1This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days/the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established/as the highest of the mountains;/it will be exalted above the hills,/and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,/“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,/to the temple of the God of Jacob./He will teach us his ways,/so that we may walk in his paths.”/The law will go out from Zion,/the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations/and will settle disputes for many peoples./They will beat their swords into plowshares/and their spears into pruning hooks./Nation will not take up sword against nation,/nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,/let us walk in the light of the Lord.
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Happy New Year! I know what your calendars say; there is still a full month of December remaining. But I’m not talking about the calendar year, I’m talking about the liturgical year. The liturgical year begins with Advent, progresses through Lent, rolls along during the season of Pentecost, and then finishes with the creatively-named “ordinary time.” Each of these seasons focuses on a different part of the history of God’s people. Lent is a period of repentance leading up to Easter. Pentecost is the season when we consider the work of the church. And Advent is… I’ll tell you later what Advent is. No, just kidding. Advent is the season of waiting. Our theme for Advent this year is “What Are You Waiting For?”
What are we waiting for? Perhaps some of you have been waiting to put up the Christmas tree and to start listening to Christmas music on the radio (but then again, there are probably some who have not waitedJ). If you are like me, you might be waiting to start your diet until after the new year. Maybe you are waiting to see a friend or relative that you haven’t seen in years. Perhaps you are waiting on someone to say “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.” Or maybe you are waiting for someone you care about say “I need help.”
Advent is a period of waiting. We wait for the birth of Jesus, counting down the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One way we represent this in the church is through the lighting of candles, lighting an additional candle each week until we light the white candle on Christmas Eve.
But Jesus has already come into the world. He showed up about 2019 years ago, give or take a few years. Advent isn’t just about waiting for Jesus to enter the world as a baby, but also waiting for him to return to set things right.
Today we don’t simply have a feel-good sermon. Today we recognize the pain in the world, the suffering we experience, and the waiting. We wait for Jesus to come and set things right.
In Advent we often read two texts: an Old Testament text and a New Testament text. Both of these passages speak of the time when God makes things right. Both passages give a different image of those days, and I think that is okay. The point isn’t whether there will be a temple or not. The point is that all is made right. And for things to be made right, we need to recognize that not everything is as God intends for it to be.
Our Isaiah passage is interesting because this book of the Bible begins with the Babylonian Exile. The Israelites will soon be taken away from their homes and their land. The Temple, the center of their worshipping community, will be destroyed.
But our text provides a message of hope. Verse 2 says, “In the last days/the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established/as the highest of the mountains;/it will be exalted above the hills,/and all nations will stream to it.”
When God sets things right, there will be a new temple. And it will be higher than any mountain or hill. This is meant to be symbolic; nothing will be greater, nothing will be higher than this temple. And all nations will stream to it. The word translated there as “nations” is goyim. Goyim isn’t just a reference to countries, but people groups. Goyim is very similar to the Greek word ethnos, which is also translated as nations, people, ethnicities, or gentiles. In those days, Isaiah says, people from all corners of the world, people of every color, every ethnicity, will come to Lord. Even the gentiles, which is good news for those of us who do not trace our ancestry back to the Jewish faith.
This is a beautiful image, but when was this fulfilled? We are still waiting on this to happen today, and they were waiting on it to happen in Jesus’s day. Just before our passage from Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under wings” (23:37).
Our text from Matthew tells us about the gathering in of God’s people, and the setting right of all things. There is a lot of debate today about how this might take place. Popular books and movies have made Rapture theology a common way to understand the end of times. I’ve gone into that in detail before, but for now I will just say that I’m not one who adheres to this theology. Premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism. I don’t think it is worth spending a lot of time on, because this is the passage where Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (verse 36). I don’t worry about how God will set things right, what heaven and earth will look like. I trust God, so why fret? But I think there is a danger in assuming that we are in the last days.
I spoke about a similar passage a few weeks ago that I said did not refer to the end of the world, and we discussed a little bit about why people are always looking for the end times. One person mentioned the fact that thinking that the end times are near helps us escape our own fear of death and our mortality. If Jesus is coming back during our lifetime, we don’t need to wonder about death. That’s understandable.
There are also some concerns with how a belief that Jesus is coming back in our lifetime affects our lives. For instance, issues like caring for the environment don’t matter if we believe Jesus is coming back tomorrow. We have enough clean drinking water and air to breathe to get us through the next few years. There are enough trees to last until 2050. Why worry about illnesses like AIDS or cancer if this is all going to end soon? Why try to fix global poverty if everything is coming to an end?
