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Isaiah 2:1-5

Rev. Heidi Neumark, pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church, reflects on the beginning of Advent, amidst the poverty and violence in her South Bronx neighborhood:

The distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be tears at my heart.  Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time.  I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance.  I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning.  I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy.  But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.  Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality.  I think of the Spanish word, anhelo, or longing.  Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unbearable, unfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus!  O Come, O Come Emmanuel.[1]

The first reading of Advent from the prophet Isaiah disrupts our present reality with a vision of God’s future. It seems to be quite an interruption for the people Isaiah speaks to, as the verses just beyond our lectionary reading describe intense wealth, idolatry, and extensive military. But here, in the vision Isaiah saw, people walk in the way of the Lord. God’s justice reigns. Fields planted. Wars cease. Gardens tended. Peace for the nations. This peace extends far beyond a cease fire; the whole military is dismantled. Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord!

How compelling for preachers that our first advent reading is not about the vision the prophet heard, but the vision the prophet saw.  This is where advent begins: seeing what is and seeing what could be.[2]

The challenge for preachers is to discern the places where the desperate crying out and anticipating of advent, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” meets the vision of Isaiah 2, a vision of what could be. Homeletian Charles Campbell calls this a “bifocal vision,” where the preacher sees both the old age and new age at once and has to somehow speak imaginatively to both. This is where we live. This is where we preach. This is advent. Christ has come, but please, come, Lord Jesus come, again and again.

Preachers might consider taking a cue from the vivid and profound images in the Scripture:

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

What images and stories help imagine this vision and new age? Resist the temptation to simply tell about what the world could be. Instead, show your listeners, by painting pictures, describing snapshots, so that God’s vision is so close, it’s a vision you can see.

Consider these snapshots as a starting place for your own bi-focal vision in the community you serve:

  1. RAWTools, Inc. takes this vision literally. RAWTools collects guns and actually transforms them into garden tools. Their mission, “to disarm hearts and forge peace” believes it’s possible to solve problems without guns and violence. They take their mission further by providing nonviolent conflict training, so that when a real-world conflict arises, violence will not be an automatic response.

  2. Following the murder of a beloved store-owner in her rural community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, Scnobia Taylor sensed God prompting her to respond. She donated five acres of her land to a local church, believing that her land could become a place of gathering and community, like the local store had been before the tragic death. After listening to the community and hearing needs and hopes, the church began Anathoth Community Garden on Ms. Taylor’s donated land. For the last 10 years, Anathoth has provided sliding scale fruit and vegetable boxes to over 200 families for 8 months of the year.

  3. In May 2019, an armed student walked into his high school in Portland, Oregon, during the middle of a mental health crisis.  When Coach Keanon Lowe spotted him and saw his distress, he took the gun from the student and got it safely to another teacher.  Instead of tackling the student to the ground, he embraced him in a hug.  Holding this distressed student, Coach Lowe told him he wanted him to live. [3]

This first Sunday is the time to shape the next four weeks of your church’s collective journey to Bethlehem. Are there Advent practices and rhythms that your community might embrace this season in order to make room to see what is and what could be? How does our cry, “Come Lord Jesus Come” extend beyond the gathered body of believers? Might it mean we listen first, speak and act second? Might it change the way we buy and spend and who joins us at our holiday meals? Might it become a cry for justice in the streets? Might it join with the groaning earth?

Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord! [1] Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space. Beacon Press, 2003, 211. [2] *While seeing is the image from the text and the image I’m proposing, preachers will want to be thoughtfully inclusive about those who are blind or have impaired vision, as we would with the visions the prophets heard and those who are deaf/ hearing impaired. [3]