Advent 2 – December 4, 2022
by Michael Swartz
Prophets are people who speak for God. And today we have the message of two prophets; John the Baptist and Isaiah. There are many prophets named in the scripture – Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk. Which suggests that God speaks differently in different situations; otherwise God’s word could just be like the annual showing of a Christmas special on television; the same every year. But even as the particular prophets change, the basic message remains the same: “Get close to God.” Draw nigh to God and God will draw nigh to you.
John’s message: Repent. Turn around, start over. Meta-noia. Reboot. The Jordan was the entry marker for the Holy Land. So being at the Jordan meant starting over. John’s clothing indicates he is a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah – the all time great prophet of the Hebrew Scripture after Moses. The Advent connection is that when Elijah reappears the new age has begun. What I want to lift up about John today is that he was confrontational. In the text he calls his listeners “You brood of vipers…” He is angry. He gets himself killed. Just saying. He was not big on how to win friends and influence people. Get close to God by starting over.
Isaiah’s image: Where John is confrontational Isaiah paints a verbal picture of the realm of God when peace will come. And he invites us to visualize with him. What appears to be the natural order of things is actually malleable. We can together construct what is the order of things, and Isaiah does this in terms of danger and predator and prey. Isaiah is evocative where John is conBoth John and Isaiah strain the limits of regular language. John by dramatic acting out in the role of Isaiah. Isaiah by saying something we think of non-rational or poetic. Both are sophisticated.
Jesus used hyperbole: “You strain the gnat and swallow the camel.” “You worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye while neglecting the log in your own eye.” Where is the line between poetic overstatement and a new reality? We scratch out heads but we get the poetic point.
The Isaiah prophecy is inclusive, invitational and puts us, and everyone, into the picture. I have been fascinated with the image of the Peaceable Kingdom for years, mostly not knowing why. You can feel it before you can say it. It is subtle and powerful at the same time, something of peaceful resistance to the current order of things. It really does not have to be this way.
Isaiah enlists poetry and arts in prophecy. Isaiah paints a picture of the destination and invites us to walk with him. Our communion service today similarly paints a picture of the destination – a cosmic banquet with God and Jesus is the host. We gather at the table and sing praises to God. In my youth we sang the song, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine.”
Isaiah is a “foretaste of glory divine.”
I sometimes wake up way too early in the morning, and my strategy is to turn on the BBC and play it through my ear buds and fall asleep again listening to the drone of the news. Sometime during the continuing peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong, the Umbrella movement of students, probably about 2019, I heard the crowd singing, in English, “Sing Alleluia to the Lord.” We sometimes sing the same song in church.
I understood it to mean these students held a vision of solidarity with each other, with people like me, and I did indeed feel a kinship with these Hong Kong students non-violently seeking human rights. I have come to learn that it was a strategy to tamp down the violence of the police, and since religious gatherings are protected by Chinese law, to invoke that status. It was an affirmation of a peaceable realm.
A peaceful community that respects justice and human rights is part of God’s shalom, promised for all creation. And that vision of peace is reflected in this song of praise to God, and in the vision of the lion and lamb together.
And listening to the familiar song I found rest, and a reassurance of the universality of the Peaceable realm, the Peaceable Kingdom that will come in the fullness of God’s time. Life rightly lived on this planet is found in harmony with the promise of God peace, and each of us doing a part to bring that vision to fruition.
We sing it, we say it, we needlepoint it, we sculpt it, we believe it by faith in God.
Amen and amen.