Our time for looking at this extraordinary piece of scripture from the prophet Isaiah is somewhat limited this morning, so let me say, without any lead in, what I want to say. Then, as the wise preaching adage goes, say it and then wrap up by telling you what I said. Or, at least, what I thought I said.
What I want to say is motivated by the difference between Isaiah’s vision of God who will come with a vengeance, or as one translation simply puts it, “God comes to avenge!” and what I take Jesus’ vision of God to be — namely one whom saves by coming in love. I think there is not as much tension in the difference as at first seems.
On Friday afternoon, December 3, I was helping Lori Morse move her ladder so she could paint yet more trim on the building that we worked on for three days. The ground beneath the eve she was painting was soft and the ladder was not resting evenly as a result. Lori thought that we were actually working in a flower bed. Not only was the ground soft, but she thought there were some bulbs coming up, just around the corner.
I was struck, numerous times, I think we all were, at the sense of dislocating Christmas from our usual winter time associations. But it was not just the green leaves on the trees and flowers in the gardens, I think we also felt it for not being in stores all week, for not seeing Christmas decorations. The darkness too, that is so heavy here at this time of year, was less and I noticed it on Wednesday evening when we went to a local house of worship, where there was only one brief allusion to the season we are in right now.
So much did I feel all of these things, almost weighing upon me, that when Lori mentioned that she thought she’d seen a bulb in that soft soil — I thought, aha, a first sign of advent. For it was the promise of a fresh shoot out of an old stump, it was the promise of a bloom in a dry desert, these natural, but non-winter experiences that served as metaphorical bridges to the profound experience of God in the midst of horrible times for the people of jerusalem.
For Isaiah, the desert had two meanings, one literal — their homeland was, in fact, desert-like, and the other meaning was metaphorical. Isaiah’s prophecy begins and the book hinges upon his struggle with Jerusalem not to sell out their moral sensibilities by making a Faustian bargain with the Assyrians, aka the Babylonians, in order to defend themselves against their nearer neighbors, the Northern Judeans and the Damascans. The people’s failure to place their trust in God and instead make a deal with their enemy ends not only in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants, but also their metaphorical loss of that which would alone support them through times of trouble. Isaiah speaks about history and he speaks about humanity. And he speaks to us today. His meaning is metaphorical — not to be understood literally.
I had another Advent experience in Biloxi, though I did not name it as such at the time. I was working in the Micah Center at Back Bay Mission. Micah Center is a drop in facility where homeless folk can get their laundry done, take a shower and meet with people who can help them find work or navigate the bureaucracy. A woman arrived with a 10 year old in tow. I was cleaning the showers and while the boy was taking a shower she and I shared a laugh together. She told me her story. He was her grandson. Her husband, a Samoan, struggled with english and, after losing his job on the fishery because of the oil onslaught, was drifting from job to job. They were getting too old for this she said, sleeping in the back of his pick up each night. They’d discovered that the parking lots of the casinos were good places to stay, they could blend in with the rv’s. And she was trying to home-school her grandson, whom she said was in her care because his parent were drug dependent and had split up, unable to take care of Shawn.
I have worked with homeless people like her enough to know that there is a good possibility that I was receiving the varnished truth. But it didn’t matter. One does not walk into a homeless center without a fundamental need for help. It is the human desire to maintain a shred of dignity that leads us to stretch the truth a bit in circumstances like that.
I don’t know what happened to her when she left the center that day. I do know that one of the staff at the Center overheard us talking, and when she’d finished her shower, that staff person engaged her in her office to help her find better shelter than the back of a pickup truck. I am not so naive to think that she received that aid and is moving into a more settled situation. But I also hold onto hope that her experience in the Micah Center, has given her a leg up, and was like a bulb coming to life in a December flowerbed on the sunny side of a group home in Biloxi. I share the joyful hope of Isaiah, that a highway is before her, and that on that Way, she might find new life.
Commentators and preachers alike say things, during Advent, like “Isaiah’s vision declares that God’s reign will transform a world of limitation and leanness into one of possibilities and wholeness.” While that’s a nice, optimistic sentiment — it’s not the bible. That’s something instead out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. One decent scholar of the bible puts the reality like this, “The great anonymous host of sufferers….are a cloud of witnesses who point the finger of scorn upon all the neat and tidy optimisms which try to sweep all this accumulation of suffering under the carpet and offer us a tidy scheme.” (John Macquarrie) The hope of Advent must somehow take seriously the tragically anonymous hosts lost in the scores of hovels of the poor.
This morning I’ve tried to say that Isaiah’s beautiful, hopeful vision of what life can be like is not mere optimism. Isaiah did not write “Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul.” His stories contain unexpurgated violence and despair. But not because he’s a downer. Instead he sees human life as inevitably, and inextricably engaged in the tragic. And that’s not a bad thing.
In fact, Jesus described his ministry, this way, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” In the encounter of one with the other, in the spirit of good news, the tragic falls aside for a moment and the outcast is brought into a circle of love, and the voiceless poor, the ones dead to the power managers is raised. And that’s all we’re promised, because anything else steals our humanity and dims the greatest picture of all — the joy of another human being in this godly encounter.
Let me read again that poem that I read when we lit our Advent candles this morning, this time, instead of imaging yourself in church watching a family light the advent candle, place yourself in an encounter with the other.
Lighting the Advent Candles by J. Barrie Shepherd
Families are asked to do it,
infants toddling to the front to lisp responsive affirmations with their parents
and the people in the pews concerning light in darkness.
You brought a different light
to bear upon our litany of hope. Your participation shed
a gentle, unaccustomed brilliance
across all we have meant by family,
household, living in a lifelong bond
of trust and full commitment. The candle that you lit will—I pray—
not soon go out but, beating back the dark,
will light a path to recognizing family
wherever love binds past and future
tight within the radiance of an eternal grace.