A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
Advent 1, Year A
This is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Expectation and Hope.
The Old Testament Lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Advent is
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2:2 In days to come the mountain of
the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain
of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his
ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth
instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 2:4 He shall judge
between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall
beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn
war any more. 2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of
"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more." Israel had a troubled
history. She was a tiny nation wedged between huge and ambitious empires
that were constantly vying for superiority. Israel had few times during
her 700-year history in which she did not live under threat. Wars were
almost constant, some were devastating. For much of her existence she
lived under the sovereignty of some other nation, unable or sometimes
unwilling to establish her own existence in the world as God's people.
In the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Judah was a vassal state of
Assyria. During Isaiah's lifetime the Assyrians would sweep in and
totally annihilate the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and threaten to do
the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Judah had weak leaders who
saw it more politically expedient to appease the Empire than to be
faithful to God.
And yet there were those like Isaiah who could envision a different
reality, who could hope for a time when Israel would be faithful and
allow God to be God. Israel was weary of war and threat, weary of the
divisions that had torn her country apart after Solomon, weary of the
instability of a world in which power and the oppression that it brings
were the controlling factors in the world. Some like Isaiah knew that
God's vision of the world was much different. They knew that the God
they served was the same God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves
in Egypt and entered history to relieve their oppression. And they knew
that because God was such a God, he would not forever tolerate
oppression in the world.
And so they hoped. And they dreamed. They dreamed of a time when God
would enter the world and bring an end to war and suffering, when he
would establish his reign on earth and restore all creation to what he
intended it to be. They dreamed of a time when the division that had
torn their people apart and divided them into north and south might be
healed, and they could once again be a whole people under God. They
dreamed of a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more."
I have been in Korea for a couple of months now. I have visited the
National War Memorial in Seoul that chronicles the 1,400-year struggle
of the Korean people for freedom and independence. I have attended the
annual United Nations Day at Independence Hall near Cheonan where I live, and saw and
heard about the same dream of a future when a divided people can once
again be reunited. I have driven along the Han River in Seoul where
thousands of people died trying to swim the river to escape from the
North Korean invasion. I have visited the DMZ and the UN Mission at
Panmunjom, and seen in graphic reality the division that swords bring,
and at the same time the hope for Peace (see A
World Parish and a Catholic Spirit). I have heard sermons where
Korean pastors dreamed of a time when the Gospel can be openly
proclaimed north of the 38th parallel in North Korea.
With all of that, I think I understand, in ways that most of us in the
Western world at this time in history cannot comprehend, the deep
cry of a people for Peace. "Neither shall they learn war any more."
For many of us, at least in the church culture in which I grew up, this
was for the future, sometime out there in the "new Jerusalem" when God
would fix everything. There is no question that this is part of the
vision of Isaiah. But maybe, as I remember the graphic scenes of
refugees fleeing Seoul and the one heartbreaking photo of a young boy
screaming over the body of his dead mother, I wonder if we have worked
hard enough at making that dream of peace a reality for today. Maybe we
have depended a little too much on God transforming our spears and
swords while we are still swinging them, instead of laying them down
long enough to start making a few plowshares.
I recall a pastor who had told his congregation to do just some little
thing in their small corner of the world to make a difference. Now of
course, there is a need for that. But is it possible that sometimes our
vision is far too small, that it needs to transcend our own little
corner of the world? Sometimes we need to dream the big dreams, to
believe in a big God, and then live in the world as if He really were
that big! Maybe we really can change the world, with God's help! Maybe
Peace really is our responsibility in our world.
And yet, Isaiah knew that finally we would not be able to bring Peace.
He knew that even as we do our best, the world will not yield to our
efforts. Still, he believed that it would come. He still believed in a
future that was God's future, a future in which the world would be
restored to God's intention for his creation.
Advent. The Coming. Peace on earth has already come 2,000 years ago.
But it has not fully come yet. It has only come as a glimpse of what
be. The fulfillment of the promises has become new promises and
expectation. And so we dream Isaiah's dream again. We dream the dream of
a divided people that God will bring wholeness, even as we hammer on our
swords and spears trying to make plowshares.
When? How long? When will that day come? We do not know. But we hope
and wait expectantly. We live today in the reality of what he has
already showed us, and what he has promised. And we cry out for his
coming. And we know that as He has come, so He will come. When he comes,
may he find us hard at work hammering our swords into plowshares, and
our spears into pruning hooks.
I have heard the story of a wise old Rabbi who instructed his students
by asking questions. He asked, "How can a person tell when the darkness
ends and the day begins?" After thinking for a moment, one student
replied, "It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the
distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat." Another
student ventured, "It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and
tell if it is a fig or an oak tree."
The old Rabbi gently said, "No. It is when you can look into a man's
face and recognize him as your brother. For if you cannot recognize in
another's face the face of your brother, the darkness has not yet begun
to lift, and the light has not yet come."
Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus. And while I'm waiting, somebody hand
me a sword! I have plowshares to make!