Off the coast of Maine, there is an island called Monhegan Island. The only way to get there is to ride the ferry that departs from the mainland at 7 o'clock every morning. It takes about an hour, if I remember correctly.
The morning that I rode over there the sea was like a gorgeous sheet of glass, mirroring the clear sky. It was smooth. It made for a pleasant trip over to the island. I soaked in the breeze, delighting in the sense of adventurism that I felt.
But coming back later that day, it was a different story. The front had moved in and where there was once no wind, there were now blustery, hurling, frothy winds. "Still going to go back?" I asked the pilot somewhat apprehensively. "Oh yes, this is nothing," he said with a little chuckle.
Before long, where there was once a gorgeous sheet of glass, there were now violent, white-capped waves. Where once there was an intrepid adventurer, there was now one sea-sick soul.
I held up remarkably well for the first 15 minutes, but a volcano was brewing, and it wasn't on the shore. It was in the pit of my stomach. The pilot took one look at me and noticed that my face was the color of an avocado and simply told me, "Sit down, find a point on the shoreline and focus on it."
And so I did. There was, far away on the rocky shore, one point that was higher than all the others, a sharp peak upon which there was a lighthouse. And I kept my eyes on it. As I did so, I began to visualize life back on terra-firma...in a warm, dry setting. And after a while, my stomach became calmer, my head cleared. I began to breathe deeply. "I'm going to make it," I thought with brand new assurance. And I did!
The world in which Isaiah lived was a choppy, chaotic, unjust, warring world. Israel was a storm-tossed nation, threatened by the powerful Assyrians to the north and east and menaced by the Egyptians to the south and west. The king and his advisors were occupied with what they needed to do to protect themselves. Events were getting out of their control. Fear was running rampant.
Internally, human life was qualified on the basis of material possessions. "I got mine, you get yours!" And the waters stirred and stirred, and people began to sink. The neediest of the needy, orphans and widows, were neglected. What's worse, many people didn't seem to care. "I might as well just go with the current. That's just the way it is...always has been...always will be. Nothing I can do about it."
Others concentrated their efforts on building bigger and stronger armadas to fight the mighty armadas of other storm-tossed nations.
But out of that turmoil, out of that storm-tossed world, there was one voice that stood out. A voice of God's voice; a vision of God's vision. To the world that was warring and killing and groping and sinking in the angry sea, Isaiah rose up and called out:
"Look! Focus your eyes upon the mountain of the house of the Lord...there on the shore....
For it shall rise up and be established as the highest of the mountains...
And people of all races will come and say:
'Let us make our way together to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways,
And that we may walk in his paths.'
He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples;
And 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."
Now my question is this: Was Isaiah just being a foolhardy idealist, impractical and other-worldly? Or is it possible that he was the only realist of his age, that his vision penetrated more deeply into the essence of reality?
Isaiah was no grinning Pollyanna, trying to get everyone to play the Happy Game. Only about ten percent of his sayings are what we might call "promissory"--projecting the promise of God in the midst of an idolatrous people.
But he had a vision, a vision of God's vision. And the thing that separated him from the others was that he actually believed that message from God, that the sickness which overcomes us and draws us toward the myriad of our violent insecurities must be stopped!
The future of our planet has always depended upon people, at least a remnant of people, fixing their hearts, minds and souls on an alternative vision...on a landmark established by God. And without that vision, the prophet says, the people perish.
But there is something else that separated Isaiah from all the others. He wasn't simply pointing to the future. Rather, he was speaking about the present moment!
Did you notice how he began this prophecy? "In days to come," reads the NRSV translation. "In days to come..." But the literal Hebrew is a bit more nuanced. "In the back of the days," or better yet, "In the midst of the present." Isaiah is suggesting that the present moment is ripe, or to use an appropriate Advent term, pregnant with God's presence.
I hope this doesn't come as a surprise to any of you who are listening to my voice, but I've never been pregnant. I do, however, remember talking with a pregnant woman not too long ago, and she talked about the first time she felt movement. It was subtle, almost imperceptible. So subtle that she was not entirely sure that she had felt anything. "Was that really movement? Or did I just imagine it?" So she tried to be very still and very quiet so that she might be sensitive to the hidden reality.
Maybe the prophet's gift is not to see magically into the future, but to have a spirit which discerns the mystery of the present. That mystery is that our history and our lives are lived against a larger reality. There is more than meets the eye! The day when people "shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" is nearer than we can imagine!
Can you believe that? Or is the prophet just a wild-eyed, dreamy, impractical idealist? Jesus surely didn't think so. He staked his very life on it. But that is the question before us this Advent. Can we watch, be ready, claim this vision, and move towards this vision...now, in the midst of the present?
There is a tendency to be passive in our waiting. But we are reminded in our text before us today that just the opposite is true...what we do is of eternal weight, and how we live while we wait is a matter of crucial significance.
Bill Muehl, who was the professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School, tells the story of a child in preschool who had made a ceramic figure to be taken home as a gift for his parents on the last day of class before Christmas. When the child sees his parents in the hallway, he runs toward them and accidentally falls. The ceramic figure crashes to the ground and shatters into a hundred tiny pieces. The father takes the sobbing and frightened child up into his arms and attempts to console his son with a disclaimer, "Don't cry. It's all right, it doesn't matter." But the child's mother, wiser in such things, quickly intervenes. "Oh, no," she says. "It does matter." And she wept with her son.
On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah is trying to tell us that God has set a beautiful vision before us, but life is short, and along the way to that vision we have broken some things. Sometimes we did it intentionally, and sometimes we did not. Some relationships have been broken, responsibilities messed up. And the brokenness is at all levels...in our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world. And it matters. It matters that we can make it right again. It matters that we acknowledge it before God and each other so that we can begin to bringing healing again where brokenness lies.
If we believe these words of the prophet, then we watch for, prepare for, hope for, work for God's kingdom of justice, love and peace...right in the midst of time...our time. And we just might make it!
For it's closer than you think.
Let us pray: O come, O come Emmanuel. Come into our lives this Advent, a season of new beginnings, precious traditions, and the longing deep in our hearts for what we have learned to call the Day of our Lord, your day; a day when you come with love and power and justice and mercy, a day when we stand up and become all that you have created us to be.
So come to us, Emmanuel, this day and this season. May this day be the day in which swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. When cold hearts melt and relationships warm and the hungry are fed, and there is peace...in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.