First Sunday in Advent
A lot of the scholarly scripture commentary on today’s reading from Isaiah focuses on a question Christians have been debating for a long while: is the life to which God calls us realistic? Or is it an idealistic picture that is meant to give us small comfort, but clearly not meant for us in any real kind of way today?
After all, the image Isaiah gives us for imagining our future with God is anything but the reality of the world we know today. In Isaiah’s vision, nations come together, united in climbing the mountains of God. They don’t just come together in some half-hearted way, either – they stream together, all pressing headlong in a rush toward God. They all recognize God.
Our modern relativistic attempts at keeping the peace with each other have no place here (“I have my God, and you have yours, and that’s okay because we should love each other anyway”). In Isaiah’s vision of God, people are not agreeing to disagree. Rather, they are so captivated by the sight of God that all else pales. They want to learn from God. God instructs and shows all these multitudes of people the way toward peace, and toward God’s very self.
In Isaiah’s image, too, God is giving judgement, nations are listening, and they are actually doing things differently. God’s judgement is not a scary judgement of war and wrath. This is a judgement where nations learn to make instruments of peace rather than weapons of war, where they agree that war is no longer part of the plan, where war will never again be part of the plan. The nations are so certain of God’s lasting peace that they are not even preparing for future wars.
This day Isaiah describes is one that Christians tend to see as an image of the end of time, the time when God will be all in all and draw all people to himself. This day on the mountain is not ordinary, at least not by our contemporary standards. In a world where we Americans still fight in some of the longest wars in our history, where people – maybe especially in these past couple weeks post-election– have arguments and fights and cannot really see each other and each other’s arguments – life on God’s mountain looks quite idealistic.
That’s what we comfortably tell ourselves when confronted with prophetic scriptures like Isaiah 2. Isaiah’s description can’t remotely touch the realistic state of our lives today. War, we say, is necessary to protect the innocent, and arguments are essential for staking a claim on the truth in the midst of a crazy, disunifying election. Where God appears in our conversations, God becomes divisive – turning us against them, the people who “really” follow Jesus against the ones who don’t. The benefit of Isaiah 2:1-5, say some commentators, is that we have an image that gives us hope in God, especially in this first Sunday of Advent.
God has a great surprise in store for us, though, when we read today’s other scriptures. In the gospel reading, it is the case that the time when God will be all looks very much like just an ordinary day. Jesus pointedly describes ordinary, everyday activities, such as growing and making food for our daily survival. It is in the midst of those quite ordinary activities that God will come to us and call us away. People will drink and dance and eat and get married like they have always done, Jesus tells us. Into that very ordinariness, God comes to us and takes us to himself.
One way to see Christian liturgy and life is that simple fact: God comes to us in water, bread, wine, oil, hands raised, words speaking. All ordinary stuff. That’s doubly the story of Advent and Christmas. The mystery of God’s incarnation in the child Jesus is very much an ordinary event – the birth of a baby, just like so many other babies. Yet Christians also believe there is something unique afoot in this ordinary event.
Paul’s letter addresses the question of how to be aware of God’s extraordinariness, when all around us life seems so very ordinary. We are at risk of falling asleep because life seems so ordinary – in fact, we might already be asleep from the very boredom of living through the everyday aspects of our lives! Yet Paul advises us to begin living our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. He asks us to realize that our lives are very different, very un-ordinary, because of the presence of Jesus. Recognizing this fact makes us live very differently – and should also make us realize that the mountain of the Lord is also already in our midst. Christ has already shared his very own peace with us be coming to us as a baby, by growing up, dying, rising, and ascending to heaven. We have that peace here, now, in our ordinary lives.
Paul suggests we live without promiscuity or drunkenness, rivalries or jealousies. These are things that perhaps enable us to “sleep” all the more, and ignore the presence of God in our ordinary lives. In our contemporary political climate, I worry especially about our rivalries. Since 2000, we Americans experience ourselves as being in an ever-more divided political climate, to the point that the continual story of the 2016 presidential election is some version of: “The other side doesn’t understand me/us.” Because we are human beings, misunderstandings are very probable, in fact! But if the main story is always that the other side doesn’t understand, then we are being lulled to sleep on tales of our own feelings of being misunderstood.
In that sleepiness induced by rivalries, we will miss the possibilities for bridging misunderstandings, for working together against certain evils, for learning to love each other in spite of it all. Our sleepiness especially might prevent us from seeing the face of God, and hearing the voice of God in our midst. Our sleepiness might prevent us from coming to know, once again, God-With-Us.
As we begin this new Christian year, let us see ordinary things with extraordinary vision. Let us see God at work even and especially in the most ordinary of places. Let us have hope in God who lives here and now with us, teaching us real peaceableness in our ordinary lives – and who asks us to be extraordinary witnesses to that peace.