Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
One of the many places I'd like to visit someday is Ireland. In the early centuries of this millennium, the southwestern coastline of Ireland was the end of the known world-- which someone suggested may be why it's dotted with prehistoric stone circles and the ruins of ancient monastaries.
One of these monasteries was built on an impossibly steep rock island eight miles off the coast. For 700 years, the monks there practiced a strict, ascetic way of life. They survived the weather and raids by the Vikings. They hauled stones to build 2700 steps up the mountain's dizzying height-- to the prayer huts on top the mountain. They'd climb up to the mountaintop to pray... and to watch for Christ to return in power and glory.
In the eleventh century, a more relaxed form of monastic rule came into fashion on the mainland. When the European orders of Benedictines and Augustinians arrived in Ireland, the local tradition of small, independent monasteries began to die out. In the thirteenth century, the last of the monks got into their boats and rowed away from their rocky outpost.
We don’t know for sure why they left, but it's possible that they just got tired of waiting. As Barbara Brown Taylor suggests when she tells about this monastery, seven hundred years is a long time to watch the horizon for the second coming. It's a long time to keep your fasts and say your prayers at prescribed times throughout the day and night. It's a long time to live in strictly disciplined community with one another-- especially when word reaches you that the monks on the mainland have made some changes. They're eating better and sleeping later than you are. They've decided they can be in the world a little more without being of it-- especially since it looks like they're in for a longer wait than anyone had expected.
More than 700 years later, we can empathize. Few of us spend our days watching the horizon expectantly for Christ's second coming, although over the centuries there have been folk who compute dates for the coming of the Lord, convincing their little band of followers to stand on a hillside somewhere, ready to be Raptured up!
The earliest Christians thought the Second Coming would be immediate... and they lived accordingly. For many centuries, Advent was observed as a season of preparation and waiting. The faithful waited for the feast of the Nativity, a time to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. They waited for the Second Coming of the Christ.
More than 2,000 years have passed since God came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus hasn't come back. So it's easier for Christians to live as if the present world is all that we can expect.
After all, we hate to wait. Waiting is hard. We live in an age of microwave dinners.,,salad in a bag… fast food restaurants.
Waiting is hard. From the time the days start getting shorter and shorter in the fall-- I can't wait until they start getting longer again. Waiting is hard for us. But it’s an important part of our spiritual journey.
We only lit one candle today in the Advent wreath. That’s because we still have some waiting to do. There are two more blue candles and a rose one yet to go-- and it still won't be Christmas until Christmas Eve and we light the Christ candle. We have some waiting to do...as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming.
Waiting has always been hard. If you read the Bible, you will discover that the Bible is full of stories about what faithful people did while they waited. It’s full of promises not yet fulfilled.
Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets were writing and talking about waiting for one who would be like a light for the darkness. Those who heard the prophets were weary with impatience. They wanted the Messiah now. They yearned for God to be on their timetable. For years... for centuries... through the events of history, God's answer was, "WAIT."
We’re still waiting. On this First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of our new year, the first words from Scripture the church hears are from the prophet Isaiah: “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—all the nations—shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD…that God may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
Now, these words may be familiar to some of us, and we may read through them too quickly to hear something new. So I want us to slow down, to wait for a few moments and ponder their meaning.
This week I heard something new in this passage. “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” It doesn’t say Isaiah heard a word from the Lord. Isaiah saw the word.
This vision Isaiah received and prophesied says, “In days to come…” It doesn’t give us a timetable for when this word will be fulfilled.
It’s hard to wait. It’s hard to stay hopeful when there’s so much in the world that’s so wrong. Even the second-generation Christians-- the ones to whom the New Testament was originally written-- weren't immune to this loss of faith in the coming kingdom of God. The passionate hope in the second coming of Christ dimmed as the days wore on. The early Christians were having trouble hoping. So it was important for the church to remind them of Jesus' warning: "Be ready.”
Strange as it may seem, that passage wasn't written about the future, as we understand it. It had everything to do with the early Christian's experience of the present and how they lived it. It was written to encourage them during hard times... and to call their attention to the signs of the forthcoming kingdom.
We have prayed for peace, and still we wait. We have prayed for healing in the quiet corridors of the hospital. We have prayed for the healing of the creation... and the healing of the wounds of racism. We pray, and we wait.
