Wendell Berry observes that it’s not enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. For many, such an insight serves mainly to underwrite the idea that we can worship God best in nature’s environs: mountaintops, seashores, golf courses. But I think that Berry is on to something else, as are the appointed texts for the season of Advent generally and for the third Sunday especially.
The Advent scriptures are relentlessly eschatological: preoccupied with consummation and completion, concerned with all things, at long last, being set to right. This in itself is a jolt to our culturally-conditioned piety – our understanding and embrace of Advent as the countdown to Christmas and all that.
Even more of a challenge, perhaps, is the particular vision of Advent’s eschaton: transformed landscapes (blooming deserts, water in the wilderness); the glory and majesty of forests and mountains (Lebanon, Carmel, Sharon). Eschatology here is topographical, earthy, local. It is, at heart, about the renewal of creation. Christ’s second Advent portends not the sweeping of souls up into the clouds but heaven come to earth. It’s land reform, people.
But it’s people reform, too: blind eyes opened, deafness cured, lepers healed, the dead raised. It is justice executed: food for the hungry, prisoners set free, the rich sent away empty. It is good news, at long last, for the poor.
And you need the grown-up Jesus for this. The Advent scriptures are not about a baby. It isn’t until Christmas Eve that we read the familiar, beloved birth narrative. And even on Christmas Day – the Feast of the Nativity – the primary liturgical text is not the one about shepherds and angels but rather John’s brainy prologue: “In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos who became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood,” as The Message translation has it.
And the neighborhood is undergoing a makeover, a complete overhaul, in fact. This week Isaiah and Mary foretell this, the Psalmist celebrates it, and James and Jesus preach it – each of them in their way summoning us to our part: to be bearers of the good news, agents of healing and transformation, participants in the holy, adventurous work of bringing heaven to earth.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.” Advent takes us out of ourselves and outside to a world groaning in travail – a world in ecological crisis, billions of its inhabitants suffering grievously and needlessly, longing for shalom. If we respond to the summons, we’re promised in Isaiah that this “Holy Way” is so blessed that “not even fools shall go astray.” That’s a pretty compelling promise for fools like us: in the shared work of healing and transformation our own salvation is found.