Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year. How we begin matters. Two weeks ago I was invited to meet with a group of uOttawa students to talk about science and the creation stories of the book of Genesis, a subject which has been at times a hot topic. We had a lively discussion about physics, biology and geology, about what scientists have to say about the beginnings of our universe, and the origins of life. Then we talked about what it says in the book of Genesis and how we reconcile our scientific understanding with our faith and with the biblical texts which tell us that in the beginning it was God who created the heavens and the earth.
Here’s my take-away from that conversation: the reason that beginnings matter is because of what it means for us in the present, as we wrestle with the big questions of life. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? How should I live my life?
The readings that we heard today, the ones were selected for us on this first Sunday of Advent aren’t about beginnings. They are, rather, about endings. We begin Advent with the end in mind. The future. The end times, the day when God will set things right with creation, the day when the Son of Man will come again. We begin with hope.
Isaiah, in the midst of a time of war, has a vision of all the nations streaming to the mountain of the LORD to learn the ways of peace and to beat their swords into ploughshares. That’s an inspiring vision, a hopeful vision. Jesus has a vision of God breaking into creation unexpectedly like a thief in the night. That sounds a bit scary. The reading that we heard today from the gospel of Matthew is just one of a series of five parables about the end times, parables of judgement. Sometimes they do sound scary. But these parables of judgement are intended to be hopeful. Hopeful because there is a twofold promise in judgement; first that God will indeed act to bring about a new world of peace and justice, and secondly that, how we align ourselves with this vision of what is to come, what we do with our lives, really does matter.
We begin with the end in mind. But the stories we tell about endings aren’t intended to promote speculation or to enable us to make predictions. They are intended to give shape and meaning to our present tense. We are on a trajectory. We come from somewhere and we’re going somewhere and therefore where we are and what we do now matters. On this, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul are in agreement. All of them speak of the days to come, but for each one of them the conclusion is firmly rooted in the present tense: “Now is the moment for you to wake,” says Paul. “Let us walk in the light of the Lord!” exhorts Isaiah. “You must be ready,” says Jesus. Here. Now.
Some of the stories that are told these days about the beginning and the ending of the universe make it all sound pretty random, and make humanity sound rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But our story is different. Our story is a bigger story. We believe that we were created for a purpose by the one who created the entire universe. We were created in God’s image and we were created for relationship, with God and with each other. And though we too can look around, as Isaiah did, as Jesus did, and see all that is wrong in the world, we believe that the days are surely coming when God will set things right.
We don’t know the time nor the place. Maybe we’re talking about something here that explodes the boundaries of time and space as we know them. But we have been called to participate in the work of setting things right in the world. And as a result our lives matter, and how we live matters, because we’re heading somewhere, even though we may not fully arrive in our earthly lifetime.
This is a vision with the power to shape our lives and the times in which we live. There is more to the human story, there is more to God’s story than what we’ve experienced so far. Can you see it?
Isaiah could see it. The reading from Isaiah that we heard this morning starts out with a curious phrase. It says “the word that Isaiah saw”. Not that he heard, but that he saw. Because what we see makes all the difference.
When Isaiah looked at the world around him he saw terrible things. He saw an invading army doing violence to his people, cities burning with fire. He saw people in positions of power acting corruptly and oppressing the poor. He saw injured and sick people receiving no treatment. And yet he refused to believe that that’s all there is. His vision wasn’t limited to the devastation that was staring him in the face. He could see more.
Can you see it?
Can you see all the nations streaming to the mountain of God to learn the ways of peace?
Martin Luther King Jr. could see it when he confronted the injustice of racial discrimination in the United States in the 1960’s. That vision of all the nations streaming to the mountain of God to learn the ways of peace gave hope and shape to the civil rights movement.
“I have been to the mountain top . . . And I have seen the promised land” said King in Memphis in 1968. “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
When we can see it, despite all the evidence to the contrary, our end-time vision shapes our present moment. It generates both judgment and promise and it creates the possibility of acting for justice in the world, action which is sustained by hope.
Isaiah had a vision of swords being beaten into plowshares. Can you see it?
Jody Williams could see it when she first started advocating for an international ban on land-mines in 1992 after seeing first-hand the devastation they caused in Nicaragua. At first people thought she was crazy. Armies would never agree to give up any of their weapons. But she could see it, and she had hope. Today the Ottawa treaty banning land mines has been adopted by 162 countries, and through extensive demining operations Nicaragua and 29 other countries have been declared free of land-mines and safe once more for children to play in the fields.
We begin our year, we begin this season of Advent with a vision of the end times, when all the nations will come to the mountain of the Lord to learn the ways of peace, when swords will be beat into plowshares, when the Son of Man will break into our creation like a thief in the night, to steal away the injustice and violence that plagues our world, to set things right. We begin Advent this way because in this our season of preparation for the coming of Jesus into the world, we need to know that our lives matter, and that when we work to set things right we are not just banging our heads on a wall that will never come down. Rather, we are participating in God’s work and we are creating glimpses of what will be so that others can see it too. We are a people of hope, not despair, and that hope enables us both to act and to see what others may not, that God is indeed coming into our world and will one day set things right.
This morning we light a candle for hope. Can you see it?
Yr A Advent 1, Dec 1 2013, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 2.1-5; Ps 122; Rom 13.11-14; Mt 24.35-44
Image by Jonathon Kos-Reid, Creative Commons
 Thomas Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope, p123.