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Isaiah 2:1-5, Isaiah 40:3-5, James 2:14-17
Today is the first Sunday of Advent.
For those of you who are observant, you would notice we do not have an Advent wreath or the Advent candles this year. As I was thinking about the lighting of the Advent candles, I wondered what does it mean to you? Is it a tradition that we keep? Or are we repeating something that does not hold much meaning for us anymore? So I decided not to do it this year and see how people feel about it – if it is something we should keep doing because it is meaningful, we would bring it back next year.
Advent is a season of waiting. A season of hoping. A season of expectation. A season of preparation.
But what are we waiting for?
What are we hoping for?
What are we preparing for?
We are waiting for Christmas.
We are hoping for change. For things to get better – whether it is in our personal lives, or out in the world. For justice to be done.
What are we preparing for? We are preparing for Christmas, the coming of Christ. But what is Christmas? Is it a season to exchange gifts? A reason to get together and catch up with old friends? A season to feast?
We sing today “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Emmanuel – God with us – is that what we are preparing for – God with us? And this season of expectation – we are not just expecting – as in anticipating; we are also expecting – like a mother expecting a child, carrying something, nurturing something. It is hard to imagine that but what are we carrying within us?
The passages we read today are:
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2:2 In 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.
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
2:4 He shall judge between the 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.
2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
We are pretty far away from that vision, isn’t it? People are not beating their swords into plowshares, but making weapons that can kill people not by the tens, not by the hundreds, not by the thousands, but by the millions. We have not stop learning the way of war any more, but we are learning more how to make war even more brutal, even more efficient. Such is the times we live in today.
What was the first Advent like?
The first Advent long ago happened during the time of the Roman occupation of the Kingdom of Israel. What were they expecting? What were they hoping for? What were they preparing for?
They expected a messiah who would overthrow the Roman occupation by force – they wanted a swift and instant change in their situation. They wanted things to turn around, immediately.
When we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, it is almost like a peaceful meditation. But it was not a peaceful Messiah they were expecting. When we sing “Come ransom captive Israel,” can we imagine them under the oppressive Roman rule? Can we see what they were longing for was a violent uprising to change the way things were then.
We know today that Jesus didn’t bring about a violent revolution that overthrew the Romans. Jesus came and showed another way. A way of love. A way of justice and a way of non-violent resistance.
Too often, we like those people during Jesus’ time, expect instant results, instant transformation. Today everything happens instantly. I lived in a time when I had to fax to people stuff. After faxing, I had to call to make sure they got the fax. Today, we send instant messages to each other. We expect replies almost immediately. How has our understanding of the world changed in this age compared to then? Do we make plans, do we prepare?
I think often we live day to day, week to week, year to year. We barely make do, we don’t look far ahead. Those of you who grow plants will know that it takes time to nurture and grow things. Those of you who go to the gym will know that you will not get results overnight. It takes at least six months to get results in the gym.
We wait for Christmas – we wait for the coming of the Christ child. But what are we doing to prepare for that? Will the arrival of the Christ child transform us without any action on our part?
Two years ago, when Rev Elder Darlene Garner came during Amplify, she said church should be a spiritual gym, where you come and to exercise and build up your spiritual self, just like you go to the gym to exercise to build up your physical self.
I often think of myself as a gym instructor – a spiritual gym instructor. I cannot do all the spiritual work for you and you grow, you have to do the work. Just like when the gym instructor tells you “One more rep, one more rep, good work! 5 more burpees, 4, 3, 2, 1. Good work!” I invite you to be pushed in how you live out your spirituality. Your growth requires you to invest time into it. That is something we will embark on more deeply as a community in the coming year. We will encourage you to take on some spiritual disciplines, exercises to engage in for a period of time so you would nurture your inner life.
But that’s not the only thing. When we talk about preparing the way of the lord in Isaiah 40, what are we preparing for?
“A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Is this passage about a literal transformation of the landscape where some earthquake will happen and all the mountains will be flattened and all the valleys will be filled up, where it would all be even? Or does it have some metaphorical meaning?
I think it is about the situation in the world today. I think it is about lifting those in valleys up so that there would be equality.
