Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122: 1-9
November 28, 2010
Today may be the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. It may very well be the 331st day of 2010, drawing to the close of yet another calendar year. But for you and for me, in this place, today is Day One. It is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the annual life cycle of the church. Happy New Year, folks! And even though we know where the days ahead will take us – the birth of the messiah, his life, death and resurrection, Pentecost and beyond – even though we know all that’s coming, right here and right now we’re just beginning.
It is the beginning of a story that is told over and over again this time each year, like a production at the local theater that plays every November and December. It is a story that we not only watch from our seats in the audience, but a story that we take part in as well. The auditorium lights flash once, twice, three times to let us know the show is about to begin. We take our seats. Anticipation builds as the house lights go down and the curtain opens. A single spot light shines on a lone figure positioned at center stage. It is the prophet; and as he stands there he opens his mouth and the most beautiful song comes out of it. His song is about a mountain; a very particular mountain that rests high above all others; the mountain that everyone knows.
And on that mountain, he sings about a house. Not a palace, as we might expect, but just a house. We hear his voice and his words, and we see it all as clear as day; the mountain and the house and all the people streaming to it. They come from everywhere, entire nations, seeking something that can be found only there. They come from far and wide, and their journey is almost done. And as the prophet sings about all of this, the musicians in the orchestra pit below raise their instruments on cue and begin their accompaniment. But the music that they make is not the melodic sounds of strings and woodwinds and brass. It is the sound of metal banging on metal, over and over again; as swords and spears are refashioned into shovels and hoes.
(the sound of metal banging on metal here...)
This is how you and I begin our new church year. On this first Sunday of Advent, we are greeted by a prophet, a home on the highest mountain, and the sound of metal on metal. It is a new sound; it is strange to our ears. It is Advent.
It’s not really what we expect, is it? And it’s not just the sound or the home on the mountain that is unexpected. Look around us: the sanctuary decked out beautifully in all its Christmas glory. Look and listen outside our church doors – retail stores that quickly swapped out Halloween decorations for holiday trimmings, radio stations who long ago traded in their top 40 soft rock playlists for seasonal tunes, Christmas wish lists already written, airline flights already reserved. We in the church may be starting Advent today, but everywhere else, it seems, the journey has been going on for a long time! So what does it mean for us to begin the journey today, and to begin it here, on this mountain, in this house and with this strange sound?
If the beginning of Advent as described by Isaiah seems a tad strange to us, if the home on the mountain and the “soundtrack of Advent” are not at all what we expect to find on this day, then take great comfort in knowing that it sounded just as out-of-place to the people the prophet spoke to long ago. And that’s exactly what it was supposed to do. It caught their attention, these strange images and sounds; it diverted them from their normal rituals and routines. And it signaled to God’s people that something new was taking place; that the “same old same old” of their lives, up to that point, was not going to be the same anymore. And for the people of that day, as for the people in ours, that was welcome news. For, see, they were living in uncertain times. Their future was in doubt. Enemy nations were swirling around them on all sides, ready to pounce. Threats loomed large. That’s when the prophet spoke. And as a general rule, when prophets start speaking, things can’t be good.
The voice of Isaiah here brings to light the disconnect that often exists between the world we live in and the world that is to come; the distance between what is expected and what actually happens. You expect people to avoid the mountain, not hike up it. You expect folks to live on edge and take up arms – those swords and spears can be awfully comforting. You expect people to be defined not by their hopes and dreams but by their fears; not by the good that is coming but the bad that is already there.
You and I, we know all too well about those expectations, don’t we? These are tough times we are living in. You can feel it in the air – a sort of anxious tension, like standing on the edge of the precipice engaged in a perpetual balancing act. The economy is tenuous. People are unemployed. Tensions are running high. Nations are engaged in war or, as we saw this past week it North and South Korea, flirting dangerously close to it. We don’t trust each other like we used to. Rather than looking outward, we withdraw in. And it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it – the more we accept living this way, the more we give others permission to do the same. It is life in the valley with the mountains all around us.
Until we come to the beginning of our new church year – this time of Advent. Now we hear the prophet singing his new song for us, as he takes center stage and begins our journey by challenging our expectations and undoing our fears:
In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
And all the nations shall stream to it.
Come, let us go up to the mountain.
That he may teach us his ways,
That we may walk in his paths.
You know that scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where Charlie Brown and Linus are out looking for a Christmas tree for the Christmas pageant? You remember that? They walk outside, the two of them, all bundled up in their coats and hats; and looking up in the sky they see these two huge skylights shining all over the place, the same kind of lights the car dealership uses when they have a sale going on. They follow the lights to a Christmas tree lot, draped with strings and strings of small lights.
Except the trees in this lot – and apparently in every tree lot in Charlie Brown-land – are made out of aluminum. Linus knocks on one with his fist and it makes this hollow, metallic sound, like when you hit an empty gas can. The camera scans through the lot of multi-colored aluminum Christmas trees – red and blue, gold, silver and purple. It’s the same trees they find there every year. It’s exactly what they expect.
And then, amidst this seas of metal, they find a tree that stands out from the rest. It is a puny little tree; and unlike the others it's a real one. Three stubby branches hang off its tiny trunk, each with a handful of needles. It is anchored to a wooden cross stand with some bent nails. Linus marvels out loud that someone actually still uses real Christmas trees. Charlie Brown, upon seeing it, declares that their search is over.
The reaction from the other kids when Charlie Brown and Linus show up with this scrawny tree is easy to anticipate - shock, bewilderment, ridicule. Had they simply done what everyone expected them to, things would’ve been different. Things would’ve been okay. But there’s always going to be a backlash when the truth is spoken. There’s always going to be an uproar we take the long journey up to the house on the highest mountain. No one wants to hear the sound of metal on metal drowning out the lulling melodies of Christmas carols.
You know, I think ol’ Charlie Brown and the prophet Isaiah would’ve gotten along marvelously! Because in their own way they each recognized the meaning of this thing we call Advent – how God gets our attention and jolts us back to consciousness from our year-long slumber. Advent is when God cuts right through the anxieties and fears and expectations that have come to dictate so much of how we look at and live our lives. The birth of Jesus, and the waiting of Advent for that birth, is the only way God can show us just how loved and treasured and precious we really are.
Advent marks that time in the life of people of faith when ordinary expectations are surpassed by God’s extraordinary action. So as we begin this surprising season of our church year, as we take part in this annual dramatic presentation, we step out of the audience seats and step into that journey up the mountain to the house of the Lord. We join together with fellow sojourners from all over, people who look and act and think like us, and people who don’t.
We soak in the sweet, sweet sound of God’s own music, music that sounds like metal banging on metal. We come to the house of the Lord, which looks an awful lot like a manger. We walk in to the house and see the throne of God, which looks like a barnyard feeding trough. We notice the presence of the royal court gathered there, which looks an awful lot like sheep and goats and cattle and ox and shepherds. We are bathed by a glorious light from above, which looks an awful lot like a bright star shining in the night sky. And there in that house, we gather together and share in a meal; a meal which tastes to us of bread and wine.
So today may be the 331st day of 2010. But know this, my friends – it is Day One. And on this day we will see new sights and hear new sounds. It will be strange; it will be different. It won’t be what we expect. And it will transform us. Let us join in the journey up the mountain. Let us go together to the house of our Lord! Thanks be to God. AMEN.