A social worker just told me a story one time about an internship where she worked as a night manager at a homeless shelter. “Part of my role,” she said, “was to round up the women and children and make sure lights were out by 10:00 pm. One night a boy was abandoned by his mother. I sat with that little 4 year-old boy until finally CPS showed up and took him to the Home of the Innocents. As he cried in my arms that he wanted his mother, I’m not sure that I’d ever seen such pain, felt such helplessness before. That night I decided I wanted to be a social worker … I wanted to combat the social evils of the world.”
And there are plenty of social evils in the world, aren’t there? We see them all around us. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the pain and despair. Walk out those doors, take a right, and have a seat at that bus stop right out there. You’ll see a whole new world of social evils 150 yards from where you’re sitting right now.
It’s a tough world we live in. The poor, the homeless, the addicted, the unwelcome, the widow, the orphan—all the social evils of the world—it’s difficult to ignore.
Isaiah knows that. Isaiah understands. God, if you’ve read chapter one, isn’t pleased with Judah. Things haven’t been going well with the children of God. They’ve acted faithlessly, and God’s fixin’ to throw down:
“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15).
Not good. Not good at all.
Jerusalem, God’s city, the city of peace—once faithful, God says, has become a “woman of questionable virtue,” a city full of murderers. “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:22–23).
God, as you might have been able to tell, is ticked: “Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:24b).
Things can’t keep going like they’ve been going. God’s angry. But unlike the wrath so many of us unleash upon the world, God’s anger is redemptive: “I will turn my hand against you: I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:25–26).
Things are going to get dark. You can count on that, God says. You’re not going to be able to see around the corner, but I’ve got other things in store for you.
Have you noticed here that, according to the tellers of the story, God’s judgment moves in a particular direction? God will not abandon Judah, but Judah will have to get to the end of her rope before understanding God’s great mercy.
Wait a minute. You’re not going to talk about judgment, are you? I mean, it’s one thing to talk about judgment if you’re a pre-modern yokel from the Palestinian sticks, but it’s another thing to start talking about judgment among sophisticated modern iPhone users like us.
Does that sound familiar? Judgment went the way of witch-burnings and the Inquisition. In fact, calling someone judgmental is among the most potent of epithets in our culture.
“You can’t tell me how to live. I’ll live the way I want to live. Who are you to judge me?”
Hard to get much lower in the food chain than being judgmental, isn’t it? Pharisees. Bottom-feeders.
But here’s God saying, “I will pour out my wrath on my foes.”
Sounds like judgment to me.
“Well preacher, that’s all well and good, but we serve a God of love.”
To which I reply, “So did the children of Judah.” We modern folks, however, have a rather idiosyncratic notion of love. Whereas love has traditionally meant concern for the other, nowadays love—in a communal sense—is often used as a way of avoiding having to be concerned for the other.
What? What does that mean?
Well, typically, folks talk about love in ways that indicate that what’s meant is not love, but rather not wanting to get involved. Sometimes the truest form of love is saying no. The easiest thing to do, and sometimes the least loving thing to do, is not to confront, but to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”
But that’s not peace, is it? That’s just a cease-fire; it doesn’t resolve the underlying issues. And in that sense, what’s communicated is, “I’m more concerned about myself and about avoiding the stickiness of real love than in your long-term good.”
Real love is impossible where people refuse to confront one another, to say, “No, that’s not right! I won’t stand by and watch it happen.” Deep down we know it’s true.
We need a God who refuses to give us what we want, but who holds out, determined to give us what we need. Perhaps the truest love, the truest grace is a God who’s willing to stand over against us, willing to hold us accountable for our boneheadedness—unwilling simply to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”
Because what God wants isn’t a cease-fire, but a people committed to God’s vision of life in this new reign that’s unfolding. And if we’re truly to be the children of God, first of all concerned with equipping people to follow Jesus, sometimes that will entail the painful but necessary process of speaking the truth to one another in love.
Real love knows how to say “No!”
It’s not all right for those of us who call ourselves Christians to stand by while people are being killed because of the color of their skin.
We can’t be silent when we see our Muslim neighbors harassed and belittled.
We love God too much not to speak up when we see our LGBTQ family and friends discriminated against, excluded, bullied.
We can’t tolerate a world in which our immigrant and refugee friends treated as if they’re somehow criminal, just because they want a chance at a peaceful life in which to raise their children.
