Isaiah 19:1-4 &18-25
(John the Baptist’s call was used for the call to worship.)
In Advent we cultivate our hopes as a winter crop. Now, there are Christmas list hopes—Jessica already knows that I’m hoping for a watch, something antiquey but not too expensive, of course. Needless to say a watch will help keep my sermons on time. And let’s not forget getting to meetings on time. So there is good reason for us all to focus our hopes on this watch; indeed, there’s no reason I should be the only one to impress upon Jessica the gravity of this Christmas hope. /Gift-giving is at the center of the secular or interfaith meaning of Christmas; exchanging gifts renews the bonds of our friendship and love by symbolizing the mutual giving that is inherent to love. It does not shake up or transform as much as reaffirm. That’s all very good and we do well to join in. Love is after all our theme for this second Sunday of Advent, and we have lit the candle of love.
But Advent hope that is proper to the church takes on another and very strange dimension; something I’m trying to get at by focusing on the apocalyptic element of Advent. When God is the giver and God is the gift—well, first of all we are now dealing with something which we can hardly expect to wrap our minds around: God giving God, what can that mean? We are unlike to completely understand this, but try we must.
When God is the giver and the source of hope, our hopes should take a wild, even apocalyptic flight. God kicks everything about life into a kind of absolute overdrive: flaws becomes sin unto death, and love becomes all-embracing. Hope likewise becomes the kind of radical, absolute hope that we see in the prophets like Isaiah or John the Baptist, who is also celebrated today, a hope that could never come about unless God were its source. And those who stake themselves on radical hope, the kind of hope that makes you tear up your Christmas list and leave your sheep in the field or wander star-struck like one who is at once a king and a refugee, these people of godly crazed inspired hope are given a critical realism about the reality all around them. They see the treacherous Herod for who he is. They are not beholden to the status quo and its enervating limits. They can stand up to the powers that be but also to the malaise of the people. Isaiah did this; he was tough on everybody. And John the Baptist called out the people, great and lowly, from the supposedly holy city of Jerusalem, knowing that at its heart was a corrupt priesthood in league with Roman oppressors, presiding over the temple. John called them out to a crazy act of public baptism and repentance to prepare for the coming One.
What about our holy temple? Our ‘priesthood’—would John call me out? (I am reminded that we affirm the priesthood of all believers, so you are all in this with me.) Whom are we in league with, convinced though we may be, like the temple priests and Sadducees, that we the keepers of God’s charge? Would John call us out to the wilderness? Are there voices like John’s today, doing so? Have we sought them out?
Only a voice that can hope in God can have the power to call out, to cry out, and to show us that critical realism about our situation. This hope is ours for the taking. We have been called by a deep longing within our created being to love, and we know of the promise of love which the Messiah brings; and so we have been freed to see the division, strife, and hatred all around us for what it is: Herod’s Kingdom; the Empire of Maneuvering and Triangulation; the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ that turns human beings and the whole biosphere into fuel for the economy, that plays groups against one another in useful enmity.
But beware: god-fired hope can get out of control. There are plenty of radical agents of hope out there who are poster children for idolatry (the leaders and followers of ISIS or Daesh are the most visible example). They capitalize on disaffection and even the idealism of youth, transmuting idealism into an idolatry of a god of death ad hate. Isaiah schools us in calling this out. But there are others doing something similar with the name of Jesus. And so we hear John and ourselves prepare the way of the Lord with radical, mountain-leveling and valley-raising hope, but we must go on to see what the coming One will do with these hopes when he arrives. Come Epiphany, we must begin to let our radical hopes be reshaped at the feet of Jesus.
And similarly, Isaiah’s hopes are reshaped by John and by Jesus. Isaiah’s great texts of hope are essential to Advent: “For a child has been born for us…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And: “Behold, the virgin is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” Amid these great texts of hope, Isaiah unleashes withering judgments from God upon the people, and upon the unfaithful rulers of Israel. His radical hope freed him for critical discernment. Now to be fair, we take these famous Advent texts out of context. The original Hebrew has “young woman,” not necessarily a virgin. And Isaiah seems to be talking about events of political importance happening in his own time; for instance, he frequently expresses distrust of alliances with foreign powers. One of the births heralded by Isaiah is likely the young king Hezekiah, whose coronation occurred during Isaiah’s lifetime. I am pretty confident that if a reporter had asked Isaiah, “Are your prophesies really about the birth of Jesus 700 years from now,” I think Isaiah would have said, “Jesus who?”
But Isaiah was so taken with the power of hope in God that his hopes burst the limits of earthly kingship. Despite his involvement in the events of his day, he ends up prophetically evoking a hope that no regular king and no political strategizing could ever live up to. And that is why we rightly, if imperfectly, apply his predictions to Jesus. Likewise, we also should allow our hopes free reign, if we want to speak prophetically of the birth of Jesus 2000 years after the face.
The reading from Isaiah for today is not a typical Advent reading, but it fits and can be interpreted similarly. Isaiah issues dire predictions for Israel’s foe Egypt. And so he has God say, “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, one against the other, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.” What here can we not apply to ourselves, to our own day?
