[Christianity is a thoroughly eschatological faith, no matter what some contemporary would-be retrievers of the “historical Jesus” may claim. Yet eschatology always has been a tough topic for preachers. Advent is the supremely eschatological, apocalyptic season. Thus, the following is my attempt to preach eschatology in this sermon preached at in a Duke chapel service.]
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations…the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (Isa. 61:1-4, 8-11).
There is more to life than meets the eye. There is more in our past than history can tell. There is more going on in the present moment than we know. There is more to our relationships with one another than we are aware. The more we explore the mystery of our lives, the more we learn about ourselves, yet the more mysterious ourselves become.
Seldom have we been content with what appeared on the surface; we know there is more. Seldom have we felt fully at ease in the present moment, sensing, however inchoately that no matter how full our present, beyond the now there is more.
We tend, if left to our own devices, toward reductionism. Here in academia, we should be exploring possibilities, enriching our sense of what is not known, cultivating wonder. Alas, if left to our own devices, we reduce the cosmos to the Periodic Table. We explain human history by reducing it to two or three factors, six causes of Civil War, the main reason for the Great Depression, 30 true-false statements explaining the 18th century. In our better moments, when delivered from our own devices, when the modern analytic gives way to the eternal poetic, we know there is always more.
When life is reduced to technique, six easy steps toward sure success, flattened to a series of problems to be solved, we become numbed, anesthetized against either real pain or true pleasure. The body adjusts, in the absence of expectation to its cage. Occasionally, someone manages to hit a nerve, and twitching slightly in discomfort we suspect there just may be more.
The audience for this Advent text from Isaiah is the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, those in prison and mourners—in short, your average December congregation. The people to whom these words are addressed are those who come to church out of a sometimes barely felt, sometimes fervently burning hope for more. The words also speak, though we know not how they will hear, to those who have stopped coming to church because they have given up hoping for anything else.
Isaiah says God has intervened and anointed one to take action. That action announced is political—release of prisoners, reparation for the ruined cities, justice. The intervention is announced by the poetical. It’s just poetry here—poetry with dangerous political repercussions (for the establishment). The year of the Lord, which Isaiah announces is Jubilee—when everything to which the established political order would have us adjust—is turned upside down, set right and the devastated, empty streets of downtown are transformed into a great festival.
When we were slaves in Egypt, God intervened and brought us out. We had learned to be content with our lot in Egypt. At least in slavery, our masters gave us three meals a day. God intervened and led us toward more. Intervention is needed again, some decisive intrusion which will enable new life and halt our march toward death.
Israel and the church struggle to describe this intervention. Exodus. Bethlehem. Calvary. The Upper Room. The empty tomb. Without intervention, there is no hope because there is no “more.” Thank God, because there is God, in circumstances of the worst brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment and mourning, there is always more.
Isaiah spoke of a world beyond present arrangements, a world where there is good news, liberty, comfort, garlands instead of ashes. This is biblical apocalyptic talk about the more beyond the now. It is daring, poetic, politically significant speech, speech pushed to the boundaries in description of what God is breaking open among us, breaking open in dusty little out-of-the-way places such as Bethlehem or Soweto. Isaiah’s words refuse to abide within the confines of the rationality of the dominant society, refuse to be limited by common, everyday experience. Isaiah taught Mary to sing apocalyptically:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…He has scattered the proud…He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away” (Luke 1:46-55).
When we come to church and are exposed to such speech from Isaiah or Mary, we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability into another world of thought and risk and gift, in which divine intervention enables new life to break our prosaic reductions, to subvert our tamed expectations and to evoke fresh faith. Dangerous hope leads to daring resistance. Docility is no longer possible for those who hear tell of more.
Being interviewed on television, a group of Soviet Christian dissidents was asked by a reporter, “Well, what do you want? Why aren’t Soviet Christians satisfied with the new freedoms which Gorbatchev has given? Why won’t you now soften your criticism and support the government?”
The Christian dissident responded. The translator explained, “He says they are not satisfied. He says they want more.”
Anything less is trap and delusion. Sunday, at its best, is a summons toward more—but not just any old more. Our vague, frequently reoccurring, gnawing sense of need, which we so often attempt to assuage by mere buying, accumulating, getting and giving, particularly at this time of year, is articulated and reformed as a groping after God and God’s will. The more we desire is given a name, “The year of the LORD’s favor,” the year in which God gets what God wants, when earth more closely resembles that which God first had in mind when God began forming nothing into something, less into more.
Poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic speech as that of Isaiah, Mary or an Advent hymn doesn’t just describe the world—it recreates, makes a world. It is a world made open, with old, comfortable certitudes broken by the advent of a God who makes all things new. In the world where God comes, we are allowed to roam, to re-decide. Here is poetic imagination assaulting ideology, new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, undreamed, now available.
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me…good tidings to the afflicted…the opening of the prison to those who are bound…to give them a garland instead of ashes.”
Here is Isaiah’s poetic protest against religion reduced to slogans, morals, bumper sticker proverbs, thoughts for the day; religion relegated to the conventional, the boring rehash of the obvious and the already known. Here is protest against Sunday as adjustment to what is seen rather than probing of the more. We came to church for certitude, to touch base with the known; but apocalyptic speech does not give certitude. In the poetic, apocalyptic, Spirit-anointed space, possibility overwhelms necessity in life and we can breathe.
So we go forth after church. There are the same quarrels in the car on the way home, same tensions at the dinner table, same blue Monday. Now, however, we are aware of a new world, new hope, new possibility, new dreams, new hunger for something else; in short, we are aware of more. We see how greatly reduced, how tamed has been our truth. We who have tasted new wine now thirst for more.
The prince of darkness whispers “adjust, adapt.” The prince wants to keep the world closed, for a closed world is easier to administer; and people without a future are more manageable than those with imagination.
Sometimes, on Sunday when we gather, the prince rules the roost. No new thing is uttered or heard. The pulpit is the place of platitudes and comfortable cliches, proverbs, slogans and nothing more.
Sometimes, on a cold Sunday in December, we peek over the horizon, stand on tiptoes with Isaiah, and there is more than we dared to expect. Somebody goes home from church newly discontent with present arrangements, hungry. Someone gets ready for more than just another Christmas. Advent becomes adventure.
We dare to wish for ourselves more, more for our world, more for others; Isaiah laughs, and Mary smiles. Poetry has carried the day against prose, and the prince knows he has lost a little of his territory to its true Lord. The Lord’s newly reclaimed territory is you.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
Did you read in the paper about the man in a depressed region of Appalachia, a coal miner out of work for months, who caught his children on the back porch thumbing through a Sears catalog, wishing. He flew into a rage, switched their legs, tore the catalog to bits, and sat down in his yard and wept.
Did you read in the Bible about the young woman in a depressed region of Judea, a poor unmarried mother-to-be who was caught wishing for more? Singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for He has done great things for me…He has shown strength…He has scattered the proud…He has put down the mighty…and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things.”