NRSV ISAIAH 2:1-5
2 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD!
NRSV MATTHEW 24:36-44
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It’s always a special joy to be in the Sanctuary on this Sunday, at the beginning of Advent. It’s like getting up on Christmas day and finding your whole world transformed. We were visited not by St. Nicholas but by faithful and intrepid souls who didn’t mind leaning a little over the balcony to make sure the roping was just right, and so we thank them for their courage and their work.
But of course it isn’t Christmas yet. Perhaps we all know that Advent is a time for waiting. And what better thing to do when you have to wait than to let wonderful memories play in your mind? One special memory for me is of those years when we lived in Ohio and would join the kids on a very special train. Sue’s Dad worked as a conductor for the Cuyahoga Scenic Valley Railroad. His regular job for many years was as an urban planner, but his father – Sue’s granddad – was a conductor for the New York Central Railroad. So being a conductor on this train was a labor of love for him. Every year at this time they transform that train into the The Polar Express, after the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, and the Tom Hanks movie. When we lived up there he recruited us to serve as elves for that train, and that was always a special treat. We did it complete with hot chocolate and cookies and Santa Claus, the little northern Ohio town of Peninsula serving as the North Pole.
What made this train trip special was to see the children when they got on the train, their eyes all lit up with excitement. Being on a train is a special treat for Sue, with all those family ties. But it is also a treat for me. I have my own special memories of being on a train.
They go back to when I was real young, the age or younger of some of those kids on The Polar Express. My folks were southern exiles living in the north, and the closest relative we had was an aunt who lived in New Jersey. The best way to get there – in those days before interstates – was to take the train.
For me at that early age, that train platform was at the same time a magical place and a scary place. When we were up there in September for my 50th high school reunion we disembarked at that same station. It looks a little different than it did some 60 years ago – haven’t we all – but it still holds a vault of memories for me. It was magical because of the promise it held, the hope that a train would arrive. It was scary because you had to be careful up there. My big brother was always telling me, “If you fall down there and touch that third rail it will fry you.” Nothing like having your demise so clearly pictured to make you behave.
But it was the anticipation of the moment that remains for me. I remember standing up there for what seemed like hours – it was probably no more than 15 minutes – anxiously waiting for that sign in the distance of the train approaching, the train that would take us over the river and through the woods and across tenement yards, to be with loved ones.
The sign was a light.
We would stand up there and strain our eyes toward the turn in the distance, as if we could draw the train closer by sheer will. It didn’t of course, but we could try. And eventually we did see it – at first just a small light out there, gradually getting bigger and bigger, but telling us that our hope was coming on rail, ready to take us to loved ones in a distant place.
In all of our excitement about getting on the train to see family, I never really got a glimpse of all the work my mother had to do. The decisions of what to take, the folding of the clothes was lost on me but not on her. Traveling takes a lot of preparation. But that preparation was part of the hope, too.
I think about that when I think of these Advent days, these days of waiting. Standing up on that train platform is not too unlike our spending the next four weeks straining to see the light in the distance, the light of hope. In our days we don’t like to wait, any more than I did when I was a kid. We are, after all, a people of instant gratification. Just put your credit card down and make your payment; just place your order on line and remember your confirmation number; if you want information, go on the computer and google something, and there it appears. Why wait when you have everything at finger’s touch?
The same holds true for this time of year. Everywhere else it seems that Christmas has already arrived – in fact it feels like it has been here since just after the last trick or treater left our doors. Never mind the turkey on Thanksgiving, it’s time for Christmas. Why wait? The stores and malls have been telling us it is Christmas time for weeks, so of course it must be true.
But maybe we have lost something in all of this. Maybe we have lost a sense of the value of waiting. If Christmas has already arrived, if waiting and preparing are not important parts of what we are doing these days, then the 25th of December will come and go and leave us no different with our fears and brokenness intact. Advent gives us an opportunity to prepare our spiritual lives, to get ourselves ready, to wait; but to wait in an active sense, to wait for that special thing that God is doing to do to us, through us, within us.
When we start off a church year, and when start our time of waiting, we do so by listening to the prophets of old – in this case Isaiah. Isaiah lived in the little country of Judah, what was left over from the once powerful nation of Israel after a nasty family fight. This little country was caught in the crossfire between the Egyptians to the south and the Assyrians to the north, each fighting for hegemony and influence. Judah just seemed like an insignificant speck to those military giants.
But Isaiah was given eyes to look into the distance and see hope in something else besides military might. He saw a time when all of the nations would come streaming to Jerusalem, the Holy City on the hill. A time when size wouldn’t matter, a time when all of the nations would come to listen to what God had to say, to see what God was doing.
But Isaiah’s vision was more than Jerusalem being internationally influential. Isaiah’s vision was full of God coming and changing all of creation utterly and completely. We have heard these words before, and maybe we have seen the paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom; with all of the animals coexisting and living in harmony. But this is not just any vision; this is God’s vision breaking into our world. In our days of one viewpoint waiting to swallow up another, when nations bombard other countries with artillery shells or debt fees, when it seems that only the strong survive, we need this vision of what God is up to – not of the survival of the fittest, but of all living together in harmony. This is the hope that God has for us and for all of creation – of everyone living together in peace.
Isaiah wraps it all up in words that seem to sum up the whole season of Advent: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” For Isaiah as well as for my childhood memory the light is not some abstract thing. It is a sign of something real and exciting and powerful, which has the force to bring you to those you love. It is what you need in order to see where you are going, to discern the path that is there for you. But it is also needed to see those around you, to affirm their presence and their being.
A rabbi once asked his students “How can a person tell when the darkness ends and the day begins?” After they thought for a while, one of the students said, “It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat.” Another said, “It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and tell if it is a fig or an oak tree.” The old rabbi heard all of these responses and said, “No, it is not any of these. It is when you can look into a person’s face and recognize them as your brother or sister. For if you cannot recognize in another’s face the face of your brother or sister, the darkness has not yet begun to lift, and the light has not yet come.”
With that in mind, it is appropriate that we begin the season of Advent, this season of waiting, with the sacrament of communion. This sacrament, this holy event, is an event of hope, an event of light, even coming in these darkening days of the year, matching the darkening times in which it began. In coming to this table, we come to the One who invites us here, the One who is the light of life. When we come here, we remember that we cannot come here with hatred living in our souls, with our very beings immersed in darkness. We come here seeking the light that will let us see Christ in the faces of each other.
In Advent we are preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our world. To see him, we have to see each other; and we have to see him in each other. That’s what it means to walk in the light of the Lord; to let the peaceable kingdom be not just a nice ideal, but the way we are to live right now. Because that is our hope – not in getting what we want for Christmas, or getting the perfect present so someone will be pleased with us. Our hope is based, as one writer as noted, in what Advent brings to us. “…Advent begins in a vision of a healed alternative for the world.”
In a poem titled “Pregnant with Hope,” Kate McIlhagga reflects this yearning to see the light in this season of Advent. She writes:
Christ our advent hope,
bare brown trees
etched dark across a winter sky,
leaves fallen, rustling,
ground hard and cold,
remind us to prepare for your coming;
remind us to prepare for the time
when the soles of your feet will touch the ground,
when you will become one of us
to be at one with us.
May we watch for the signs,
listen for the messenger,
wait for the good news to slip
into our world, our lives.
Christ our advent hope,
help us to clear the way for you;
to clear the clutter from our minds,
to sift the silt from our hearts,
to move the boulders that prevent us from meeting you.
May sorrow take flight,
and your people sing a song of peace
and hope be born again.