We—who follow a man who said “no” to the powers and principalities—are now being raised up once again to say no on his behalf to those same powers and principalities.
Perhaps, it isn’t until God refuses to bend to our will, and holds us accountable to a standard of behavior that we didn’t devise for ourselves, that we can begin to understand the vision that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw.
Perhaps it isn’t until God, through the face of someone who truly loves us, says that our world—the way we’ve constructed it—isn’t working, that we can finally begin to submit ourselves to the true mercy of being transformed into the people God wants for us to be.
Perhaps it isn’t until we’ve lived through the darkness of the former days, when we searched for God and could never quite find where God had gone, that we can be open to the alternative reality of God’s peaceable kingdom in days to come.
It’s a hard word, isn’t it?
You’ve got to walk through the darkness to get to the light.
You’ve got to live with the uncertainty before you get to the serenity of peace.
That, of course, is the hard part about Advent. Advent isn’t just an excuse to stretch out the Christmas festivities for a month, like some sort of ecclesiastical Wal-Mart pre-sale. Advent is a time of preparation, of taking stock, of waiting.
And if you’ve ever been on the other end of a telephone line expecting a call that will not come, you know that waiting is just about the hardest thing in the world to do. You get tired of standing on your tip-toes after awhile, peering out into the darkness, looking for familiar headlights to crest the driveway.
No. Advent is the season when we recognize that the world—as it’s presently situated—holds great danger for us, forcing us to turn our “eyes toward the hills from whence cometh our help.”
Advent is a scary time of waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out.
We’re hopeful, but it’s not with us yet. You only have to read the front page of the New York Times to know that.
We can’t see what it’s going to look like in all of its glory; the mist blocks our vision. But we get glimpses, tiny snatches of light. We stand waiting for Christ to be revealed, but the darkness appears to rule.
Bullets fly. Water canons and concussion grenades are unleashed. The building of walls is contemplated. Children die in the dry night. Governments hire people to invent ever more ingenious ways to damage one another.
God is not satisfied with the world as it is presently ordered. And we hear Isaiah say, “But in days to come …”
In former days, we lived in the flat land, hemmed in by fear and terror on every side, but “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.”
In the old days, God’s displeasure with the way the world was ordered blackened the sky, but in days to come a star shall shine in Bethlehem and the horizon shall be lit by the faces of ten thousand angels announcing God’s desire for a world in which the poor are not trampled, and the orphan is defended, and the cause of the widow is heard in the land.
In the old days, your silver turned to garbage, your wine turned to water, and your princes turned into rebels and companions of thieves, but in days to come, your swords shall be turned into plowshares, and your spears shall be turned into pruning hooks, and your enemy shall be turned into your friend.
In the old days, your hands were full of blood and you housed murderers in your city, but in days to come, says the LORD, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall you learn war anymore.
We who live with the emerging threat to the most vulnerable of violence and dispossession, where the poor and the widowed and the orphaned continue among us, we find it difficult to see for all the smoke and dust in the air. But Advent is here, and it’s hard to avoid the darkness around us.
Judgment is tough for us to hear. We who have much ought to take care that we’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.
We who are well situated might find the refining fire of Advent much less inviting than the popular picture of old-fashioned Christmases that get pitched to us between episodes of “The Walking Dead.”
But if you’re an abandoned 4 year-old, maybe this kind of judgment is just what you need to hear.
If you’re a mother who now has to explain to your child why your skin or your religion or your immigration status is going to make the world a much more dangerous place for folks like you, maybe this hard word God speaks sounds like music.
Maybe to hear that God cares enough about you to get angry about the way you’ve been treated, the way you’ve been forgotten and left behind, is exactly the kind of Good News the gospel of Advent announces.
Isaiah spins for us a vision of God’s new reign, and we get a glimpse, just a peek at what God has in store for those who endure. Just a glimpse in the night of the kind of world where the abandoned are reclaimed, where the forgotten are remembered, where the lost are finally found.
Just a hint. Not much. But the message of Advent is that God doesn’t forsake the poor, the widow, the 4 year-old—expecting the same commitment to justice from those who claim to follow Jesus.
The message of Advent is that God can make a king out of a baby, which means that God can make a kingdom out of the likes of you and me.
And the uncomfortable truth of that, my friends, is more good news than you ought to be expected to endure in one sitting.