Some people say that time is a line, and it has a beginning, middle and an end. Whether the line is short or long, and whether the line is straight, or it goes around some bends, time has a beginning, middle and an end.
Some people say that time is a circle, and every beginning is an end, and every end is a new beginning. It might be that time begins and ends up here or down there, but in either case, every beginning is an ending, and every ending is a beginning.1
Today we have come to just such a place – where the beginning and ending meet. In the way that the church tells time, we have come to the end of green and growing, ordinary time, and today we begin Advent. Advent means “coming,” and we are looking forward to the coming of God, the “divine intrusion.” We mark it with the color blue.
Some people mark this time with the color purple. Purple is a serious color; it’s the color of royalty, and the color of penitence or regret, but there is also joy in this time so they add a touch of pink to remember joy.
But here in this place, we mark it with blue – blue banners and paraments and candles. Blue is the color of hope. Diana Butler Bass says that blue is the color of the night sky right before dawn, “that time when the deepest dark is just infused with hints of light. Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives.”2
For Christians, Advent is a time of preparing, but maybe even more, it is a time of waiting, of watching and listening.
In past years, I’ve talked about Advent as a time to slow down, a time to get our hearts ready for Christmas. I suppose I’ve described it as an exercise to try to get ourselves into the “right” frame of mind. But I’ll confess I’m not very good at being pious. This year, Advent feels different; Advent feels a bit blue itself. Instead of trying to get my head and heart in the right place, this year, I think I need to watch and listen because I need to see the signs of God’s promise, of God’s coming, of God’s advent (or arrival) in our lives. Today’s reading from Isaiah helps me imagine that.
A bit of narrative context for today’s reading is in order – along with a claim about God. God is a God of rescue. It’s God’s very nature to be about salvation. In the Old Testament, the really big story of salvation or rescue is when God brings the people out of Egypt and brings them through the water to freedom. God forms a covenant with them in the wilderness, and God promises to be their God and asks them to live as God’s people.
The people of God were to live differently than their neighbors.
Through Moses, God gave Israel instructions for ordering their festivals, worship, and community life so that they might live as God’s holy people. The people assented and said Yes to a life with God and then immediately broke the covenant.
Time went on, and they continued to struggle with living in the covenant. Some 700 years later, in the Sixth Century B.C.E., the people of God had turned to other gods and looked to other nations and power structures for their identity and their security. They had practically forgotten Yahweh, the Lord, who had called Moses. They looked to their neighbors and were frightened. A series of three empires loomed.
First, the Assyrian Empire threatened from the north. Then the army of the Babylonian Empire marched through Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and destroyed the city and the Temple itself. The Babylonian army captured the royal family, the religious leaders and the educated elite, and marched them off to an uncertain future in Babylon, leaving the others behind. For nearly 50 years, the leaders of the people lived in exile, separated from the land, separated from their place of worship, separated from the community and the practices that were designed to help them honor the covenant with the Lord.
Then it happened. Some 50 years later, in the year 539 B.C.E., a third empire, the Persian Empire overthrew the Babylonians, and King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the exiles should return home and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The number 50 rings a bell. Leviticus 25 describes the year of Jubilee. Every 50 years, a Jubilee is to be declared in which debts are forgiven, slaves are released, and refugees and prisoners of war are allowed to return home.
It’s a beautiful vision of generosity and freedom and the ability to start over, a vision of economic justice and liberation. If a person falls on hard times and is forced to sell land or even themselves into slavery, it’s not permanent. It’s based on the claim that everything belongs to God – the land, the people, our very lives.
And so it was, some 50 years later, the people of God who were living in exile were allowed to go home. But here’s the thing: Home didn’t look like home anymore. The city still lay in ruin, and the Temple was still under rubble. Foreign armies had conquered the people’s spirits – both the spirits of those who had been taken away and those who had been left behind. The people were down and depressed. It was a lonely return.
So God sent a prophet who writes under the name of Isaiah to say to them:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me…
- To bring good news to the poor;
- To heal the broken-hearted and comfort those who mourn.
- To bring release to the captives.
If you look at closely at the reading in your bulletins, you’ll find seven verbs, seven infinitives that describe the task of the prophet. Seven is the number of completion in the Bible; seven is the number of perfection. This message from God is really good news!
And then God gives the people who have been in exile a mission: they shall build upon the ancient ruins, they shall repair the ruined cities. This is what it looks like when God shows up: Structures that hold us captive get overturned. People begin to see life through a new lens, and they move forward. The covenant is renewed.
Sometimes the trajectory or our lives get thrown off course, and we find ourselves, for all intents and purposes, in a form of exile, living in an unknown place, an unknown land to which we did not choose to come. We might have arrived there because of illness or injury, because of loss, or because of a change in power. We long to return to a normal that no longer exists. In this place, we might even wonder if God exists.
I think that Advent comes at just the right time this year because Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time of listening. Because some of us know sadness right now, and some of us know fear or addictions that hold us hostage. Because some of us are tied up in knots about issues of justice: about the dignity of all human life, or the safeguarding of natural resources, and some of us are bewildered because our nation seems so divided right now…we need Advent.
Advent is the time when we watch and listen. We look for signs of God’s coming. Signs like those laid out in Isaiah:
- God comes when the poor and oppressed hear that their burden is lifted when they find dignity in meaningful work, and when their medical needs are met.
- God comes when the broken-hearted find comfort when even a small amount of solace is found in the midst of grief.
- God comes when the captives are set free.
We see signs of God’s coming whenever we see acts of freedom and generosity and healing. You see, it is not just for another time, another age; we get to be part of God’s rescue plan now.
It is Advent, and we are waiting for Jesus. God comes to us in Jesus, and we see the very character of God. He is about bringing good news to the poor, binding up the broken-hearted and comforting the grieving, about freeing us from all that holds us captive, even sin and shame. This God transcends time and place and promises to be with us, to be for us in all that threatens our well-being.
As these December days grow shorter and darkness closes in around us, (in the words once again of Diana Butler Bass) “Advent recognizes a profound spiritual truth – that we need not fear the dark. Instead, we wait there. Under that blue cope of heaven, alert for the signs of dawn. (We watch and listen.) For you cannot rush the night. But you can light some candles….”3
And so we do. And we beckon once again, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come to us anew.” Amen.
1Adapted from Jerome Berryman, Godly Play.
2 Diana Butler Bass, “Forget red and green: Make it a blue holiday instead,” the Washington Post, November 25, 2016.