In Isaiah’s time, Jerusalem was often in a state of turmoil; facing wars, occupation, and a constant vigilance for defending its territory. The people, surrounded by warring nations had to rely on their own self-sufficiency for survival. Their state was similar to our own current concerns: war with terrorists and unexpected attacks; defending oneself against those who would destroy our way of life; and reliance on our nation’s powerful military might.
In this milieu of confusion and fear, Isaiah didn’t “hear” God’s word; he “saw” it. Isaiah had a vision of the future. He saw three things:
1. He saw a radical transformation of the earth. The battle ground was turned into a fertile garden; human energies and resources were changed as well: warriors became creators, and spears were made into plowshares.
2. Isaiah also saw a people on the move – making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem ; God’s holy dwelling place. They streamed to Jerusalem to be taught God’s ways, meaning they came to be transformed in the same way the earth was being made new. Not only did they come, they also had a mission to depart and to proclaim God’s ways to all nations. It was not a gift to be hoarded but one to be shared, even with their enemies. We know this for Isaiah says “all nations will come….”.
3. The culmination of Isaiah’s vision was that he saw God “arbitrating”, that is to say, he saw God’s justice at work. The Hebrew word for arbitration means liberation, salvation, and hope. The transformation of the earth and of the people would result in liberation, salvation, and hope for all people. Good News indeed.
A contemporary sculptor and author, Frederick Franck, writes of Isaiah’s three themes: transformation, pilgrimage, and salvation in his book, Art as a Way. He describes it this way: “When you go on a pilgrimage, you start out from where you happen to be and start walking toward a place of great sanctity in the hope of returning from it renewed, enriched, and sanctified.”
Isaiah saw the people of God on just such a pilgrimage: intentional in seeking God, intentional in being transformed (i.e. renewed, enriched, and sanctified), and intentional in rejoicing in that blessing and sharing it with all.
In the mid 1980’s I met a woman in Washington , D.C. who was on a pilgrimage, a Jewish woman who had cancer. We met in the hospice where I was chaplain and she was on her death bed. To preserve her privacy, I shall call her Kathy. I went in to see her for the first time, and was shocked to learn she was in her early 40’s; for with her bald head and illness she looked 80. Kathy was sitting up in bed knitting a baby sweater.
“How beautiful,” I said.
“It’s for my granddaughter,” she replied.
“How many grandchildren do you have?”
“None.” Seeing the puzzled look on my face she continued, “These are for my unborn, and as yet unconceived, granddaughters. I have three daughters and am making one sweater for each of them to give to the children they will have one day after I’ve died. I want to leave them something I have made for them so that I can participate in their life in the only way that I can.” “Now,” I said, “I understand what you mean when you say at Passover: “Next year in Jerusalem .” For Kathy there would be no next year. There would be no winning the war with her cancer. There would be no holding and rocking her grand-daughters close to her breast. But God had transformed her present world: Her war zone, her death bed had become a fertile garden in which she created sweaters for her beloved, a place where she lived in hope. Her dying had been transformed into living, giving and loving. Not only was she reaching out to her own family, she welcomed a stranger into her community of love. It is hard for the dying to say good-bye to those they love, and to add one more person to the list of those from whom one must be parted is an act of immense grace. Like Isaiah, Kathy “saw” God’s word and was living her dying in its light. Her energy and resources were focused on the birth of those “as yet unconceived.” Her dying had been transformed into living and she didn’t die until all three sweaters were finished, and with matching bonnets! Kathy had experienced first hand a pilgrimage to that place of great sanctity and she had been renewed, enriched, and sanctified, and was passing this blessing on to all whom she encountered.
Kathy’s story also illuminates today’s Gospel’s understanding of time and event. In Noah’s time, the Gospel states, people were living and doing ordinary things with no hint of the flood to come. They were eating a meal, quenching their thirst, celebrating, getting married and creating families. Going about their daily life much as you and I do. The Gospel goes on to say that in the day of Christ’s coming again it will be the same; some will be at work, whether in the field, at the office, or on the road. Others will be doing chores at home, or in school. Some will be fast asleep and there will be no advance notice. “You do not know the time,” The Gospel says.
