a sermon on Psalm 122 and Isaiah 2:1-5 for the First Sunday of Advent
As many of you have figured out by now, I love Advent. This brief four-week season that starts out the church year and bridges that gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my favorite time of the church year. Some of that is because I think we too often forget about the importance of preparation in our world. I believe that it is essential to pause and get ready for the major milestones in our lives, to spend time intentionally getting our house in order so that the coming celebration can mean all the more.
But this year, I think there is something different in my thinking about Advent and Christmas. This year, it doesn’t seem like there is the same sort of preparation before us. I don’t see the kinds of substantial and uncertain change ahead in our church or our world that help make Advent more meaningful to me. The anxiety of this year’s Christmas season seems to be much more focused on the immediate stress of these busy days and not on something else. There is still plenty of war and strife and poverty and injustice in our world, but it seems to be touching us less and less, and so our longings for something new seem to be less dramatic and immediate than they have been.
And yet this season of preparation for radical change, this time called Advent, is still before us. It calls out that there is something new ahead. It insists that our preparations for Christmas be more than simply buying the perfect presents, setting out the perfect decorations, and getting all the other festivities of the season in exact order. It reminds us that Christmas is not a simple and sweet holiday about the birth of a baby but rather a radical intervention by God that changes everything.
This year, in preparing for this season, our readings from the prophet Isaiah stuck out to me. Isaiah has the wonderful ability to speak so meaningfully to so many different contexts. First it speaks to the prophet’s own time, when he was encouraging the people to amend their ways and return to the Lord after they had taken up different paths focused on their own prosperity and righteousness. Then it speaks again in the days of the assembly and editing of the Hebrew Bible, what we often refer to as the Old Testament, when these words offered great comfort and challenge to a people who were struggling to reestablish their relationship with God and one another without the independence that had defined their identity. Isaiah speaks again to a later day and age, the time when Jesus emerged, when these words gave these hearers hope of a Messiah who would make everything different once and for all. And even now, today, these words point us forward to a future time when God’s presence will be all the more real and complete, when all things will be made new and all creation will walk in the light of the Lord each and every day.
Our readings this morning from Isaiah and the Psalms point us to this kind of journey of walking in the light of the Lord and show us a bit of the destination that is before us. The goal of this journey, you see, is certainly a new and deeper celebration of Christmas, but it is also something more, something that is more deeply transformative of us and our world than just another baby being born, something that gives us a glimpse of God’s new thing that was begun but not finished in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus. These readings point us to the holy mountain of God, to the sacred and holy place that stands at the center of all creation, to the great temple that stands as the highest of mountains, above all the hills. This holy mountain is the abiding place of God, the place where we know the fullness of God’s presence in our lives and our world, the place where instruction and wisdom flow forth each and every day, the place where swords are beat into plowshares, spears turned into pruning hooks, and the knowledge of war becomes the practice of peace. This year, as much as ever, I believe that the path from Advent to Christmas demands that make our way to the holy mountain of God.
But this vision from Isaiah only gives us a partial image of what we should expect to see at the end of this journey. We don’t have the same expectations and understanding of the temple that were prominent in Isaiah’s own time. The holy mountain of God that we need and expect for our own time is quite likely very different from what our parents and grandparents expected. And this holy mountain where we will know the transformation of our world is only now coming into view.
It’s quite like an incredible view of the city that I experienced on one of my several flights in recent weeks. It was a cloudy and foggy night, with low clouds hanging over almost all of the city—except for a small part of lower Manhattan and Battery Park City that was crystal clear all the way down to ground level and of course the spire of the Empire State Building, peeking its tip through the clouds. It was an eerie sight, with very familiar elements that were yet very different from the view that I know quite well. There was so much that was so familiar—and so much more that was still shrouded from view. This is what is before us as we approach the holy mountain of God this Advent—a glorious yet uncertain and incomplete view of something new, an astounding sight of God’s wonder and grace that is yet beyond our understanding until its full unveiling in the days to come.
Even though we don’t know the fullness of this new thing, exactly what this holy mountain will look like, or even when we might get there, we can still prepare ourselves to enter this holy place. Ultimately as much as Advent is about getting ourselves ready for Christmas, it is also about getting ready for this bigger thing, too, for the day that is to come when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills.” These preparations involve an honest look at our lives and our world, a careful assessment of the things that distract us from the journey to God’s holy mountain, and a hopeful view of the things ahead that will help open our eyes for a glimpse of God’s new thing that is ahead. And just like that strange night view of the city, we will likely have glimpses all the way to the surface of this new thing, too—little spots where peace suddenly prevails over the ways of war, brief moments when we begin to understand what God is up to in our lives and figure out how to join in, surprising opportunities to do something new and take a couple steps forward on the path to the holy mountain.
There is no better place to take our first steps on this journey, then, than at this table. This feast is the closest thing we can know in the here and now to God’s holy mountain, for this table sits at the intersection of heaven and earth. It brings together the meal shared by Jesus and his disciples before his death and after his resurrection with the glorious feast that we will share with him and all the faithful on God’s holy mountain. We are right in the middle, right here and right now, ready to experience this foretaste of something new, to welcome this strange feast that will give us sustenance for the journey.
So as we set out on this journey for God’s holy mountain, may you spend your days reflecting on what this strange and wonderful holy place might be in your life and in our world, and may the feast we share today sustain us along the way until we join with the faithful of all nations, of every time and place, to walk in the light of the Lord each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.