You might be aware that Egypt today, like so many countries negotiating the challenges of modernization, is a mess; and so is the modern day equivalent of the other empire Isaiah names, Assyria—its lands included parts of today’s troubled morass comprising Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. You may also know that the policies of the US are deeply embroiled in challenges Egypt and these others are going through, and so our hands are not clean, however one judges our efforts to offer a helping hand. Suffice it to say, peace in today’s Egypt and Assyria seems impossible; every attempt to help seems to make things twice as bad.
But the woes Isaiah portends for Egypt could hit home, too. Our own nation is wracked by division and neighbors turning against neighbor, city against city. Instead of constantly repenting and going out to seek peace, we remain in our enclaves—racial, gendered, lifestyle, political, patriotic—until some outrageous or violent act forces us out—a police shooting, an act of sexual violence, another mass shooting, a scandal, or a terrorist attack. At that point it is too late for peace. Lines will be drawn, and at best we feel the temporary comfort of solidarity with our in-group, and in the ensuing scuffle, perhaps the relative balance of power between factions will shift in a healthy direction; at worst, a new round of bloodletting against the outsider will begin, who is often cut down or pushed out before we even know who is it we are attacking (think of the Sikhs killed after 9-11).
And are things so different within our church? Are we at Granby at peace with even our Massachusetts conference? I’ve heard enough about “corporate” from here and “those cheapskates” out there to wonder. And even among us in this inspiring space, how deeply etched is factionalism among us? How much of our power comes from the love born of the Holy Spirit, versus the cheap high we get when we bond with our allies against our foes?
Notice that Isaiah attributes all this division, this turning upon each other, to God, strangely, whom he has say “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians…” That may not be a helpful way to look at it—does God cause the world’s divisive violence? But notice God explains, “I will confound their plans.” I suppose we can say that the only godly outcome of our divisive and hate-prone tendencies is that they usually keep one group from getting so powerful that it can wipe out all others.
But Isaiah, whose critical realism is only borne of his wild hopes, sees a redemption at the end of this struggle. “On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan”—speakers of Hebrew, that is—“and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts.” These cities will be delivered by God from their oppressors, much as we are hoping and praying for deliverance from oppression during this Advent season. But notice that this time, deliverance of the Israelites won’t mean the ruination of Egypt; no more plagues and drowning of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea. “The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day.” This turnaround or repentance will not come easy: “The Lord will strike Egypt,” Isaiah says, but unlike the Exodus story, he continues: “Striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.” And in the end, Assyria also gets included in God’s blessing, although it is unclear whether they also will go through a repentance. But in the end God is blessing these three great, divided arch-rivals: “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” Whatever division God may be stirring up, God’s ultimate goal remains shiningly clear.
Isaiah’s prophesy has all pointed to “That day;” the constant refrain is, “on that day.” Busy day! I thought I had a long day on Thursday. Sheesh. This is the language of the Day of the Lord, found across many of the prophets—a day of great hope for peace but also of looming conflict and battle. This talk of the Day of the Lord gets gradually shaped Apocalyptic hope that forms the background of the whole New Testament, and not just the book of Revelation; but Apocalyptic hope also is reshaped and transformed in the New Testament.
A glimpse at the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a hint about how; and indeed it is exactly this transformation of hope that we await in Advent and will receive beginning on Christmas, if in our waiting we have truly prepared ourselves to have our minds blown. Paul’s letter is brimming with the same apocalyptic “on that day,” when all will be brought to completion and there will be a “harvest of righteousness,” as he says; but this day is now reshaped into “the Day of Jesus Christ.” And there is no brooding over nor fear about in this Day. Instead, Paul’s paragraph of greeting, taken by itself, shines like the star over Bethlehem—a signal and promise of the fullness of redemption coming. Don’t you wish you could be among the Philippians, receiving such beautiful tidings.
Paul writes as a founding father but not a patriarch. The Philippians did not just receive the gospel from Paul, but were “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Paul is confident that God will bring them to their own completion, and through their gathering and overflowing love, bring them into all insight and wisdom needed to do great things—despite Paul being far away, locked up in prison. Paul does not begrudgingly, or certainly arrogantly, express authority and swagger over his children. He has clearly received as much joy from the Philippian church as whatever he has given them; “How I long for all of you with the compassion (also translatable as affection) of Christ Jesus,” he testifies, richly bespeaking the love he has for them.
Later on in the letter, he comes back to earth and addresses some problems the church is having. This is still what has been called the “church militant,” struggling unto the Final Day of the Lord, when we shall at last be the “church triumphant.” But there is a visible trajectory in Paul’s letter from the struggle to the triumph. Isn’t this the church we want to be? Isn’t this our true Christmas wish and hope? And if not, why not?
As we take a hard, honest, critical look at the world around us and our collusion with it, the spirit of love in Paul’s letter may sound impossible. As impossible as it is to imagine the fulfillment today of Isaiah’s vision about peace and blessing between Israel, Egypt and the lands now cursed by ISIS. Can you hope-filled imagination picture worshipping together with the contrite and repentant followers of this idolatrous, perverted version of noble Islam, this ISIS whom we cannot but now hate? But the power of love is real, not impossible; it shines forth in Paul’s letter as a historical testament, not a fanciful utopia or a mythology of some primordial paradise. It actually happened. It’s a real letter to a real community, made up of formerly hostile Jews and Gentiles. And this same love is already gestating within us. We do well to let ourselves be astounded by all this, and to let the wonder tingle on our tongues like a spiced, foreign phrase, the gift of travelers from the East: Allahu akhbar. God is great.