Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Does Matter

Matthew 3:1-3; Isaiah 11:1-10

        Does Advent matter? Certainly Christmas does. Last year our Christmas Eve services were so large we had a major traffic jam as people leaving the early service collided with folks arriving for the later one. Our church was filled with visitors spending the holidays at Wintergreen. Faces I had never seen rushed down the hill to help us celebrate the birth of Christ.
I suspect there has been no parking problem today. You the faithful have gathered for the second Sunday in Advent. We have lit the Candle of Peace and sung another of those dark hymns that always show up early in December. I suspect one or two of you would rather be singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
Does Advent really matter? 
Allow me to share a story I suspect each of us has experienced. A group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each carried “the surprise”, the brightly wrapped package on which the child had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat and wave to his parents all at the same time slipped and fell. The surprise flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. 
        The child began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident, patted the boy on the top of his head and whispered, “It’s all right son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.”
        But the child’s mother gently took the boy into her arms and said, “Oh but it does matter. It matters a great deal.” And she began to weep with her son.
        This morning I would like to suggest Advent matters just as much as that carefully wrapped surprise.
        During the Christmas season we all have memories. One might argue Christmas is the season of memories. I remember as if it were yesterday coveting the star on top of my family’s tree. I remember shouting, “Mrs. Andrews, light your candles”. I remember spending Christmas in Korea without a ham. I remember Deb and me taking the children to hand out boxed meals to the hungry on Christmas morning. But I also remember something else. I remember reading those poetic passages from Isaiah proclaiming God was in the process of doing something extraordinary.
        When we think of poets we often imagine slightly delusional dreamers who lock themselves away from the realities of life. We think of an idealist sitting on top of a hill writing nonsense like, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat, and a little child shall lead them.” Often when we read those classic Advent passages from Isaiah, we smile and think to ourselves, “The guy must have been on drugs.” But since it is in the Bible, the Holy Word of God, we hesitate to allow ourselves the privilege of engaging in such heretically thinking. Instead, we take a step back and rationally conclude Isaiah was writing about the birth of Jesus. After all, he was a prophet. His poetry did not have to pass the reality test. It was a vision placed in his mind by none other than God.  Using this logic we can read Isaiah 11, take a deep breath, and sing, “Come Thou Long expected Jesus”.
But what if Isaiah was not sitting on a hill, sipping wine, and enjoying the sunset? What if Isaiah was not imagining an event seven centuries away? What if Isaiah was having a radical thought in the midst of an irrational situation? What if Isaiah actually believed peace could come to Jerusalem?
Suggesting peace in Jerusalem in any century is a noble but questionable consideration. There certainly was no peace in Jerusalem during the life of Isaiah. The very existence of Jerusalem was threatened by the Assyrian Empire. They were a ruthless and vicious people who seemed to only be at peace with themselves when at war with someone else. In 721 the Assyrians swept down from Syria and destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel. Only a treaty with Ahaz, the king of Judah, allowed Jerusalem to remain standing. But Judah was an enslaved nation, afraid to do anything that might upset their vicious neighbors. Ahaz summoned Isaiah to call on God to intervene. The words of Isaiah did nothing to settle the nerves of the broken king. Listen again to his response.
“A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse and the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. He shall be blessed with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and a respect of God. With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Ahaz knew Isaiah did not have him in mind and the king was right. Isaiah had given up on Ahaz but was hopeful that the king’s son Hezekiah would be the anointed one, the one who would restore the kingdom of David. History reports that while Hezekiah proved to be far better than his father, he also fell short of returning Jerusalem to its long lost status. But a seed had been planted in the minds of the faithful. One day the Anointed One would come. One day the Messiah would rise out of the ashes of a broken people. One day Jerusalem would be restored.
The Spirit of Advent began with the outrageous desire of a lone voice. It was a voice whispering through the centuries, rising and falling, forgotten and revived until the voice fell on a crazy man roaming around in the wilderness of Judea. John the Baptizer, in the finest tradition of Isaiah, screamed out to anyone who would listen, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And when he spoke, people remembered and they listened, and their hopes were revived.
That is what makes Advent so extraordinary. Advent is not just about remembering. Advent is about hoping for the improbable based on a belief in the impossible. A sensible person would warn you wolves only lie down with lambs if mutton is on the menu and yet we Advent people believe it is not beyond ones imagination. After all, if we believe in resurrection, how far away can the peaceable kingdom be?
Advent is having hope even as despair and chaos challenge the very foundations of our soul.
Advent is having memories even when folks find those recollections to be out of touch with their reality.
Advent is embracing the poet as the one who speaks the truth. 
Advent is recognizing the tears of God in the midst of tragedy and the laughter of God in the dawn of a new day.
Advent is when we remember the past,
                and find hope for tomorrow.
I think that really matters.

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