A Candle of Hope
We begin the Advent journey by lighting a candle of hope, and hope is in the biblical scheme of things more than wishful thinking. The hope that the season of Advent holds out to us as we light this first candle is rooted in the promises of the God who is ever faithful. It is rooted in the covenant relationship that exists between God and humanity. Therefore, we can gather and sing with a sense of purpose the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Chalice Hymnal, 119). And so as we begin the journey we do so in the company of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew’s Jesus. Each of these texts for the first Sunday of Advent speak to the hope that is present in us, and reminds us that we should continue to stay awake and live according to the promises of God.
The journey begins in Isaiah, where the prophet speaks in wondrous terms of the day that will come when the nations will stream to Zion, to God’s holy mountain, so that they might encounter the Lord, the God of Jacob. And the reason they will come is so that they might receive instruction (Torah). Yes, they’ll come in the hope that will learn of the ways of God so that they might walk in his paths of righteousness. Upon this basis God will judge, that is, God will rule over the nations. And as a result, the nations will commit themselves to peace. The fourth verse of Isaiah 2 is one of the most beautiful and promising of all texts of scripture, for it promises a war torn world a vision of peace. When God rules over the nations and therefore is the one who will arbitrate among them, then the nations will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. That is, in the days to come, instead of devoting our time, our energy, and our resources on keeping afloat a “military industrial complex,” the people will devote themselves to more productive work, such as providing food for their tables. It may sound utopian, and yet it stands before us as God’s promise, and it is a promise in which we have been called upon to place our hopes – not wishful thinking, but trusting our futures to the covenant-making God. Our lection ends with verse 5, which calls upon the house of Jacob to “walk in the Light of the Lord.”
Isaiah’s wondrous vision is paired with two texts that lack the grandeur of the Old Testament lesson, and yet they too speak to us in our day. Both remind us of the importance of being awake and living as people of the light. In his letter to the Romans, Paul rings the alarm and reminds the recipients of his letter that their salvation is nearer to them than when they first believed. The night is drawing to a close and day is at hand. Therefore, they are now to live as in the light, laying aside the works of darkness. The image here is clear, the criminal does his or her work under the cover of darkness so that they will not be seen, and such, the implication here is, once this was true for them. But now the light has dawned, the candle is lit, and so they’re to live honorably, putting aside the works of darkness including revelry, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling (remember that in Isaiah, as a result of the Lord’s instruction in Zion the nations will cease their quarreling), and jealousy. Instead, they (us) are to put on Jesus Christ and make “no provision for the flesh.” There is in this word to us, that our hope in Christ should affect the way we live, especially as we move into God’s future.
Finally we come to the Gospel. With Advent we begin a new lectionary cycle, one that focuses on the Gospel of Matthew. And in this first gospel lesson of the new church year we find ourselves near the end of the Gospel, in Jesus’ eschatological discourse that comes near the end of his own earthly journey. It is a rather strong and even harsh word, one that even speaks in terms of eternal punishment. In this word about the future, Jesus lets the disciples know that the time and place of God’s judgment is known only to the Father – neither Angels nor the Son of Man know this information. And just as a word of warning, in case they get complacent (remember that Matthew is writing a half century following the death/resurrection of Jesus), on the day of his revealing, the people will be living rather normally. Indeed, the people will be eating and drinking (not necessarily in excess, just normally) and they’ll be planning weddings, just like normal. That’s the way it was when the flood hit in the days of Noah. Since they didn’t heed Noah’s warnings, they were caught unawares, and were swept away. The moral – you don’t want this to happen to you. To reinforce this message Jesus speaks enigmatically of pairs of individuals, one of whom will be taken and the other left doing their normal work – men in the field and women at the grinding stone. As to who is the one receiving judgment – that’s unclear. A recent book series might suggest that it’s the ones left behind, but it could easily be that the ones who suffer judgment are the ones being pulled out. There’s really way to know for sure. What is for sure, Jesus says, is that if a thief were planning to break into the house, and the owner knew the time of his coming, he would have been awake and would have foiled the attempt. Be awake at all times, Jesus says, for you never know when the thief is coming.
There is hope to be found in this life. We can live into the vision of God that Isaiah lays out for us, but we must be awake and attentive to the movement of God, and then live in ways that are in tune with this vision of the future. Therefore, we can affirm that Christian eschatology, that vision of God’s future, does have ethical implications, and so does the candle of hope that we light this first Sunday of Advent.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.