Time and Mortality

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40.1-11
As I sat down to read through the scriptures for this second Sunday of Advent, I noticed something in the text from Isaiah that I most assuredly missed every other time I had ever read this passage. For right after those tender words of comfort that Handel chose for his Messiah—and those stirring words about mountains and valleys that Martin had in his dream—are these words that startled me this week:

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40.6b-8, NRSV)

In the first five verses of this Sunday’s text, we catch a glimpse of the redeeming work God intends to do. The promised comfort comes as valleys raised and mountains razed. It is a vision of a new human topography, where everyone will walk together on a leveled common ground, and all people will see the glory of the Lord. Then in the final three verses, we hear words of calling and more comfort, marching orders for a herald of these good tidings:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”…He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
(Isaiah 40.9 and 11, NRSV)

In between these familiar, predictable, Advent-y bookends, verses 6-8 give voice to time, mortality, impermanence—dissonant in between words of comfort and calling. Verse six begins with the voice of an unnamed heavenly messenger, commanding the earthly prophet, “Cry out!” The prophet entreats, “What shall I cry?” and then immediately we readers hear that all people are like grass, inconstant and fading fast.

But it is precisely this reminder of impermanence that gives meaning and urgency to the work of proclamation: To paraphrase, “Run, don’t walk up a high mountain! Lift up your voice! Say to the people in the land you call home, ‘Here—right here among you—is your God!’” And if these words about human time and mortality give meaning and urgency to the prophet’s life in this text, then might they also do the same in our lives this Advent season?

Before attempting those answers, there seems another question must first be asked: did I just miss verses 6-8 all those other years? Or did I ignore them? And why am I not the only one? For the Roman Catholic lectionary for this week skips right over the very same section—going straight from verse five to verse nine. Chances are good, that I chose to gloss over these words for a reason. Because like most people I know, I have a somewhat adversarial relationship with mortality and time. Think of it–we’re all of us regularly trying to beat them both. Entire industries are built around products and procedures to slow or mask our aging. And everything from ATM’s to smart phones to Velcro tennis shoes are designed to help us “save” time.

But today’s passage from Isaiah suggests that rather than experiences to be fought, saved, beaten or denied, time and mortality are actually God’s gifts to us, creating a holy urgency in our lives and making sacred our days. This is a central conviction of the scriptures, and yet Christians regularly spend more time talking about what heaven is (or isn’t), than that one little detail that has to happen before we go…

At the organization where my husband works, the focus of their ministry is in palliative care; that is, they spend a great deal of time at the bedsides and with the families of those who are very near death. And so one day someone asked his teacher, “What is it like to spend so much time with people who are dying?” The teacher thought for a moment, and then with a wry smile replied, “Well the truth is, both of us spend all our time with people who are dying, the only difference is, the people I’m with know it.”

We would all do well to learn from the Buddhist evening chant, “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes, opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken, awaken, awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.” It’s not about moping around about the inevitability of death, but about living richly the miracle of life. And, I would add, unlearning our adversarial ways of approaching time and mortality so that we can answer the call of God in our own lives.

People in our families and in our neighborhoods and in our pews—along with nearly every clergy person I know—report feeling busier and more stressed than ever. And so might it be that the most comforting and challenging words in today’s passage are the ones I almost missed? The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

In her poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks pointedly and well, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And isn’t it possible that the best good news we can hear is that our lives are as wild and precious as the grass and flowers of the field?

Because our mortal lives are fragile, so too are they precious. Because time is fleeting, so too is it holy. Because we are like grass, our work is urgent with meaning. Because time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost, we must not squander our wild and precious and God-given lives. It is that awareness, that understanding, that connection to time and mortality—that might just give us the strength and the courage to get up to that high mountain, and raise (of all voices) our own, to say to the people of your city and mine, “Here is your God!”

It is Advent after all. So what are we waiting for?

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