While a man had gone out driving to do some Black Friday Christmas shopping, his wife had been watching TV when she heard the announcer say, “Be very careful and watch driving on the 401 today, there is a motorist driving the wrong way”! His wife got hold of him on the cell phone to warn him, and his reply was: “You tell me, there are hundreds of them here.”
I hope that in the busyness of the season all of us remember to stay focused out there on the roads! This time of the year can get quite hectic – it’s hard for me to believe that December is almost here. There is always a great deal of preparations to make in gearing up for the Christmas Season – including shopping, family dinner planning, et al – but also to spiritually prepare for this most holy season. Today is the first Sunday of Advent and throughout the next four weeks we will sing songs, pray prayers, and hear Scripture readings that are all designed to put us in an Advent frame of mind. Advent, as we know, has the purpose of preparing us for Christ’s coming in the Incarnation at Christmas, but also warns us to be prepared for the second coming of Christ.
Advent Theme: Christ’s Return
Our gospel reading today reflects how urgent it is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. Jesus warns his audience that the ‘Son of Man’ (a title he gives himself to designate his status as the Messiah) will come suddenly and that even he does not know when exactly that will be. He warns us not to be like the people in Noah’s day that were too preoccupied with going about their routines to notice their impending doom. It’s a frightening image furthered by Christ’s story about people working in the fields and grinding meal when one is suddenly whisked away, and the other left – and then there’s the story of a thief coming in the night! Some have taken these stories and developed a complex system of thought that predicts when Christ will return (despite his own admission to not knowing when that day will be). Some have developed stories around the idea of a ‘rapture’ where Christ whisks away a select number of people to spare them from an ensuing period of tribulation.
This subject matter is complex, and I’m not going to speak much about it today, but I will say this: much of contemporary thought around apocalyptic misses the point, in my view. Apocalyptic writing and teaching in ancient civilizations was successful in doing several things: For one, it elicited an emotional response in order to motivate people to righteous living. This was a common rhetorical practice and not seen as coercion or manipulation like it is today. Secondly, it paints a picture of a world where God is the righteous judge, who sets everything right: the suffering are healed, the lowly are lifted up, the oppressed are set free. This future vision transforms our perception of our reality and allows us a window into how things could (and will one day) be. Lastly, as Jan pointed out a few weeks ago, apocalyptic writing is really about hope – that together, with God’s help, we can imagine, and work for, a better world.
Jesus & Isaiah: Prophets
In this way Jesus can be rightly called a prophet as he follows in the long line of individuals who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, exercise what I would call a prophetic imagination. Throughout Advent we’ll be hearing from the prophet Isaiah – perhaps the greatest of Old Testament prophets. We don’t know a lot about his life, but we know he was privy to the inner political workings in his country and a witness to the injustices and perils that had become everyday occurrences in Jerusalem. Chapter one of his book reads like the evening news: “Our country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire…Zion is left like…a besieged city…Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts…They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
After describing his grim reality, Isaiah is given a vision – he ‘sees’ a ‘word’ from the Lord. ‘Sees’ a ‘word’…. It is (as one writer puts it) an “act of imagination that looks beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be, that is not yet.” This future world is one where war is no longer national policy – where peace becomes the ‘norm’ of life. Peace requires submission to the Supreme Judge of the world and relinquishment of carrying out vengeance by one’s own hand. It requires not only good intentions, but practical procedures whereby the resources and capacities of the economy are otherwise employed. The images of the weapons of warfare (the sword and the spear) are reshaped into instruments of life (plowshares and pruning hooks). Not only are these resources being re-deployed, but they represent a shift in human energies from warfare and conquest to feeding the hungry. “The economy is transformed; the earth is also transformed, from battleground to fertile garden.”
But Isaiah’s exercising of his prophetic imagination has little value if the people do not recognize the need to work for such a world. The Biblical perspective is that peace is linked with justice – that only a commitment to the wellbeing of one’s fellow men and women can make peace a reality.
What would happen…
Isaiah’s words are carved into the wall across from the United Nations building. I wonder what would happen within the halls of the General Assembly if the world’s delegates truly took Isaiah’s message seriously? As debates rage over sanctions against Russia, as Myanmar engages in its 75th year of civil war, as terrorism continues its ugly manifesto, as our planet continues to warm, causing devastating natural disasters around the globe – What would happen if those in positions to enact policy that would bring compassionate aid and justice to these situations were shaped by Isaiah’s words? What would happen if we were to pray for a prophetic imagination and the courage to act in ways that ensure the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the depressed are embraced, the marginalized find their place in the human family, and the sick are cared for?
Can we see God using God’s people to bring this vision to pass, each in their own ways? Can we help people to see the ‘word’ of the Lord bringing life into the world? (Prof Lunblad of Union Theological Seminary) Can you see…
Using Prophetic Imagination
Christian and Muslim women all dressed in white? They were lying on their bellies near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was embarrassing to President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. When the talks faltered, the women came to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started up again. The tragic civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?
Can you see the rice paddies, green and lush, stretching as far as eye can see in Cambodia? More than a dozen programs are ridding the country of land mines and providing survivor assistance to Cambodian people. The number of men, women, and children killed or injured each year by mines has fallen from a high of 4,320 in 1996 to 286 in 2010. Can you see the farmers working in the field?
Can you see the children carrying signs near the Capital? “PROTECT CHILDREN, NOT GUNS.” Marion Wright Edelman and The Children’s Defense Fund refuse to be quiet about gun violence. They never give up. Against all the evidence, they believe weapons can be turned into plowshares or simply turned in at the local police station.
Advent Hope @ St. George’s
These are some of the stories in our world that give us glimpses into a future where war, hunger, and injustice, are no more. But we can also be filled with hope today, here as we experience the beginnings of our Advent experiment. Our worship has been transformed into something new, in the hopes that a new way of doing things can spark growth. We’re doing this not simply to attract new members, but in the hopes that God would spark a genuine spiritual renewal within each of our hearts and that we might help others find hope and love in the message and person of Jesus. God wants to use us, to change us and make us more and more into God’s likeness. That means being proclaimers of hope in a dark world, and beacons of light to those in need.
May God use this holy time to make us agents of transformation in the world and inspire us to see ourselves and our communities from the perspective of prophetic imagination, aspiring to be the people God has intended us to be.
O Come, St. George’s, let us walk in the light of the Lord!