Image: Times Square, New York City, December 1969 (Source: artchive.ru).
‘An invitation to participate’
Advent 1, Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
It seems a little easy to feel a little hopeless at the moment as we face yet another Covid wave; as floods affect homes, lives and water systems; as people continue to be persecuted in Iran for protesting the inhumane treatment of girls and women; as we hear of the ongoing issues in Ukraine; as Donald Trump announces he will run again to be the US president.
It might feel easy to slip into complacency. To choose to bury ourselves in our own stuff rather than participate in responding to all the turmoil.
It could be easy at this time to become un-bothered about the existence of swords and spears and what they might be used for.
To hold a lack of concern about who is at the other end of my clothes or coffee.
It could be very easy to develop a lack of interest in anything other than making sure my own needs and desires are met …
(This week I found myself much more interested in the news that Leigh Sales will anchor Australian Story next year than the news that over 400 people, including children have been killed during the 10 weeks of protests in Iran.)
Perhaps, like me, you are left wondering – where is meaning in that kind of complacency? Where does hope lie?
The risk is that hope is nowhere to be found. This is when we are left standing in the field with nothing meaningful or hopeful, nothing other than the latest gadget to fill some void in our hopeless lives.
Leading up to Christmas in 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon rented billboards in 12 cities around the world. On those billboards they displayed massive black-and-white posters declaring “WAR IS OVER!” … then in smaller print underneath – “IF YOU WANT IT” – “Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
Curator Rachel Kent suggests that the message offered by Lennon and Ono’s statement “captures the power of the human mind to transcend the present and wish for a better world in the future, without conflict: the key to the piece being the tiny letters – IF YOU WANT IT.”
“IF YOU WANT IT” is an invitation to participate. Participation is central. Participation is an act of courage, an act of hope. As Aung Sun Suu Kyi has said – “there is no hope without endeavour”.
If we consider hope instead of complacency, participation instead of disconnection, what might we see? What might take hold of us? How might we participate in offering hope for others and for our world?
As it is with ritual cycles, we begin where we end. Our lectionary offers us another set of apocalyptic readings, the third week of such readings.
Today we start the Advent season as well as a new year in the ritual cycle of our worshipping life. As we start the new church year, we are presented stories about the end times – visions for the future. Readers are told to “stay awake!” “live in expectation!” “watch for the signs of God”. We are encouraged to hope for a renewed future in God as we “walk in the light of YHWH!”
Advent is a time for preparing for Christmas. Yet it is much more, too. Advent assists us to look beyond Christmas to the coming of Jesus who is more than a baby in a manger.
This first Sunday of Advent reminds us that this is a time to look toward the great dream of God in which all creation will be gathered up and enter into a new relationship with God.
In our end is our beginning: the signs of God’s reign point us to the birth of something new. We are lifted out of our ordinary lives in order to vision a future that enables us to live in the now with hope.
And so, we watch and wait. We imagine and dream. We hope for a new world, because our hope can’t wait any longer.
The readings today point us well beyond Christmas and remind us of a larger theme of hope.
Isaiah is writing in the eighth century BCE in the midst of war, violence, destruction and suffering. The Israelites have suffered tremendous threat to their identity, their faith and their physical wellbeing. They are facing real terror. There is real fear here.
In the midst of unimaginable destruction Isaiah writes with poetic imagination of what the world will look like at peace and reconciled to God’s dream, offering grand visions of hope and renewal.
The word of hope and renewal offered here is utterly amazing given the context of the people who live with real terror. Isaiah’s vision reflects the faith that God will do something new. That the promises of God will still hold even when all the evidence suggests otherwise.
Isaiah offers a “dream of what the world could be if people lived towards God and with God”, if people participated in the hope of God’s dream.
We also hear a ripper reading from the book of Matthew, in which we are reminded of the story of Noah and the devastation caused for people not ready.
Here, two people are in the field, one is taken and one is left behind. Two women are preparing mill, one is taken and one is not. The author warns those listening to be watchful, to keep awake, to be ready at all times.
To be watchful is a call to participation.
This theme of watchful participation continues throughout the book of Matthew. Matthew is concerned with offering an alternative vision of justice to that of the Roman empire and so he offers a reordered vision of the kindom of God.
Matthew talks about the God who is “with us”. God at work in the world, breaking into the human community, particularly through Jesus who is grounded in time and place.
Subsequently, Matthew is concerned with what kind of “household” (church) will enable this vision of justice? A household that is concerned with participating in God’s dream.
Today Matthew and Isaiah remind us we are living in the in-between time. The kindom of God is established but not fulfilled. And so, we must stay watchful, keep awake and live in God’s right ordering and right relationship.
Our readings on this first Sunday of Advent invite us to pause and be attentive to what God is doing now. To be attentive to God who is already in our midst. To understand that we live in the “now and the not yet” where God is doing God’s thing now, but it is also not complete.
Fran Barber suggests that “we live in this in-between time and what we’re called to do, with biblical visions like this, is to allow this vision of the future [in particular that vision offered by Isaiah], to shape our present, so that we live as if this were true, even though the narrative around us tells us otherwise.”
Advent’s theme of expectation points us forward not only to the incarnation of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas, but also to the awaited final coming, when God’s fulfillment will break in on us and God will be “all in all”.
What would it mean if we lived as if all the swords had been turned into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks? What would it mean if we lived as if we were choosing to transcend the present and wish for a better world in the future by participating in the hope of God’s dream?
What if we were to live as if this dream of God had already come about?
A few years ago, in the Guardian, Richard Flanigan was writing about climate change and said “we will discover the language of hope in the quality of our courage”.
This is what Advent calls us to – to discover hope in the quality of our courage, in the quality of our participation in God’s dream.
If we let these ancient visions of Isaiah and Matthew inform our present, we know that our hopeful participation can’t wait, and we might ask ourselves: what courage do we need? How might we participate in the dream of God in this in-between/now-but-not-yet time? Amen.
The Rev. Nicole Fleming is Candidate Formation Coordinator, United Theological College, North Parramatta.