We've all known the sense of loss and disappointment when something we hoped for doesn't come. A husband and wife try and try to conceive a child, in vain. Plans for a long-awaited visit are changed. Even Christmas day has its own measure of disappointment. The packages are opened... the gifts are admired. But later the tree comes down... the nativity scene is stored away for another year. The long-awaited day passes with a sense that nothing really has happened.
In a far more profound way, the church has always struggled with its pain over a future that fails to come.
"Come, Lord Jesus," the early Christians prayed... but it was Roman soldiers who came. "This world is passing away," they sang... but the world remained.
People can live on the edge just so long, before they get weary of watching and waiting for the light of a day that doesn't dawn. If the church is standing at the threshold of God's future kingdom of justice, then the church can dare to touch the wounds of lepers and pour out its resources freely for the poor. If the new age of healing and mercy is just around the corner, then the church can cheerfully bear suffering and persecution... and faithfully sing its alleluias.
But if there is no God-shaped future at hand... if nothing is about to happen-- then there's just a series of days... a bottomles pit of human need.
All there is left for the church to be is another well-meaning institution. All that's left for the church to do is to get together for routine Sunday services... collect the pledge cards... and keep the doors open...have pot-luck suppers and the roof repaired. If nothing is about to happen.
And yet-- as Christians, we're called into a life of hope and trust. Each day brings an opportunity for us to experience the miracle of the dying and rising of Christ... and a new opportunity to live out Christ's love in our lives.
The season of Advent is a time when we practice hopeful waiting. If we are not powerful or rich, we look around us and see that things in the world are not as they should be. Without God’s promises as the basis and ground of hope, the future could be just a repetition of the past.
But we have a choice. In the midst of the waywardness and idolatry and brokenness around us, we can choose to live as nothing will change. Or we can choose to stake our lives on God’s promises.
We are in the presence of a mystery. God’s justice and peace will come to pass among the nations “in days to come.”
Wait. Be ready. Trust that the future is based on the promises of God. Hope in God’s hope for us-- the hope that the people will make peace, as swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks.
What Isaiah proclaims is not only a vision of global transformation, but an invitation to live toward that day: “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”
No matter how hard it is sometimes to trust that a new reality will come some day, there is hope and power in walking in God’s light now, one step at a time.
Prophets like Isaiah and his contemporary, Micah, paint a picture of an alternative reality and proclaim God’s truth that God requires justice and mercy… and invites us to walk humbly with God.
During Advent, we practice hopeful waiting, as we prepare our hearts to welcome the Christ child more fully into our lives. We look forward to the time when “Christ will come again.” But this waiting isn’t passive. We live in this time between the two comings as followers of the One we know in part as the “Prince of Peace.”
God doesn’t call us to an illusory peace of families or congregations that are afraid to talk about difficult issues, but the peace that decides to do the hard work of including everyone and knowing each person as a beloved child of God.
God calls us to a peace that says we may disagree about some things, but we’re not going to let our differences keep us from loving one another and being the church together.” God calls us to the ministry of reconciliation—with one another, with God, and with all of creation.I believe Isaiah and the other prophets wanted to energize the people with hope. They tell us that we don’t have to accept things as they are. They showed us how to speak truth to power. I believe they still cast a vision of an alternative reality—of God’s kingdom—for us all these years later. They challenge us to see what is beyond our seeing.
The prophets saw something beyond our everyday vision—they imagined a path of righteousness and justice, and abundant life.
This Advent, we are waiting once again. We wait to hear the nativity story again, of a child born under the shadow of a mighty empire… a story of a child who would deliver us from death itself and show us the way to truth and life. We wait for Jesus to be born again in our lives.
When we get tired, when we feel hopeless, when we are weary of resisting, when we are afraid to make waves, when we are told over and over again that this is just how things are going to be for a while and we should just accept it-- the prophet’s call is clear. God has something better for us. We are called to walk in the light of God, in the way of justice and mercy and freedom. We are called to walk with God and be transformed, so that we can work with God to transform the world.
As we walk in God’s light, every word we say, every thing we do, every prayer we pray is important. In Advent, we are looking for the inbreaking of peace. We look for the dawn of a new day.
So pray. Pray for the coming of the Christ. “Come, Lord Jesus!” Pray for Christ’s rule in our lives... and in the world. Pray "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done"-- because that is the one prayer that we know will ultimately be answered.
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2016