the situation in Jerusalem in the eighth century before the Common Era. Isaiah does not mince words in his indictment:
How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them (Isa 1:21–23).
Injustice and venality rule the day; idolatry has replaced covenant faithfulness. As a result, the prophet declares, judgment is coming on Jerusalem. He writes:
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted [probably a reference to sacred groves in which the people worshiped other gods]; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen. For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them (Isa 1:27–31).
As I read these lines, I keep hearing in my head Pete Townshend’s song “Give Blood,” about the situation in South Africa in the mid-Eighties, during the tense and fearful death throes of Apartheid, in which the semi-deranged voice of a sidewalk preacher declares, “I tell ya, it’s all building up to something—something that can only be redeemed with fire!” That is the situation in Jerusalem as Isaiah sees it “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1).
But Isaiah is a prophet, so his vision is not limited to the circumstances he witnesses with his eyes. He sees a deeper reality behind the disastrous situation he and his people face in the so-called real world. He chooses to look with the eyes of faith, and sees a vision in which that same idolatrous city of Jerusalem and the temple at its heart will become the center of a world of peace, justice, and faithfulness. Because he, too, traffics in absurdities. Listen again to his beautiful but hard-to-credit description of the coming transformation of Mount Zion:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come 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. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (vv. 1–5).
What a wonderful description of the future world of peace! And what a contrast to his description of the current state of affairs! For anyone unable or unwilling to look at the world with eyes of faith, it is a truly absurd pipe dream. For those who do choose faith, however, it is not something they know ain’t so, not a wistful fantasy of a world that can never be, but rather a sure and certain hope of what will indeed come to pass “in days to come.” The cynic sees what she calls the real world and despairs. The prophet sees behind that world to one that is even more real, though yet unseen, and rejoices.
That is what Advent is about, after all. We are waiting, hoping, praying for that promised real world to come and replace this shabby, broken-down one we find ourselves in. To the cynic and the scoffer, we’re fooling ourselves. Like Job’s wife, they would counsel us to curse God and die. But Advent people are a stubborn people. Stubbornly hopeful. We would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, because we know the truth that Sting once noted: “At night a candle’s brighter than the sun.” We believe, because we choose to, that one day the weapons of war will be melted down and transformed into tools that sustain life. We believe, because we choose to, that violence and war and inequity will one day be overcome, and justice and the life-giving word of God will prevail. We believe, because we choose to, that one day the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains—not the mountain of commerce, or the mountain of bigotry, or the mountain of domination or greed. We believe, because we choose to, that one day we are all gonna lay down our burdens down by the riverside and we ain't gonna study war no more.
We choose to believe because we are stubbornly hopeful. We are Advent people.
Did you notice something odd about the wording Isaiah uses to describe his vision? Listen to verse 1 again: “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” Did you catch that? The word that Isaiah saw. Not the word he heard, but the word he saw. Now, this could be simply an instance of a writer getting caught up in the fever of his vision and choosing the wrong word in his rush to get the message down on parchment, but it may be more than that. In Richard Russo’s latest novel, Everybody’s Fool, one of the characters quotes his eighth-grade English teacher who used to say that the right word, the well-chosen metaphor, is worth a thousand pictures. Something like that may be going on here. When the word of the Lord comes to you, I mean really comes to you, you don’t just hear it or read it; you see it.
Can you see the word that came to Isaiah? Can you picture the tectonic plates shifting and the earth groaning as Mount Zion gets raised up until it towers over all other heights? Can you see the gold and alabaster of the temple gleaming in the sun? Can you see the spiderweb of roads leading from the farthest-flung lands of the earth, all in motion as the people stream toward Jerusalem? Can you hear the people saying to one another in a multitude of tongues, “Let us learn from God and walk in God’s paths”? Can you see the compassionate judge on the bench, dispensing justice to the poor, rectifying all wrongs, and reconciling old enemies? Can you see the fires of the forges where the blacksmiths are pounding away? Can you see the line of people waiting outside the smithy, holding their swords and spears and battle axes, and the steady stream of those leaving the shop with plow blades and pitchforks in their hands? Can you see it?
Maybe you can’t. Sometimes I can’t, I confess. Sometimes the hatred and violence, the disease and death, seem so powerful that they obscure the hopeful vision Isaiah describes. Sometimes I’m like the angel Clarence at the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life, who can’t see the vision Joseph is trying to show him because he hasn’t got his wings yet. Sometimes I need the help of a friend, a mentor, a fellow believer, to help me get my vision back in focus. Sometimes I get to be that friend and mentor to someone else who is struggling to see with the eyes of faith.
Advent calls us to look beyond and behind what the cynics would have us believe is the real world to see the realer world the prophet points to. Advent calls us to see the word of the Lord that Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate—what he called the reign of God. Advent calls us not only to see that word, but to live it; to find ways to put into practice with stubborn hopefulness that vision of justice and shalom and beauty even in the midst of the ugliness all around us. Advent calls us in the voice of the Spirit of God, O house of Jacob … O people of God … O University Baptist Church of Columbus, Ohio … come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!