December 8, 2019 (Advent II)
Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, Wi
I begin with a quote from Teilhard de Chardin that I used in a sermon last Advent. “Expectation…of an end to the world, that is to say, of an issue for the world…is perhaps…the most distinctive characteristic of our religion…but in reality, we should have to admit… that we no longer expect anything.”
The readings of the Advent Season seek to renew our expectation. Today’s reading from Isaiah promises that divine-human partnership will create a new earth. This promise is not based on experience. Isaiah lived in a very dark time, a time during which the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel, carted off its people, occupied much of Judah, Isaiah’s own country, and laid siege to Jerusalem. In such darkness, Isaiah saw and shared this hopeful vision.
Though never fulfilled, Isaiah’s vision is not irrelevant. It has influenced many people and through them human history itself. The 19th century Quaker artist Edward Hicks is one of them. He created a visual representation of this vision in his painting The Peaceable Kingdom. This suggests that Isaiah’s vision inspired the Quaker community’s centuries long work for peace and justice, including their stand against slavery as early as the 1670’s.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist announces that Isaiah’s vision is about to be realized. “The reign of heaven has come near,” he proclaims. Like Isaiah’s, John’s proclamation is not based on experience. In his time, the Jews lived in an occupied country. Their King was a narcissistic tyrant whom John publicly attacked and who later beheaded him. John maintains his hope, but his mood is sober. He sees clearly the struggle with powerful forces of resistance that lies ahead and warns that that struggle will be prolonged, intense and costly. He uses images like wheat, chaff and unquenchable fire to describe it. We may not like these images, because they remind us of those hell-fire preachers who seem to be looking forward to their own rapture and ringside seats at the spectacle of sinners burning. But these images point to an undeniable truth we see all around us and experience in ourselves. Change cannot happen without suffering, destruction and sometimes death. Catherine Booth, the co-founder of the Salvation Army, summed this up well when she said, “There is no improving the future without disturbing the present.”
Then there is the reading from Paul. In this reading, Paul sees the little Christian community in Rome as the proleptic realization of the new world that Isaiah and John proclaimed. He describes the life of this community with words like steadfastness, encouragement, harmony, welcome, promise, peace, joy, hope and Spirit. At the end of this passage, Paul quotes today’s reading from Isaiah. “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, in whom the Gentiles hope.”
Like Isaiah and John, Paul’s hopeful view of the future is not based on experience. When Paul wrote this letter, Christianity was illegal, and Christians were being persecuted. Most Christians probably knew a family member, friend or acquaintance, who had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured or perhaps even killed by the local authorities. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes Paul’s own experiences of persecution and Paul himself refers to them in his first letter to the Corinthians. These are the circumstances in which Paul pens this message of hope. In the final verse he writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Hope and expectation are the dominant themes in this reading.
“We no longer expect anything,” said Teilhard. He continued “That expectation must be revived at all costs. At all costs we must renew in ourselves the desire and the hope for the great coming.” Without this sense of expectation and hope, Teilhard fears, human efforts to create a better world will flag and eventually wither away. Roger Schiotz, the founder and first prior of the Community of Taize agrees. He wrote, “During the darkest periods of history, quite often a small number of men and women, scattered throughout the world, have been able to reverse the course of human history. This was only possible because they hoped beyond all hope.”
How do we revive hope for the earth, despite the fact that, as today’s readings acknowledge, our experience often seems to fly in the face of it? I would be a fool to claim I had the answer, but I have a couple suggestions. Pay attention to those signs to which Br. Roger refers. Sometimes they are small things like those the PBS News Hour reports each evening. Sometimes they are big, powerful things—like the nonviolent revolutions that transformed Europe in the 80’s, most dramatically symbolized by young Germans peacefully demolishing the Berlin Wall or the profound changes effected by the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. At the heart of these revolutions is a power we might call the power of the cross. The political potential of this power was discovered by Gandhi in his “experiments with Truth,” a truth he freely acknowledged he got from Jesus. According to Albert Einstein, the power unleashed by Gandhi is greater than the power of the atom. In his book The Powers that Be, New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, writes about this power “In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,100,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations… If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in (the 20th) century the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 64% of humanity. All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.”
Living like Paul calls the church in Rome to live, as a community that reflects God’s reign among us here and now, is another and perhaps the best way to nurture hope. Live in harmony, though not always in agreement, welcome those very different from us, and boldly embrace our identity and vocation as followers of Jesus. The latter requires courageous resistance to the powers that fight against the Great Coming, today’s Pharaohs who preserve and increase their power and wealth by oppressing and exploiting the world and its inhabitants.
Finally, we can nurture inner hope by remembering that the hope in today’s readings is based on faith in a Higher Power. Jesus reveals this Higher Power to be not just loving but Love Itself. The author of I John puts it well. “God IS Love.” This love is the only force powerful enough to birth the Reign of God among us. Love takes time to accomplish its purposes. Its time frame isn’t a human lifetime or even historical time itself. It’s cosmic time, evolutionary time, and it requires patience. That’s why Advent is a time of waiting as well as expectation.
I want to close with words of Teilhard de Chardin assuring us that this Love, that is, God, will triumph in the end. He writes, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, (humanity) will have discovered fire.” In the meantime, as we pray and work and struggle and hope for the Great Coming, may faith, the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, sustain us.