(Isaiah 2: 1-5)
Today may be the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. It may very well be the end of November, the 332nd day out of 366 (leap year, remember). And we may still have one more month left in 2016. But for you and me, members of this community of faith, today is Day One. It is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the liturgical church year. So Happy New Year, everyone!
And even though we know where the days ahead will take us – the birth of our messiah, his life, death and resurrection, Pentecost and beyond – even though we know all that is coming, right here and right now we’re at the beginning.
It is the beginning of a story that is told over and over again every year, like a production at the local theater that runs every November and December. It is a story we not only watch from our seats but take part in as well; actors and actresses and audience all rolled into one.
In fact, I want to ask you to close your eyes, if you would. Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a theater, not a movie theater, but a theater where plays take place. Imagine the show is about to begin – the house lights go down and the curtain goes up.
A single spot light shines on a lone figure positioned at center stage. It is the prophet; and as he stands there he opens his mouth and starts to sing. It is a beautiful song; its melody captivating us. The song he sings is about a mountain; a very particular mountain that rests high above all others; the mountain that everyone knows. And on that mountain, as he keeps singing, there is a house. The house has a name: the house of the God of Jacob.
And as the prophet continues to sing, we begin to see people streaming up that mountain to that house. People coming from everywhere, entire nations, seeking something that can only be found in that place. It is overwhelming, all the people that are coming.
And as the people come we hear a new sound; the sound of the musicians in the orchestra pit raising their instruments on cue. But as they make their grand entrance in the score, we are quickly aware that it is not the melodic sounds of strings and woodwinds and brass we hear. It is not a climactic melody that greets our eager ears. No, the sound we hear is the sound of this:
(bang metal on metal here)
You can open your eyes, if you haven’t already.
This is how you and I begin our new church year. On this first Sunday of Advent, we are greeted by a prophet, a home set on the highest mountain, and the sound of metal on metal – the sound of swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. The soundtrack of Advent.
It is not the sound we expect, is it? Can you imagine showing up at some Christmas party in the next few weeks, everyone bringing holiday goodies and wearing tacky Christmas sweaters, joy and merriment all around; and then everyone gravitates around the piano to sing Christmas carols, someone brought their acoustic guitar, maybe a child has a cute little bell he’s ringing; but there you are with your hammer and whatever this is, just ripping it?
It’s not the sound anyone expects! Then again, what should our Advent expectations be? Mixed signals abound. Look around us here: what do we see? We see the sanctuary decked out in all its Advent beauty, pastors wearing their seasonal stoles. We sing Advent songs, pray Advent prayers; we prepare the way. Then look outside our church doors: what do we see? We see retail stores quickly swapping Halloween decorations for holiday trimmings, radio stations already trading in their top 40 soft rock playlists for seasonal tunes, Christmas wish lists already written, airline flights already booked. We in the church may be starting Advent today, but everywhere else, it seems, the world is in a mad dash to get to Christmas.
So what does it mean to begin, not end, the journey today? And what does it mean to begin it here, on this mountain, in this house and with this strange sound?
If the beginning of Advent as described by Isaiah seems a tad strange to us, if the home on the mountain and the “soundtrack of Advent” are not at all what we expect, then take great comfort, my Advent friends, in knowing that it sounded just as out-of-place to the people the prophet spoke to long ago. As intended. It caught their attention, these strange images and sounds; it distracted them from their normal rituals and routines. And it signaled to God’s people that something new was taking place; that the “same old same old” was not going to be nearly the same or as old anymore.
And for the people of that day, as for the people in ours, this was certainly welcome news. For, see, they were living in uncertain times. Powerful forces beyond their control were at work. Threats loomed large. Their future was in doubt.
This is when the prophet spoke up – with all the soothing melody and comforting charm of metal banging on metal.
The voice of Isaiah and the soundtrack of Advent calls our attention to the harsh, dissonant disconnect between the world we live in and the world that is to come; the distance between what is expected and what actually takes place. It is a turning of the tables if there ever was one. For we expect people in this day and time to avoid the mountain, not hike up it. We expect folks in this day and time to take up arms, not beat them into farming tools. We expect people in this day and time to be defined by their fears, not their hopes; by the bad that is already here instead of the good that has yet to come.
