Advent 1: Hope
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
I have a file folder in my home office in which I keep documents relating to all the small appliances and electronic gadgets and like devices in our home. This is where I keep manuals and warranty cards with purchase information in the off chance that something would break down during the warranty period. I was culling this file not long ago and was stuck by how much of this information was obsolete because the devices were now obsolete.
1. When I was reading the lectionary text from Isaiah in preparation for today’s worship service I was struck by the current nature of the text. Many of the manuals I have on file are obsolete; yet the scripture still speaks. Though Isaiah’s sermon was written over 2500 years ago the picture it paints of the future promised by God resonates still today. It issues in my heart a profound sense of hope. This picture of the future day when swords will be beat into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks is the picture of a redeemed humanity set on a whole different course—“neither shall they learn war any more.” I am drawn to such a future. I can even taste a little of what that might be like; humanity living focussed on that which promotes life. Love giving way to more love. Is this not the existence humanity longs to experience? Isn’t this what we all know ought to be but have never been able to achieve?
But why does Isaiah’s word seem so timeless? As does the rest of scripture, for that matter. Why isn’t something so “old” obsolete? Is this timeless sense simply because humanity has been completely unable to give up its warring ways? Perhaps. But I invite you to consider something more. The timeless sense of this word rests in the eternal nature of the One whose word this is.
Children often pose this question; a question that is anything but childish. What was God doing before he made the world? The question assumes that both the world and God exist in a temporal continuum we call time. This is not the picture the Bible paints. God creates time as he creates the world—“there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” God created the world not in time but with time. As Augustine pointed out long ago: “It is not in time that you precede all times, O Lord. You precede all past times in the sublimity of an ever-present reality. You have made all times and are before all times.” Eternity isn’t endless time but the nature of God in his ever-present reality. Eternity embraces time on all sides, preceding, accompanying, and fulfilling it.
I recognize that it is hard to think so abstractly on a Sunday morning. Yet, I invite you to try. There is no “before” with God. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58) On a practical level, I am suggesting to you that the reason for this timeless sense we apprehend in hearing scripture is because through scripture we hear the voice of the eternal God in his ever present reality. Hope soars because this promise is God’s promise.
I remind you of what we have noted previously about hope. The hope set out in scripture is a future certainty grounded in a present reality—the present reality being the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness in marked by major landmarks (promises he has kept) and the landmark that towers over all others, and gathers them up into itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here all the promises of God find their fulfillment. God has promised to renew the entire creation in Christ, liberating the creation from its bondage to the evil one, freeing it from its frustration and allowing it to flower abundantly. Isaiah’s depiction of “learning war no more” is one of the Biblical depictions of this promised abundant flowering. And God’s raising his Son from the dead is the decisive moment of this promised liberation.
Advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. The church calendar season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year because God’s coming among us in Jesus is the decisive action of God that changes everything. In Advent we prepare to celebrate Christmas—make ourselves ready for his coming. Christmas is the beginning of this event that is the whole life of Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, life, death, and resurrection—the one life that is Jesus Christ is the landmark of God’s faithfulness. In Advent we also look to his promised second coming at the consummation of all things. The first advent is the decisive moment of God’s promised liberation that is the ground for our hope set on his Second Advent.
2. Questions with regard to meaning and significance for life remains a struggle for many in our contemporary culture. The puzzle for many is whether history has any significance at all. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth speaks accurately of how many feel about life but afraid to say.
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5.)
The promise of that future restoration of all things in Christ Jesus fills my heart with hope; in him history signifies much. It is a hope that the events of this world cannot shatter. History is the theatre of God’s action in which God is moving all thing toward the triumph of his everlasting rule. The hope of a world restored under God proclaims that evil is not the final word. Our Lord triumphed over the powers of evil at the cross shown in his resurrection from the dead.
