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Advent rings true. Because we know what it means to dwell in lowly exile here, we can sing with integrity when we sing, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Because we know war, and rumors of war, and the endless background noise of almost-war, we are ready to sing, "dear desire of every nation, enter every trembling heart." Because we are a people who live in deep darkness, we know how to long to see a great light. Advent is a season of anticipating the coming of Christ. It is a season that gives voice to our yearning. And because we yearn, we can live into the season. Advent just rings true.
Yet I have to confess: I'm always a little confused in Advent. I yearn, I wait, I hope--Come, Thou long-expected Jesus!--but I also remember. I remember singing these same songs last year. I remember watching and waiting. I remember keeping the wick in my lamp trimmed. And I remember the coming of the Bridegroom. I remember singing, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" Just eleven months ago! "O come, all ye faithful," for unto us is born this day in the City of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. I remember singing Gloria with the angels. Here in Advent, I remember Christmas, the feast of Immanuel, God-with-us. How could I forget? Even as I pray my Advent prayers, I'm wearing a shirt I received as a gift last year. For Christmas.
Those memories of Christmas complicate my Advent hope. Christmas celebrates the coming of God among us, as one of us, Word made flesh. If that dwelling-with-us is God's answer to our yearning, then why are we still yearning? And if that dwelling-with-us is not an answer to our yearning--if Christmas does not bring the Prince of Peace, who shall reign forever and ever--then why are we looking forward to Christmas? Why do we direct our yearning towards a Christmas that won't even last even until the end of January?
I mean, I can see how Advent might come before Christmas. Yearning, then fulfillment. But how can Advent come after Christmas? Fulfillment, then yearning. How can we yearn for something that has already happened?
These are not just the sentiments of someone who thinks too much about the church year. I mean, they are that. But they are not only that. These questions do not point to fatal failings in the whole idea of a cyclical church year. On the contrary: this tangle of questions, I think, is one of the deepest, defining mysteries of Christian faith, and it is one of the great gifts of the church year that it pulls us deeper into these questions. Because they go all the way down for us Christians. They get at the meaning of incarnation, the substance of hope, and the shape of history. They get at the nature of the faith of a people who confess that the Messiah has come even as we wait for the Messiah. For to be a Christian is to be a person who yearns for One who has already come. It is to be a person who lives between the first and second coming of the Christ, between the now and the not yet. We are a people who say both "Gloria in excelsis Deo!" for God has made God's home among us, and Maranatha--Come, Lord Jesus!--for we yearn for God to come among us.
Today's reading from Isaiah pulls us even deeper into these questions. "In days to come," it says, "in later days," or in the old language, "in latter days"...you know the prophecy--
... 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 ...
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
It is a vision of fulfillment, of God with us as Teacher of Wisdom and Judge of Righteousness and Prince of Peace. It is a vision of all the nations of the earth streaming to Zion, a vision in which the implements of destruction get turned to the work of feeding the people: swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
I mean, when will we beat swords into ploughshares? Now the oracles at the core of this passage are ancient. This is the hope of Israel, then and now. It is the hope on which the Church is founded. But the question is the time of this hoped-for world. Just when are these later days?
Now some commentators on Isaiah have argued that, whenever those days are, what matters most is that they are later than the time of the prophet. Are we there yet? No, not yet, they read Isaiah 2 as saying. Not yet. Now these commentators give different stories about what Isaiah might have meant. Maybe other prophets had applied these oracles to the First Temple or the Second Temple, as if they would bring the time when people beat swords into ploughshares. But then it didn't happen. And so, the commentators say, Isaiah's purpose was to say that the promises were still true, just not true yet. These commentators argue that Isaiah's purpose was to secure the truth of the promise and then push this moment of fulfillment a little further into the future. Later days.
But this interpretation makes the prophet into a mere predictor--and not a very good one, for it would make Isaiah a predictor who could not even say when something was going to happen, the latest in a long line of predictors who had to be saved from their predictions. It would be as if the prophet said, "Swords into ploughshares. Yes. Still true. But not yet. Not quite yet. Today? No ... not yet." And then the next day: "Today? Not yet. Later days." It would make the prophets into figures like William Miller, the American preacher who predicted the end of the world by March 21, 1844. When the end did not come by then, he changed his prediction to October 22, 1844. And so on. In the hands of someone like Miller, the later days are always ... later.
The problem is not just associating the line of prophets who composed Isaiah with William Miller. The problem is the reduction of this ancient promise--swords into ploughshares--to a prediction that never quite comes true. The problem with this interpretation is the ways our hope gets impoverished when we do not risk claiming the gift of God-with-us now and not only not-yet.
For when we are willing to say that we have lived in latter days--indeed, that we live in them now--when we are willing to say that God met Israel, kept covenant, in both the First and Second Temples, even if they were ultimately destroyed ... when we are willing to say that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, even if we ultimately killed that Word ... when we are willing to say that Christmas has already come, really come, to this world in which we live now ... then our hope begins to deepen. It takes a different shape. Our hope becomes not just for an endlessly postponed future bliss. It becomes something other than wishful fulfillment. It is for a God whose love for us only deepens in our rejection of that love. It is for a teacher of wisdom who teaches the greatest lesson even as people walk away. It is for a Prince of Peace who reigns even in the midst of war and rumors of war.
Isaiah teaches us how to understand the now-and-not-yet that brings yearning after fulfillment and Advent after Christmas. It is not that last year's Christmas was not real-- "Oops! Not yet! Did I say December 25? I meant March 25 ... and maybe March 25 next year!" No, no, no. The good news is that Immanuel has come, really come, in that feedbox in a barn, and in that "Silent Night" we sang by candlelight. And the coming of God with us makes it possible for us to yearn for God with us. We have to learn what we lacked in order to know how much we needed. The coming of God with us teaches us how to yearn and what to yearn for.
It is because the Prince of Peace has come that we can hope that nations will not study war any more. It is because the Word was made flesh that we can yearn for a day when God will teach us God's ways. It is because God is with us, even now, that we can hope, wait, and yearn. It is because we sang "Joy to the World!" that we have the insight, courage, and audacity to sing "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." Because Christmas has already come, our Advent waiting can begin.
Holy, holy, holy
Is the Lord God Almighty
Who was, and is, and is to come.
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