You and I, we know well these expectations, do we not? These are challenging times we’re living in. You can feel it in the air – a sort of endless anxious tension, like standing on the edge of a precipice engaged in a perpetual balancing act. We are more divided than ever before. We don’t trust each other like we used to. We are more inclined to rant on social media then have a conversation face-to-face. We don’t listen to each other. And it’s a vicious cycle, is it not? The more we accept living this way, the more we give others and ourselves permission to keep doing the same.
That’s why this has to be the soundtrack of Advent (bang metal on metal). You can’t ignore this, right? There’s a strong possibility you’ll keep hearing this long after this sermon is over. That’s the point! We have no choice but to hear it. Hear it and hear the words that accompany it:
In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
And all the nations shall stream to it.
Come, let us go up to the mountain.
That he may teach us his ways,
That we may walk in his paths.
You know that scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where Charlie Brown and Linus are out looking for a Christmas tree for the Christmas pageant? You remember that? They walk outside, the two of them, all bundled up in their coats and hats; and looking up in the sky they see these two huge skylights shining all over the place, the same kind of lights the car dealership used to use. They follow them to a Christmas tree lot, draped with strings and strings of small lights.
Except the trees in this lot – and apparently in every tree lot in Charlie Brown-land – are made of aluminum. Linus bangs one with his fist and it makes this hollow, metallic sound, like when you hit an empty oil tank. The camera scans through the lot of multi-colored aluminum Christmas trees – red and blue, gold, silver and purple. It’s the same trees they find there every year. It’s exactly what they expect.
And then, amidst this sea of metal, Charlie Brown and Linus find a tree that stands out from the rest. Unlike the others, it’s a real one. An actual, puny little fir tree. Three stubby branches hanging off its tiny trunk, each with a handful of needles, anchored to a wooden cross stand with some bent nails holding it down. Linus asks incredulously, Do they still make wooden Christmas trees? He’s not sure what to do with it. But Charlie Brown knows exactly. The one often accused of being “wishy-washy” is not at all here. Charlie Brown is fully convinced – this is the tree for their Christmas pageant.
So when they get back to the stage with their scrawny little real Christmas tree in tow, all the kids mock Charlie Brown relentlessly. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree? I told you he’d goof it up. What a blockhead! Charlie Brown hangs his head in shame – Rats!
Had he simply done what everyone expected, none of this would’ve happened. But see, there’s always going to be backlash when the truth is spoken. There’s always going to be an uproar when we take the long journey up the highest mountain to the house there. Very few are the number of people who want to hear the sound of metal on metal drowning out the lulling melodies of Christmas carols.
You know, I don’t know that I’d lump Charlie Brown and the prophet Isaiah into the same category or anything, but the two do share at least one thing in common – a recognition of the need in this season of Advent to shake things up a bit. God, getting our attention and jolting us back to consciousness from our year-long slumber. Advent, cutting right through the anxieties and fears and expectations that have come to dictate so much of how we look at and live our lives. The birth of Jesus, and the waiting for his birth, reminding us just how much we are loved by God, how precious and treasured this world is to God. Advent, marking that time in the life of the people of faith when ordinary expectations are blown away by God’s extraordinary action.
So as we begin this surprising season of our church year, as we play our part in this annual dramatic presentation, we step out of the audience seats and into that journey up the mountain to the house of the Lord. We join together with fellow sojourners from all over – people who look and act and think like us, and people who don’t.
Together we soak in the sweet, sweet sound of God’s own music, music that sounds like metal banging on metal. We come to the house of the Lord, which looks an awful lot like a manger. We walk into the house and see the throne of God, which bears a striking resemblance to a barnyard feeding trough. We notice the presence of the royal court gathered there, which looks an awful lot like sheep and goats and cattle and ox and shepherds. We are bathed by a glorious light from above, which sure has the appearance of a bright star shining in the night sky.
We see all of that, but we are not there yet. The world may be in full-on Christmas mode, but we don’t have that luxury. No, our journey is the Advent journey, our collective preparation for God’s grand entrance. Ours is the Advent journey – the truth of God Incarnate, God Immanuel, God-With-Us. Ours is the Advent journey – a harbinger of the dawning of a new kingdom in the world, where power structures are turned on their heads, where the lowly are lifted up, where weapons of war are transformed into tools for growth. Where all the people are clamoring up the mountain.
This is our story and this is our song. The soundtrack of Advent, metal banging on metal; calling us to the mountain, flinging wide open the doors of the house of God. It is a new day! And for that, in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.