What will happen in the days to come? Our texts for this first Sunday of Advent show us a future of great promise. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the arrival of the son of man. The prophet Isaiah describes a time when God will rule from Mount Zion, and all people will seek her ways and her wisdom.
Why do we hear these texts at the beginning of Advent? Those who have heard of this season at all know that it is a season of preparation for something else altogether. Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. However, on this very first Sunday of our brand new church year, our scriptures remind us that this season is not only about looking backwards to remember a beautiful thing that happened long ago. They remind us that what happened long ago was just the beginning of all that is still to come.
The promises in the book of Isaiah are many and beautiful. We hear them often in churches during this season. It is Isaiah that Christians have turned to for many of our favorite images and names for Jesus: root and branch of Jesse; Immanuel; or as we hear in Handel’s Messiah: wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Listening to Isaiah in this season, it would be easy to conclude that this prophet was a dreamer who failed to pay attention to reality. However, if we had started with the first chapter of Isaiah today rather than the second, we would have heard something very different:
“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, we are utterly estranged!” Isaiah says, in the voice of God (Isaiah 1:4). Isaiah goes on to compare the nation of Israel to a body covered with bruises, sores, and bleeding wounds. He says that the people’s obsequious temple offerings do nothing to counteract their fundamental unfaithfulness. The only way out, the prophet says, is to: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” (Isaiah 1:16-18)
These are hardly the words of a dreamer disconnected with reality. Isaiah sees terrible things in his homeland. And yet, he says, a better time is on the way. When the people begin to learn from God, and walk in God’s paths, they will 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. (Isaiah 2:4 and also Micah 4:3).
When we look around our world today, we see plenty of conflict: swords and spears and war of many kinds. Some of us have witnessed or participated in family conflicts during the Thanksgiving holiday. Nationally, our political divisions have only intensified since the election. In Standing Rock this past week, tear gas, water cannons, percussion grenades, and rubber bullets were used against water protectors. Half a million children are trapped amidst escalating violence in Syria.
As we witness and participate in conflicts, and as conflicts intensify, we have two obvious options: Fight or flight. We can go into battle on behalf of ourselves, and those we love, and those we sympathize with, using the biggest weapons we can find, attempting to obliterate the enemy. Or, those of us who have the option to do so can flee the battlefield, and hunker down behind whatever privilege we can muster.
Neither of these options, however, has much to do with Isaiah’s vision. In the days to come, the prophet tells us, justice will be realized through the power of God and radical disarmament. What, exactly, would that look like? Just how far off are the days to come, and what path shall we take to find them?
There is no one answer for us, of course, when we consider what to do in each of the many conflicts we find ourselves in. But I hope fight or flight aren’t the only options. It’s toxic for us to live in a perpetual emotional, ideological, or literal arms race, no matter how lofty our goals. And permanently stepping away from conflicts, refusing to engage, is rarely helpful, especially if we have privilege and power to influence the situation for the better.
What are our other options? How can we find a different way forward?
The first step is to calm down. I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of these conflicts, or the danger of their potential outcomes. But when we are acutely anxious, we cannot truly learn, or creatively problem solve. In order to do anything productive, we have to find a way to breathe. We have to step back and consider our role in the larger picture. We have to connect with the people and resources and the divine power that we need to tolerate and transform the conflict we are in.
The first step is to calm down. And then, if it is safe for us, if it is our work to do, and especially if we hold special power or privilege in the conflict, we need to engage one another across difference. This means deep and open-hearted listening, followed by compassionate dialogue and shared brainstorming about what a peaceful future could look like.
The conflicts that we experience in this world are real, and serious. There is no use in denying that they exist or scolding one another into pretending peace has already come. We need to grapple with our personal struggles, and nationally with our differences concerning wealth, race, gender, the environment, indigenous rights, and much more. We need to engage: and resolution will not be quick or easy. We need to dig deep and stay connected if we’re going to stay the course.
What will happen in the days to come? Do not despair. Our God knows how bad it is, here, and yet still she believes that it can be better. Our God invites us to find a path other than fleeing the scene in terror; he sends angels to tell us, again and again, “Do not be afraid.” Our God invites us to learn a way other than brutally defeating of our enemy: she sends prophets to tell us, again and again, “You can do better.” With courage and persistence, we can make progress. We can hone our skills in blunting sword tips, and learn the art of bending the spear blades, until the tools that started out as weapons can be used to tend the earth and provide nourishment for a;; people.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! In this advent season, we await the birth of Christ our light. Looking towards the future, we work together towards the days to come: when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall we learn war any more. May it be so.