The Rev. Franklin Wilson
“In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”
“For salvation is nearer us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near….. Put on Christ.”
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
People grow weary of preachers—to say nothing of prophets. But, understandably, people (and especially people who have been hurt by preachers posing as something more than they are, the demagogues and purveyors of certainty in every age)—people suffer at the hands of the definitive authority, giants of the middling, dispensers of the urgent and miserly, the diminishment of mystery and the enlargement of self.
One way or another God gets the blame. God either over-compensates and is accused of doing too much, thus abusing the proud place of homo sapiens sapiens as the measure of all things. Or God is accused of doing too little and is thereby disqualified as God, which amounts to much the same thing: since God is not God, then someone else must assume the job, and it might as well be us. In that case, we must clearly understand “reality,” and why things are the way they are. Such that, IF we and our fellow citizens (and especially other people) would only take the proper path, do the right thing, then things would improve. Then, lo and behold, the world would be as God intended—even if there were no God. But that’s another matter.
Advent goes a different direction altogether. Rather than blame God (or not God) for our situation, Advent takes a cue from Isaiah and acknowledges that we human beings are not so wise as our self-appointed scientific name might suggest. A survey of the world in any age will reveal not unity, but division; not egalitarian cooperation, but hierarchical oppression. Instead of knowledge leading to peace, harmony, and good will, it generally leads to conflict, hatred and war. Those we hate we either abuse and kill, or (if there’s a profit to be made) we simply use them.
This is and has generally been the human way. It was so 3,000 years ago, and it’s largely so now. Anyone who thinks the U.S. or NATO, or China desires an end to the Syrian war simply because peace is a virtue has another thing coming. For all I know, the U.S. may find the Syrian war a helpful distraction from larger commercial and diplomatic interests in the region; peace may actually prove bad for profit—clearly a higher virtue.
Isaiah envisions (sees!) a word of utter reversal: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” A utopian vision if ever there were one! And yet, anything but utopic—Isaiah’s vision is topian in the extreme. He names Judah and Jerusalem; he names “the nations.” By which he means Judah and Jerusalem’s gentile neighbors: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, and Syrians—people who were enemies then and who, by and large, remain enemies today.
Far from utopic, Isaiah founds his vision of universal peace is not on the assumed goodness of the human heart, nor in some vague notion of spiritual progress. Ever the realist, Isaiah rather sees that peace cannot and will not come about by human means. Isaiah understands that all human alliances lead inevitably to greater and greater conflict, that the only true peace comes from the God who made us, the very One we cannot comprehend or understand. The very One who calls all our wisdom, power, and knowledge into question, this God enters the conflicted world as both judge and arbiter. It is only by his intervention that we have Advent hope.
Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine understood that God, if God really is God, cannot be understood by us or anyone else. We creatures can no more comprehend our creator, than create him (her!). To really be God, the creator mystifies: at one and the same time be both love and wrath; condemns and forgives, both reveals himself and hides himself; gives us his image and hides his image from us. In short: if we can comprehend it, it is not God.
By these lights, those who say there is no God may be nearer God than those who claim to comprehend God. At least denying God makes no claim to control God, but comprehending God limits God to our understanding, and the pretense of our controlling God, thereby leading to the justification of our own misconceptions, prejudices, and ignorance from whence springs conflict, abuse, war, and the general tendency to vilify our enemies as godless. Trust in the living God, the incomprehensible One, leads to the confession that all are God’s creatures, subject to God’s will, dependent on God’s action, God’s entry into time and history—that Christ comes to be our judge.
So Paul bids the Romans to wake from sleep—perhaps the slumber of certainty. He speaks not of specific times, but of “night” and “day,” and behavior appropriate to each. The coming of Christ, the coming of the Day, means salvation is nearer now than it once was. For his part, Jesus simply assures us that we cannot know when he will come, but only that he comes at an unexpected hour. Hence, acknowledging our unpreparedness is itself preparedness; confessing that we aren’t ready is readiness. True readiness for the coming of Christ admits our unreadiness. Unsure of ourselves, we trust him: he comes! He is near as bread in our mouths. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.