Isaiah 2:1-5 | Matthew 24:36-44
And so, the colour has changed. Now it’s the time for the colour purple. It’s not a tradition we follow avidly at St. John’s, but across a wide range of Christian Churches – probably a sizeable majority of Christians throughout the world – today communion tables and lecterns and pulpits will be covered, or at least trimmed, in purple cloth.
Purple: the colour of royalty, and of the priesthood. A colour prized in the ancient world for its scarcity and cost – obtained from a sea snail – and because the colour did not easily fade.
A colour adopted by the Church to mark the two periods in the year of getting ready; advent, four weeks spent getting ready to enter into the mystery of Christmas, and lent, six weeks spent getting ready to enter the mystery of Easter.
And so today we begin that journey of getting ready for Christmas, the journey of advent.
Of course, the idea that we are just now beginning to get ready for Christmas is a bit of a joke, really. Talk to Amanda and she’ll tell you that she’s been getting ready for Christmas – at least, for Christmas kMotion, since July; and I’m sure most of us here are already some way into our Christmas planning. Certainly the trusty whiteboard chez Goringe is covered with lists of jobs to be done, written a few weeks ago and still, disturbingly, growing longing rather than shorter.
Try as we might, we cannot completely avoid the crazy busyness of the time of year; end of school, start of summer, family get togethers, cricket matches (and that’s as close as you’re going to get to an acknowledgement of the ashes, baring some radical change in England’s fortunes), parties, celebrations.
And nor, really, would we want to.
But what we do want to do, as God’s people, is not to escape or squash the energy of the season, but to supplement it, season it, return to it the flavour of the birth that lies at its core. For many people can be so busy in December that they walk right through this mystery without entering into it, without even noticing it is there. Perhaps they never learned how to enter the mystery of Christmas; or perhaps they forgot. Perhaps, sometimes, that is us.
As is so often the case in our modern world, the greatest challenge is to find a way to stop out the noise of life for long enough to make space for the story. Maybe you have a routine that works for you, a pattern of prayer or reading or reflection that enables you to keep the Christ story alive in the Christmas season. Perhaps you just rely on at least having an hour or two each week on Sunday.
On the St. John’s website there are two special features for advent that might help. The first is a series of 26 short – two minute – animations which between them tell the story of the first Christmas. One will be online, each day from today until boxing day. Take a couple of minutes out of each day to remind yourself of a small part of the story.
Or, if you feel like something more creative, our friends in the United Methodist Church invite you to a photo-a-day. Each day, from today until Christmas, they have a single word – today “go”, tomorrow “bound”, then “peace”, then “time” and so forth – and you are invited to reflect on that word, and take a photo that somehow, for you, that word. You can share the photos, or just keep them to yourself – the point is the stopping for long enough to think.
But today – the first Sunday of advent – is the day of the Prophets, and we mark it with a reading from the prophet Isaiah, one of many of Isaiah’s prophecies that we in the Church have taken and identified with Jesus.
And if you’ve ever listened when I’ve spoken about the Hebrew Prophets you’ll know that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the way we do that, the way we take prophecies out of their context and their culture and their history, and identify them with Jesus and him alone.
I do believe that the prophets spoke of Jesus – but more indirectly than that. I believe the prophets spoke of Jesus because they spoke of the nature and character of God; because they voiced the things God cares about, condemned the injustices that hurt God’s people (which is to say, everyone) and God’s creation (which is to say, everything), described the future God has always been working to create. And so much of what they said found echoes, fulfilment, even, in the person of Jesus, because he, most perfectly of all, reflected that same character of God, declared that same Kingdom of God.
So in hearing the words of Isaiah chapter 2 today, and many other prophecies in the weeks to come, and finding their fulfilment in Jesus and in the Kingdom, let us recognise that we do not in doing so exhaust their meaning; that other figures of the past, present, or future may also echo these words, to the extent that they too echo the voice and nature of God.
Words today, of the mountain of the house of God. The prophecy, the promise, is of a time when the place of God, the mountain, the house, will be raised high – so high, it will be clearly greater than all other houses of the Gods; so high, it will be clearly visible to all the nations.
Isaiah wrote at a time of trouble and turmoil for the people of Israel. The kingdom was divided and besieged; the people had not yet gone into exile, but the time of David and Solomon, the time when all nations recognised Israel, when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon; that time was a distant memory. Deep in the national psyche was the promise and calling of God; that they were to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all kingdoms of the world; an embodied image of what it meant to live as God’s people that all nations could see and learn from.
But now they were a mess. Corrupted, divided, defeated. No inspiration to anyone.
And Isaiah, in the midst of prophecy condemning Israel for its failings, makes this promise: the day will come when once again the city of God is held high. And people from all the nations will flock there, longing to know the wisdom of God: ‘let us go to the mountain of God,’ they will say, ‘that God may teach us God’s ways’.
For from the city, from Zion, from God, instruction will go forth, out into the world: God and God’s people will by their lives and words and example teach the world.
And the promise continues with those famous, almost painfully hopeful words:
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more
And why will they do so? Why will swords and spears and war no longer be needed? Because God will judge and arbitrate between the nations. War does not vanish, in the vision of Isaiah, because people become nice; this is not the ‘war is over, if you want it’ of Yoko Ono. War is no more, in Isaiah’s prophecy, because there is judgement, arbitration, justice between nations. For all their many imperfections, this is a peace that find echoes in the United Nations, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity, the International Criminal Court; it is the peace that arises from international development and cooperation, not from an obsession with the national interest.
It is a peace we would identify with the Kingdom of God, a kingdom in which all are valued and protected, in which the destructive power of entrenched poverty and entrenched privilege is judged and found wanting.
It’s not a peace of no problems, of perfect niceness; it’s a peace of justice: the Word of the Lord will go out from Jerusalem and judge between the nations and arbitrate between many peoples.
In Mozambique, the promise of justice and arbitration, and the hope of swords being beaten into ploughshares found concrete form: in the fragile ceasefire at the end of 16 years of civil war, the Christian Council of Mozambique ran a project in which weapons could be handed in and exchanged for hoes, sewing machines, building materials, bicycles. Swords replaced with ploughshares and spears with pruning hooks.
That is the promise; and we see shadows and rumours of it. But we live in the meantime. Hence the words the prophet finished with: O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord. For if the word of the Lord is to stream forth once more from God’s people, then God’s people are going to have to live lives which shine with that word, lives that show the value of life lived God’s way. For how can God’s instruction flow from us if we have not heard it, not committed to it, not lived it.
As we approach the mystery of the incarnation, as we prepare to enter into it, let us prepare ourselves also for living the lives of radical discipleship that demonstrate that the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim is worth noticing, so that the people around us might say “come, let us go to the house of the Lord, that God may teach us God’s ways”.