The communion prayer of the church reminds us: "Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new." Here in this prayer is the hope by which we live, a hope that shapes out attitude about life, a hope that determines our relationships to the events of the world, a hope that gets us through the bitter times of sickness, disappointments, shattered dreams, and the fear of death.
3. Some say that focus on this future hope causes us to abandon the present world. I find the opposite. The fact that our Lord came among us as one of us to redeem witnesses that human life matters. God has not abandoned the world and neither should his people. Without this hope we would abandon the world.
In Isaiah the response of God’s people to this promised future is to “walk in the light of the Lord.” We are to live in the present in light of what is promised in the future. At St. Louis University is a small Jesuit chapel that is creatively lit. The light fixtures are made of twentieth-century cannon shells. Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by.
This repurposing of weapons for war gives us a clue in how to live. To take the weapons and make them into something else. Jesus said that it was out of the human heart that evil intentions come. It is often the case that we decry war yet feel quite comfortable, even righteous, remaining alienated from family members. Transforming cannon shells to light fixtures is helpful but should we not also lay down our weapons of harbouring grudges and nursing affronts? Ought we not repurpose our emotional energy for other things that build life; for healing wounds that bring people together?
As the ethnic demographics of our community has dramatically changed there is the tendency to speak of whole groups of people in stereotypical ways. We preface our conversations with “I’m not prejudiced,” and then categorize an entire ethnic group in a particular way. I think the gospel teaches us to see others as people our Lord loves and for whom he gave his life.
I conclude with a story today. It is a story that illustrates how the hope of this future in Christ leads to hope-filled action is this life. It is a story of how the hope of that future when we will learn war no more gets lived out in the present. God is a work in human history calling people to believe in him for this future. This story comes from an October 2016 update by our missionary friend Reg Reimer.
“In 1977 Donna and I rescued two boys, 3 and 7, from communist Laos and reunited them with their parents in Regina, SK. They had been separated in the confusion surrounding the fall of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to communism in 1975. It was a story involving smuggling, intrigue, danger and a heart-warming reunion that made the CBC national that evening. We lost track of the boys after that, returning to our job of helping many other desperate refugees in Southeast Asia. It has been 39 years.
On September 12, 2016, a man in Calgary called a Ross Reimer (not a relative nor acquaintance) at an executive search firm in Toronto. After a business conversation, the man from Calgary, noting Ross’s last name, asked if by chance he knew a Reg Reimer. Ross did not but remembered his father in BC said he had a neighbor named Reg Reimer. The man from Calgary sent Ross a scan of a photo of himself at age 3, and his brother, 7, with a Caucasian man. Ross sent this photo to his father Del Reimer in BC, our neighbor. Del showed it to me. He did not recognize the man with hair and a 70’s haircut, but it was me! Thus, quite improbably, after 39 years we were reconnected with the boys we rescued and reunited with their parents! The boys talk about an “Invisible Hand”.
The younger, Rick Jocson, now 42, is a university grad, married with two small sons, a successful entrepreneur and business consultant. He wrote me, “Over the years I have looked at that picture and pondered. Who is that man? What led him to be so involved in our lives? Why did he do it? What information does he hold about our journey from communist Southeast Asia to Regina, SK? Did he help others like he helped us? Would my life be more fulfilled if, like the man in the picture, I got more involved in helping needy people? Where is that man now?” He continued, “You have reentered my life at a crucial time. I am not only trying to fill in some mystery about my early life but also looking for meaning and significance. I so look forward to meeting you and Donna face to face.”
The next chapter will unfold when I return from my annual long October mission to Southeast Asia. Rick has invited Donna and me to visit him and his clan in Calgary! For us this is just one stirring example of how God fulfilled his promise to us that leaving father and mother and sisters and brothers for Christ’s sake and the Gospel incorporates one into a much larger family. We hope to share with Rick and family who it is that moves the “Invisible Hand” who brought us together - then and now.
In Christ Jesus we have a great hope. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Amen