“The way” is as much a personal transformation and re-orientation towards God in us, as it is an external transformation and re-orientation towards God outside and around us. Personal spiritual growth needs to be connected to the work of justice, peacemaking and love. Personal spiritual growth is just the growth of the tree – from a seed to a sapling, from a sapling to a shrub, from a shrub to a tree. The work of justice, peacemaking and love are the fruits that we bear as the tree. We begin to learn to see as God sees – to weep over things that breaks God’s heart and to feel in our bones the deep yearning for things to change so that things will become better not just for ourselves, but for all people.
What are you doing to nurture your inner life to prepare the way of the Lord within you? Have you worked through the things that need forgiveness? The things that need restitution? I would expend the word restitution a little more. When you have something wrong – and I don’t mean the black and white kind of wrong because in life wrongness is all shades of grey – how do you make amends to the situation. Sometimes it is not just about saying sorry. As a kid, I know, “sorry no cure.” How do we commit ourselves not to make the same mistakes again, do the same wrong again and at the same make things better.
We don’t just say sorry. Sometimes we bump into someone, and we say sorry instinctively. It is just a reflex action. There is no weight to that apology.
And sometimes when we do something wrong, and we really feel the pain that we have caused, we go to the person and say “I am really sorry that I did this.” With the weight and sincerity behind it, we often do something beyond just saying sorry. We do something more to reconcile.
The flip side is we don’t even acknowledge the wrongdoing ourselves or adamantly insisting we have done no wrong? And in that adamant insistence that we have done no wrong relationships are broken. We are no longer connected to one another.
This season of anticipation, this season of preparation, this season to prepare the way, perhaps it is also a season to reflect – who, what situations we might seek forgiveness for. Who, what situations we might need to forgive. When you are not forgiving, the person who is affected is not the person who is not forgiven, it is you. You carry the unforgiveness. It will eat you up. It doesn’t do anything to the other person – the other person may even be oblivious to what they have done wrong. That’s a journey we have to take – perhaps preparing the way is engaging with a broken relationship, making restitution, seeking healing and reconciliation.
“The way” isn’t just something we do for this season, as though the seasons of Advent and Lent are the season for forgiveness and doing something, and the rest of the year is “normal time.”
“The way” is a fundamental shift in our lives that we need to allow to take root so from now on, we orientate ourselves towards the way of God. How else do we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child in our hearts, in our lives? Or is Christ important only when it is convenient to us, and to be easily forgotten and put aside when following Christ, walking on “the way” costs us too much?
It is not easy to transform ourselves and follow “the way.” I want to share with you something that happened to me recently. I found it both an enlightening and troubling experience at the same time.
I was pretty tired coming back from Jakarta after the Amplify conference. That day I borrowed my mom’s car to drive things around. I reversed into a parking lot, and there was a car in that lot. Opppps.
Of course, when you are reversing you are going rather slowly, so it was not a huge bang. I went out of the car to check the damage – there wasn’t a dent, and the only thing was that the bumper was knocked slightly out of alignment and a little hammering would fix it. I went into my car, and there was a huge struggle. I was going to write a note to say sorry I bumped into your car and the bumper is out of alignment, this is my number and if you need it fixed, let me know.
As I was writing, this thought came to my mind – “nobody’s looking at you right now. You can just walk away. You can just pretend nothing happened. That person coming back won’t even notice the bumper is out of alignment.”
I was struggling within – and it is scary. It is scary that something I have been trying to teach – living our lives accountably, I am here struggling to do exactly that. I am not wanting to be accountable. Nobody’s watching, I thought. That struggle was real. I wonder how many of us have these struggles at different points of our lives.
I did finish writing that note, and I did put it on the windscreen. Even when I had put it on the windscreen, I was hoping it would rain and the slip of paper would be washed away. And I caught myself thinking that – and I wondered to myself – why am I running away from something I am responsible and accountable for.
The reality is this – what do we do when nobody’s watching is what defines us. If I walked away that day, I would not be able to live with myself and stand here and speak to you because I would not be walking the talk, or practicing what I am preaching.
That person never called.
I wonder what happens when we live vulnerably – I put myself in a vulnerable position. That person could have gone and get more than his bumper fixed and charge the bill to me. I wonder how living accountably will affect the other person. When someone gets a note from someone taking responsibility, how would that person feel? Will it be an action that sows the seed, that may lead to that person living vulnerably and accountably as well? I wonder how we are affected when someone does knock into our car and leave a big dent and just drove away? That, I think, is the way of the world. The way of God, I think, is to be accountable for our actions – intentional or unintentional, to make restitution, to change. That realignment changes us so we would bear fruit.
