It’s About Time
“The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 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 shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Prayer for Illumination
Speak to us, Lord.
Speak to us in the waiting, the watching,
the hoping, the longing.
Speak to us by your Word in these Advent days we pray
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 shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
This will be our family’s first Christmas here,
it’s a bit disorienting for Christmas is so often about old ways.
Do you always put the Christmas tree in that particular corner?
Always take pictures on a specific set of stairs,
arranged in the same order?
So much of the season is oriented around what has happened in days gone by.
My brother and I still call each other and leave voicemails singing old ditties our grandmother used to sing to us to help us count down the days.
Memories past are strong.
But Advent is relentlessly focused on the future,
on the coming arrival of God on Christmas day, yes,
and the coming of God’s promised day,
when all will be as God intends it for creation.
It’s why every Sunday at this wreath,
families will read a short passage from the prophets.
Today, Frances and Richard, reminded us
that all that is crooked will be made straight,
all that is rough, made smooth. That is God’s future. And it’s coming in time.
Our text for today envisions the day when violence is unimaginable,
when economies based on defense and might are dismantled,
when instead of the relentless treadmills of success and self-sufficiency
all people will walk in the light of the Lord, together.
But that time isn’t quite here yet.
And waiting, waiting is not easy.
During a season of my own life,
when I was wishing things were different,
when my impatience with the way the world is was high,
and my grief that the world isn’t yet the way it should be was deep,
my friend sent me a poem, by Maya Angelou[i]. Here’s part of it:
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
I thought of it this weekend, when we took the kids to see Frozen 2,
no spoilers, of course, but there is an encouragement there
to do the next right thing.
Continue. Do the next right thing. Put one foot in front of the other.
Isaiah’s vision begins with a little phrase:
in the days to come,
in the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains.
Are you ready to nerd out about the language of this little phrase?
Compare various translations of the Hebrew text and you’ll get all kinds of options:
In the latter days,
in the last days,
as in, at the end of time, past this present world era.
That kind of reading implies that this promise
isn’t coming in our time, but at the end times.
Our pew bibles, the NRSV, convicted that God’s promise is about our world
and our own experience of time, not another,
translates the phrase as: in the days to come, as in the future time.
I was struck by how one scholar described how this Hebrew phrase
can literally be translated “in the back of the days.”
It’s an orientation with regard to time which is contrary to the logic of our language[ii].
For the Hebrew, who reads from right to left,
and who finds the first page of the text at what we would call the end of the book,
for the Hebrew, what has already taken place lies in front of him, while what is to come lies behind him.
My friend Dan tells the story of taking his daughter, Elizabeth for a walk in the early evening. It never fails that at one particular point in the walk – the same stretch every time – Elizabeth gets irritable and fussy and doesn’t want to sit in her stroller anymore. Dan said, “Finally I figured out what should have been obvious all along:
I was walking forward, directly into the setting sun, which was bothering her little eyes since she’s never been much for wearing sunglasses. One day I’d had enough and decided to try something different, so I popped the stroller up on its two rear wheels and made a 180 degree turn, so that now I was pulling her behind me as I made my way down the road. She sat comfortably shaded then and quieted down, not seeming to mind that she faced backwards and couldn’t see where we were going.”
What if that’s how this works?
What if we are pulled into the future?
We always assume that our vision and our choices and our continuing forward,
our next right thing, our one foot in the front of the other is how we make it to those days to come, but what if, instead, we are pulled there by God.
Down the road, says the prophet, there is a bright, shimmering future for this world. The bruised and battered city of God will be raised like a beacon, and all the nations of the world – even the violent and hateful ones – will come hiking up the trail to see the light.
They will come backwards, perhaps – at least in a spiritual sense – because not one of them, even the prophet, could have predicted exactly how it all would play out.
The light of the Lord and his promised day is downright blinding in this life,
so we catch it sideways, as in a mirror dimly, until the journey’s through.
What we know as we walk the trail is that if we arrive at all, it is because we have been led there, drawn as to a magnet, pulled irresistibly toward what is good, and just, and holy on the mountain.
It is a path not of our own making, it never could be.
It’s the first Sunday of Advent,
and today, it’s about time.
God’s time that is coming and God’s way of drawing us into it.
Someone who shall not be named heard my sermon title for this week
and added an editorial comment.
It’s about time, he said, more like. . . It’s about stinking time.
And he may have used another adjective.
There was a bite to it, but also an underlying despair.
This time, this world, it’s hard.
We’ve moved from swords and spears to AK-47s and smart bombs
And we are dead set in our paths of division and anxious greed,
by now the paths are more like ruts.
And our grief turns dangerously toward indifference.
It’s about stinking time, he said,
and it was an acknowledgement that no amount of continuing is going to heal it all,
and no amount of doing the next right thing can ultimately make it right,
we need a savior,
we need something from beyond ourselves,
as Isaiah will say later,
“oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down”
And come down, God will. Come and make right. Come and be near.
That’s the promise of Advent.
Remember that old footprints in the sand poem?
That just when the despair over the world overtakes us, is when God says:
My child, I never left you. Those places with one set of footprints?
It was then that I carried you.
If Isaiah and I were to do a tongue-in-cheek rewrite it would be this:
that is some faithful one foot in the front of the other there,
but, my child, you see that long groove over there,
that my beloved one, is when I dragged you.
Friends, God is dragging us into God’s future.
Pulling us into God’s time, we can go kicking and screaming,
or as in a trust fall, we can fall backward into the arms of grace,
confident that God will pull us all the way home.
[ii] Isaiah 2: 1-5, The Well Davidson 2010. Many thanks to the Rev. Dan Lewis, whose scholarship greatly informed this sermon.