Anglican Church of Canada
December 1, 2019 Advent 1
Se begins again the season of Advent. The season of darkness, as we move towards the darkest time of the year. The season that feels like the darkness before the dawn. The season where the darkness of the world can sometimes feel like it is closing in on us, as we hear the promises of God’s kingdom, it can make the violence and cruelty and indifference that is so evident in the world seem all the darker.
But it is also the season of light. Not the blazing light of Easter, or even of Christmas Eve, but the small, vulnerable flicker of a candle. The candles we light Sunday by Sunday, as we count down towards Christ’s birth at Christmas. The candles we will light on Friday, as we hold vigil for the victims of violence in our world (and by the way, it is a beautiful service, I urge you come out for it). Candles are a symbol of hope, quiet, unresisting, but stubborn hope. I am always reminded of the candles of the peaceful, prayerful crowds who gathered 30 years ago in places like Leipzig, who overcame the brutality of the East German regime.
Darkness and light – the great darkness of all that is broken and twisted and evil in our world, and the tiny light of hope and courage and human decency. It looks like the darkness will so easily crush the light, which seems so fragile and weak. And yet the way the two fit together is different in Advent, is not what it seems. Because they fit together in the as yet invisible light that is to come, the light of God’s coming into this dark world with a light that blazes and transforms. As yet we can only anticipate that light in waiting hope, but that hope makes all the difference. “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed;” writes Paul, “the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” “Look to the fig tree” says Jesus, “when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”
This sense of hope, weak and helpless yet strengthened by the coming light of Christ, breathes through the new hymn we are singing today, The Night will soon be Ending. I know this is a difficult hymn: the language is old-fashioned and big on sin, and the tune sounds at first dreary and depressing. But let me share why this hymn has long been important to me. It was written by Jochen Klepper, a German hymn-writer living in Berlin as the war and the Nazi regime raged around him. In other words, it comes from an incredibly dark time. In that context, his focus on human sin is quite understandable and appropriate – how else does a conscientious Christian react to these horrors? It is a hymn that has no illusions about the darkness of history, and yet at the same time breathes a firm and serene hope in Christ’s redemptive coming. Jochen Klepper would not live to see any break in the darkness, not even the liberation of the defeat of the Nazis. His wife and step-daughter were of Jewish heritage; when the Gestapo came to drag them off to the camps, they found that the family had chosen to die together at home. Klepper’s last diary entry, as they faced death together, speaks of his trust in Christ’s mercy. So for me this tune, which sounds so dark at first, soars with an understated but firm hope that the darkness will not prevail.
It is a similar sort of vision we hear in our first reading. Isaiah, the prophet of Advent. And in fact we will be hearing from Isaiah all four Sundays this year, as he offers us four visions, four pictures of hope in the midst of darkness. This week it is the picture of the mountain of the Lord – in part Mount Zion, Jerusalem, but not the Jerusalem he knows, a mountain raised up as the highest mountain, to which the peoples come to learn peace and justice, the way of God.
It is a vision that would have sounded just as distant, even naive, to the people of Isaiah’s day as it does to us. Isaiah also lived in dark times. The armies of Assyria, the most brutally efficient and cruel military machine had invaded. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered, and the ten northern tribes, the lost tribes of Israel, disappeared from history. The south has been overrun; at some point they laid siege to Jerusalem – although Jerusalem and the southern kingdom would survive, until the Babylonians came 130 years later. Isaiah writes in chapter 1: “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence aliens devour your land” – it sounds like Europe in 1942, or Syria today. Not only that, Isaiah speaks against the corruption of his own people: in place of justice, violence and bribery and exploitation of the poor are the order of the day.
When we look at this background, we see how poignant his vision of the mountain of the Lord is. It is a vision thrown up in the face of reality: as the savage armies of Assyria march up to surround the city, laying waste on all sides, he clings to a vision of them coming alongside people of all nations, streaming towards Jerusalem to learn the ways of peace, to beat their hated weapons of war into life-giving tools of farming. It is not naive, not at all – it is defiant, in clinging to its vision of what people are meant to be, in the face of so much cruelty and sin.
A modern day Isaiah: an artist by the name of Pedro Reyes, in the Mexican city of Culiacan, which is the city with the highest rate of gun violence in all that troubled country. Pedro’s project was to enact symbolically the vision of Isaiah: he called for people to turn in their guns to him, and when he had collected over 1500 of them, he destroyed them publically, then had them melted down and turned into shovels. These shovels he handed out to the people, on condition they use them to plant at least one tree. 1500 guns turned into 1500 trees. An empty gesture? Perhaps, it is not going to solve the problem of gang violence. But it gave to the people of that city, at least 1500 of them, the chance to stand up to the darkness around them and proclaim their hope: that darkness will not prevail, that hope is stronger than fear, life stronger than death.
As I meditated on this passage this week, one song kept echoing through my head. It is a contemporary restatement of the vision of Isaiah, by the American country-folk-rock artist Steve Earle. He speaks to the experience of many of us: how hard it is to keep up our hope when we hear the news each day, news that tries to beat us down and force us to admit that there is no hope, that violence and warfare will have the upper hand. Because it rings so true, so close to home for me, I thought I would share it with you. Steve Earle, Jerusalem:
I woke up this morning, and none of the news was good
Death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothing anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
And I regained my senses again
Looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
Somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Steve prefaces the song with some reflections on it. He says, you know, people think I’m hopelessly optimistic to have written this song. I don’t care. I just have to keep singing this song, and I’m going to keep singing it until it comes true, or I die, whichever comes first.
Well, I don’t think he is naive. He knows it is likely he will die before there is peace in Jerusalem. And yet he keeps singing it, keeps holding up the vision of peace. And you and I, and probably our children and grandchildren, will die before there is peace on earth. But we keep singing the song, we keep telling of the vision, the promise of a time when the nations will beat their swords into ploughshares. Because that’s what we do, that’s what it means to be Christians. And when we die, we do so in the confidence that in the generations to come there will be those who will take up this hope. We may not see them in this church, but we can see them marching for the climate and speaking up for justice and human dignity. The world is a dark place; but we remain in our Advent hope, that someday God’s peace will reign in Jerusalem.