In her 20’s Kathy probably never thought her life was already half over. Cancer came swiftly and without warning; death came too soon and unexpectedly. The only time we truly know and possess is right now; this very moment. How do we choose to live it? Kathy chose the pilgrim’s way of Isaiah’s vision; what I will call the three “I”s:
Immediacy = being alive now & doing what can be done in this time
Inclusion = involving others in her journey
Intimacy = sharing her love however she could
She walked to the holy hill of Jerusalem even on her death bed when she could no longer journey anywhere; yet make her pilgrimage she did!
This day we have entered the season of Advent; the beginning of a new year in the church’s life; a time of awaiting Christ’s coming and the transformation of the earth into God’s reign; a time of beginning our pilgrimage to that holy place of God’s coming into this world in Christ’s birth. Advent is a season of longing for renewal, enrichment, and sanctification. Yet how often do we spend our days not as people rejoicing in this wondrous event but as those who worry and wring our hands in concern and fear? Don’t you sometimes worry that you’re more burnt out than renewed? Do you ever think life is dull and tedious and certainly not enriched as you face those monthly bills? Haven’t you at some point worried that you might not be saved?
As Jesus once said to the disciples, “Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God. Trust also in me.” We don’t have to spend our days worrying about these things. We have been renewed, enriched, and saved. Notice that verb: we have been. These words are spoken over us at our baptism; God’s promise has been given. “…we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace….” Our pilgrimage to God’s holy place began when we were baptized. We have been renewed, enriched, and sanctified. We have been saved. The only question that remains is this, “How will we live as those who have received God’s blessing, promise, and grace?”
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, like Isaiah and the disciples, we live in an age in which we are surrounded by images of the antithesis of God’s life-giving promises. We live in an era where war is being fought in many nations and cities are being torn down and not built up; where fertile land has been turned from cultivation and crops into battlefields and no-person zones; where resources are used to make weapons of death and destruction, not art or knitting needles and yarn. This is the daily vision we see on T.V. We are called to live by a different vision – the promised coming of God’s transforming love. With calamities of war that almost overwhelm us in terms of energy and resources or in uncertainties in how to heal divisions, “What can we do?” you may well ask. We can remember that we are called to live like Kathy, in hope and expectation, in ordinary ways.
Two Sundays ago I went to Washington , D.C. to celebrate St. Margaret’s day with the parish where I was the former Rector. A man from Sri Lanka named Bertram greeted me with a hug, a huge smile, and said: “Do you remember when I came to St. Margaret’s fourteen years ago? I was alone. I was desperate and miserable.” “I remember,” I replied, “You came to the small Wednesday Night services first.” “You called me by name. It meant everything to me. I was known. Someone cared. I belonged. I was no longer miserable, desperate, or alone. It meant everything to me. You gave me life. I shall never forget it. I shall never forget you.” Tears rolled down my face as he spoke these words to me. All I had done was to learn his name. In that ordinary act, God’s transforming work was done. Bertram had made a pilgrimage to a holy place, a parish that placed a high priority on practicing immediacy, inclusion and intimacy, thereby making St. Margaret’s a sanctuary wherein people could experience being transformed: renewed, enriched, and sanctified.
Just think how often each day you and I can be the light of Christ we were baptized to be in this broken world. A smile, a hug, a handshake, a phone call, an e-mail or post card, a shared meal, a kind word, a baby’s sweater – these are the simple ordinary things that transform life; the ordinary daily tasks God calls us to do as we prepare for Christ’s coming. You and I can participate in the changing of this world. Our words and actions do make a difference in the lives of others. Remember, we are called not only to make a pilgrimage to the holy city, but to go out from it and to proclaim that others might come and rejoice as well.
“Be awake,” be ready. The Gospel calls us to the possibilities and opportunities in this present moment – NOW – when we are blessed to participate in the birthing of God’s promises, when we are blessed to share with others the seeing of God’s word, to experience Christ’s coming, to rejoice in the renewal, enrichment, and sanctification that are at hand for us – and for all.