Sermon for Williamstown
The Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014
Advent: a time of thoughtful, yet joyful, preparation. As you’ll remember from last week’s video, (from Busted Halo, thanks!) Advent is a time to slow down, to ponder, to reflect on the astounding eruption of God into our lives. It’s a time to rejoice in God’s love for us, and to put time with God at the top of our agendas.
Well, maybe not. Despite all the wise words from last week’s video, most of us who celebrate Christmas have huge ‘to-do’ lists that involve buying presents, decorating trees and houses, and preparing food. Given all this, even for those of us who really, really do want to do Advent well, it can be more a season of distraction than of focus.
As well as this somewhat trivial contradiction between the thoughtful preparations for the Second Coming that Advent is meant to be, and the frantic preparation for Christmas that this time of year turns into, there’s the more profound contradiction between what we celebrate at Advent and the actual state of the world.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate Peace, the peace to all of goodwill that came with the birth of the Messiah. After an angel had announced the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds, Luke tells us: ‘suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”’ (Luke 2:13-14) In much of Australia there is peace, many Australians are profoundly blessed, but can we truly say that the coming of Christ brought peace on earth?
One of the things that I have become very aware of over the past couple of months is the difference between true peace and a mere absence of conflict. I’ve talked and written about my time in Bethlehem and the impact that seeing that absolutely enormous Separation Wall had on me. The Wall is there, the government of Israel says, to protect Israel from suicide bombers, but can an absence of violence brought about by military option really be called peace? I was a member of the Australian Student Christian Movement when I was at university and one of the slogans that we ASCMers often quoted was ‘No peace without justice’. Everything I saw in Israel and the Palestinian territories reminded me of that saying. And I am only thinking about Israel and Palestine because I was recently there and because we’re looking forward to celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. There are many, many other places around the world where an absence of conflict is misnamed ‘peace’. I’m reminded of a very famous quote from the first-century Roman historian Tacitus’ history of Rome’s conquest of Scotland. Tacitus writes a rousing speech that he puts into the mouth of the British leader, Calgacus, in which he says of the Romans: ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’
So we twenty-first century people aren’t alone in living with the contradiction between the problems we can see around us and the good news that God is with us, making all things new. And Second Isaiah, who wrote centuries before even Tacitus, has part of an answer for us.
As I reminded us last week, the Book of Isaiah contains the words of three prophets. Isaiah of Jerusalem, First Isaiah, wrote in the eighth century BC, warning his people that if they continued to do evil they would be punished. Sadly, it seemed that these prophecies came true: Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in the sixth century, its Temple was destroyed, and two-thirds of its people were deported to Babylon.
It was to these people that the prophet we call Second Isaiah wrote the chapters of Isaiah that we call ‘The Book of Consolation’, during the Exile. They start with the words that we hear today: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. That’s his message all the way through. The people are in Exile, but there is hope. Second Isaiah doesn’t write of judgment and condemnation but of comfort and trust. He looks around him at a people who felt deserted by God, oppressed by the Babylonian Empire, lost and forsaken, and tells them that despite their fears and doubts. God is with them, God is already in the world, redeeming it, and because of God’s presence there’s hope for the future. Second Isaiah tells the Exiles that the rough and mountainous land between Babylon and Jerusalem would be miraculously made smooth: ‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ Despite their powerlessness, despite the power of the mighty Babylonian Empire, God has not deserted them.
It seems a little strange that Second Isaiah’s message of consolation includes the statement that: ‘All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field’. Like the grass and the flowers people wither and fade. Where’s the comfort in that? The consolation is in what Isaiah says next: ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’. We ourselves, by ourselves, may be withering grass and fading flowers. We ourselves, by ourselves, may look at a world of war and pain, and struggle to see hope, peace, joy and love. But we’re not by ourselves! God is with us, and God in love has joined our lives to God’s story. The good news is that God ‘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’.
This is the message that Second Isaiah gave to the people in exile. This is the message that John the Baptist brought to the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem. This is the message that the author of the Gospel of Mark gave to his community after the Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple. Most importantly, this is the message of the Incarnation. God is present with us in the midst of all our contradiction and confusion. God is already doing miraculous things in the world. This is the message of Advent. In the birth of a baby, love came down at Christmas, and Advent reminds us to look with hope for the signs of God’s love already present and active in the world. In the midst of all the pain and anguish of the world are signs that Christ brought peace. For us, in the midst of all the rush and busyness of the pre-Christmas season is the space offered by Advent to look forward in hope.
I want to end with one of my favourite Christmas poems, which makes this point better than I could ever hope to do. You may remember it from last year, because it’s one that I ask to have read every Christmas Eve. It’s called ‘First Coming’ and was written by Madeleine L’Engle:
He did not wait till the world was ready;
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was great and deep.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait until the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!