Very often, the preachers here at FCC either lean one way or another in our sermons because we cannot cover everything. So on some weeks, it is about our inner spiritual growth – our hurts, our baggage our issues, and other weeks it is about social justice – what’s wrong with the world, what needs changing out there in the world. It can be very dichotomous sometimes but the reality is that they are both deeply connected, interconnected and interrelated.
I cannot do the work of justice if I do not nurture on inner spiritual life. I know many friends who are burnt out because when they do not have a firm grounding in their spirituality when they do social justice work. Spirituality isn’t about religion – it is about how we feed, nurture and take care of our inner selves.
The flip side is also troubling – when it is all about you (me), and it does not translate outside of ourselves. When we say prepare the way, it is a both-and – not just the inner workings of our spiritual lives – preparing the way of the Lord in our hearts, but also preparing the way of the Lord out in the world.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[a] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
What are you doing to bear fruits to prepare the way of the Lord on the outside? We need to include an aspect of service to the world as part of our cell group and church life.
I wrestle with the growing hostility in the world. I see xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, sexism everywhere. I see a great lack of listening and critical thinking. I see fearmongering and manipulation – all for power, money and control – things of Caesar.
I see a great lack of compassion, of justice, of love. I see a great lack of grace, truth and mercy – things of Christ. As i listened to the debate in Taiwan on marriage equality, as i see so many acts of racism and threats on the rise in the US, as i see people fighting to silence and censor art that comes from a huge discomfort with naked bodies – i wonder what can i do? How do i prepare the way of the Lord?
Have you ever dreamt that you were having exams and you were not prepared? I have dreamt that I was taking another mathematics paper and woke up panicking that I was not prepared – and slowly realising I took my last mathematics examination 20 years ago.
Preparation requires thought, preparation requires patience, and preparation requires restraint. I wait. I nurture my inner life and deal with the anger and disappointment within so that when i set off to do the work that is before me, these emotions do not cloud my judgement.
This season of Advent – i would like to invite you to pay attention to what your inner life is oriented towards – is it to things of Caesar – power, money, control or things of Christ – grace, truth, mercy. I invite you to confront those things you are running away from – things you rather not deal with. It will take time and be patient with yourself. Because as you do, you will grow. And as you grow, may we grow as a community of faithful. And as we grow may we make a highway in the desert, may we lift every valley of discrimination, inequality and injustice, may we make the rough places of violence, fear and hate a plain of peace, trust and love.
I was very inspired by Walter Brueggemann – an Old Testament scholar and theologian – and his book “Prayers for a Privileged People.” Here is a prayer / poem / Psalm from the book.
Newborn Beginning …. after Caesar by Walter Brueggemann
The Christ Child is about to be born,
The one promised by the angel.
Mary’s “fullness of time” has arrived.
Except that the birth is scheduled
according to the emperor:
A decree went out that all should be numbered.
Caesar decreed a census, everyone counted;
Caesar intended to have up-to-date data for the tax rolls;
Caesar intended to have current lists of draft eligibility;
Caesar intended taxes to support armies,
because the emperor, in whatever era,
is always about money and power,
about power and force,
about force and control,
and eventually violence.
And while we wait for the Christ Child,
we are enthralled by the things of Caesar –
money… power… control,
and all the well-being that comes from
such control, even if it requires a little violence.
But in the midst of the decree
will come this long expected Jesus,
full of grace and truth,
grace and not power,
truth and not money,
mercy and not control.
We also dwell in the land of Caesar;
we pray for the gift of your spirit,
that we may loosen our grip on the things of Caesar,
that we may turn our eyes toward the baby,
our ears toward the newness,
our hearts toward the gentleness,
our power and money and control
toward your new governance.
We crave the newness.
And while the decree of the emperor
rings in our ears with such authority,
give us the newness that we may start again
at the beginning,
that the innocence of the baby may
intrude upon our ambiguity,
that the vulnerability of the child may
veto our lust for control,
that we may filled with wonder
and so less of anxiety,
in the blessed name of the baby we pray.