The bright grass and evergreens radiated light and warmth against a gray sky and heaps of dull leaves. Our hike in the bluffs near Winona was getting long for the kids, so someone started a game of tag. Soon I found myself sprinting down the path with kids and adults chasing me. I ran with abandon, ran as fast as I could. I dodged this way and that, laughing as I pivoted to evade the taggers. When all paused to take a breath, playfully keeping an eye on each other’s next move, Alice finally caught up to us. Sprinting as fast as she could on her little legs, she lost her balance and slipped, hard, into the mud. Not a problem. She got up again, squealing with excitement. “You’re it, Alice!” we all screamed. Eliza later remarked, “Mommy, I liked it when we played tag today.” Her words caused me to reflect, and to recognize just how much joy I, too, had felt in that moment of play. And, I realized how rare that feeling of joy has been for me over the last month or so.
Chapter one of Isaiah describes the aftermath of a tragedy. God’s people had turned away from justice. Their corruption was summed up by their refusal to care for the vulnerable ones of their society: orphans and the widows. Now the land was desolate, the holy city burned with fire by invaders. The prophet lamented: “The whole head [of the nation] is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds.”
In his midnight hour, Isaiah wept and raged. No denial, no illusion, no false hope. And yet, in the very next chapter, the prophet received a bright and promising vision. Isaiah did not hear or read the Word of God; he saw it on the big screen. And it is an astonishing film. ISIS fighters and Iraqi security forces will say to one another, “Come, let’s go up…” Both sides of the civil war in Syria; alienated lovers; arguing families; water protectors and police. Israelis and Palestinians will say to one another, “Come.” Trump and Hillary and Bernie supporters, rural and urban, liberal and conservative will say to one another, “Come, let’s go up. Let’s climb God’s mountain together.” We will “river” toward the top of the highest of peaks. In one great cosmic, cross-cultural teach-in, we will learn God’s ways together. As the Message Bible translation puts it, “God will show us the way God works so we can live the way we’re made.” (Isaiah 2:3)
We will bring to God our grievances and needs, our crimes and offenses, all the crap we’ve heaped on each other through the centuries. In a gigantic process of truth and reconciliation, God will mediate. God will decide between us fairly, creating justice. God will make peace. The end result will be that weapons of war will be robbed of their purpose. All the expertise, money, and emotional energy we’ve invested in building missiles, training soldiers, militarizing police, and extracting fossil fuels from the earth will be redirected to serve life, to build community, to claim a green and sustainable future.
On the one hand, Advent is about the days to come. It is a vision of a time when God will make all things right, a time of fulfillment we yearn for but will not live to see. On the other hand, Advent is very much a promise for today. Paul writes: “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” As Wendell Berry puts it, “What we need is here.” The Word the prophet saw is already a reality. And we can participate in it right now.
Last Sunday, longtime First Church members told many powerful stories about our history to the confirmation class. One moment they remembered happened in the 1980s, when a fledging organization called Open Arms needed a place to prepare meals for people living with HIV/AIDS. I recall vividly the fear and hatred AIDS stirred up at that time. I was just a few years younger than Ryan White, a middle-schooler who was diagnosed with AIDS, was barred from returning to school, even though experts insisted that casual contact would not spread the disease. When First Church decided to host Open Arms in our basement kitchen, chopping vegetables and simmering soups wasn’t the only thing we made space for. We welcomed God’s great teach-in to our church. We invited God to spark the mutual learning that destroys prejudice, that stills irrational fear, that spurs empathy and compassion.
During Ramadan each year, mosques all over the Twin Cities throw open their doors to non-Muslims. We hear a short talk. We share in the dates and water that breaks the daily fast. We observe the prayer of the community. We sit down, with our hosts, to eat a meal that is abundant and delicious. Our Muslim neighbors meet us in our curiosity and our ignorance. They open up a space of encounter that allows for mutual correction of misunderstandings, clarification of core values, and the building of mutual respect.
Normally water flows down a mountain. It starts, at the top, as a quiet trickle dripping from melting ice or as rainfall gathering into small rivulets. As the water descends, it grows swift and strong, tearing into the soil and crashing over rocks. But in Isaiah’s vision, the whole process is reversed. The nations are represented as a stream whose waters climb uphill. In other words, the vision Isaiah saw was not natural. Teaching and learning, learning and teaching, allowing God to establish justice among us and equip us for peace—this process is an effort every step of the way. At the same time, the verb naharu, which means, “flow like a river,” can also mean, “shine in joyful radiance.” Living according to Isaiah’s vision of the not yet, in the here and now, is countercultural. It is a hard uphill climb. And, like a spontaneous game of tag in the woods, it can be pure joy. It is a radiance that guides us through the midnight hour. As the Psalmist says, “God’s Word is a light onto our path and lamp onto our feet.”
Theologian Diana Butler Bass muses about the fact that, historically, most churches have used purple for Advent as well as Lent, to draw a connection between the two seasons. However, Bass, insists,
Advent should not be a mini-Lent; it is not a time to examine sins, engage in self-denial, and confession. It is not about penance. Rather, Advent is of a different spiritual hue: it is a time of waiting, of expectation, of hope in the darkness. The blue candles symbolize the color of the sky right before dawn, that time when the deepest dark is just infused with hints of light. Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives.
Will you join with me, during this Advent season, in waiting and watching for the joy of a new dawn, in creating space for it, and in welcoming it when it arrives? Joy is not the same as cheer. It does not deny pain, but sits with it, taking root beside it. Joy is not fake and fragile, but resilient and real. It is like love, in that it is not only a feeling. It is also a choice and a commitment. Joy is an act of faith, an act of trusting in a promise we cannot yet see. In these few minutes of silence, please take out the papers you received at the door and ponder the prompts written on them. I feel joy when… I can share joy with someone else by … In order to make space in my heart and my schedule for joy this season, I will …
And now, go in peace. For the joy of God is our strength.