I think we have a good reason for caring for God’s creation, for battling diseases, and caring for the poor among us. Our reason for doing so is simple: Jesus told us to. And as I often say, when we do the things Jesus taught, and live as Jesus lives, we are embodying the world that is to come.
The fancy word for the end times is “eschaton.” Eschaton is a fun word in and of itself, but when you make it into the study of the end times, the word becomes even more fun. That word is “eschatology.” Even more fun yet is when you use eschatology as an adjective, which makes it “eschatological.”
Another fun word that I’ve shared before is “proleptic.” Proleptic means to live as if something in the future has already occurred or is going on now. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. But we know that feeding hungry people doesn’t mean that they won’t get hungry again in a few hours. Healing someone who is sick doesn’t mean that they won’t ever get sick again. In fact, I think everyone that Jesus fed and healed while he was here got hungry and eventually died anyway.
But Jesus also taught that one day there would be no sickness, that one day there would be no hunger. Jesus didn’t heal the sick and feed the hungry because that was all they would ever need. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry because of his eschatology. If we put all of the fancy words together, you could say that Jesus proleptically embodied the eschaton. And I believe we are called to proleptically embody the eschaton as well. It is the “already but not yet” kingdom of God. It is here now in a way, but will be fully realized one day.
You may have noticed that the sun is going down a lot sooner these days. Those who work a 9-5 job might even find yourselves driving home after work in the dark. I for one find this kind of depressing. And it is even worse in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska, where you might go months without seeing the sun.
Some churches have been holding what is sometimes called “The Longest Night Service.” Longest Night Services are usually held on December 21, which is the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the day when we get the least amount of sunlight. December 21 is the shortest day of the year, and therefore, the longest night.
Longest Night Services are a time to mourn, a time to express grief, and longing. This is so important in our world today, which is so caught up in looking perfect. We have our Instagram houses and post pictures of our perfect families on Facebook. Our world offers little time for longing and mourning because we are told that we must always be happy and perfect. But that’s not reality.
I think we as a church need to do a better job of listening to the suffering of the world. And sometimes the best thing that we can do is sit with people when they suffer or when they hurt. I remember well a story a friend told at a conference. A person his church had been relating to had a hard time paying his bills. The church helped as much as they could, but there was only so much this small ministry could do. When this friend called and asked if the church could pay his electric bill, my friend said, “I’m sorry, we can’t pay your electric bill, but I will come sit with you in the dark.”
Sometimes we are called to sit with people in the dark, both metaphorically and literally. And sometimes we are to bring the light to people.
It has been a few years ago since I read a blog post from someone I’ve met a few times, but don’t really know. He is a writer, speaker, and an activist. But I tried to chase down his old blog post, and failed. So I won’t share his name here in case he took the post down, as it was of a very personal nature. We will just call him Bob here.
Bob was a military man who served his time during the Gulf War and returned home to help his family run the dairy farm and begin a family of his own. But things didn’t go as he had planned. He had reoccurring issues with PTSD. Milk prices were low, and money was hard to come by. And that family he had hoped to start wasn’t coming as quickly as he had planned. Add to these concerns the fact that he lived in a part of the country that saw very little sunlight in the winter months, and it isn’t hard to see why Bob was depressed.
When Bob was discharged, he was able to keep his sidearm, a small pistol. I don’t know if this is normal, I assume that it isn’t, but that’s not the point. The point is that one night he nearly used that gun to kill his own demons. And he isn’t alone. The most recent data, released this past October, says that 17 veterans commit suicide every day.
Bob didn’t go through with it, and I’m thankful that he didn’t. For one, I believe that all life is precious. And two, he has had an impact on many through his writings. Bob now calls himself an Anabaptist, and much of his work focuses on healing and hope. While working with his Anabaptist friends, Bob came across RAWtools.
RAWtools is an organization that began with some blacksmiths who would gather guns and turn them into gardening tools. They aren’t the most efficient gardening tools, but that isn’t the point. They are conversation starters. They are symbolic. They are a reference to passages like Isaiah 2:4b, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
When Bob learned about RAWtools, he knew that he had a piece for them to transform. He took them his sidearm, the very one he considered using to take his own life, and they turned it into a garden spade. A tool of death and been turned into a tool of life.
Today Bob works with RAWtools, traveling from city to city, talking and writing about healing and hope.
I know this sounds kind of wishy-washy, and utopian. Making changes in the world isn’t so easy. And I agree, it is work! But I think the idea of beating a sword into a plowshare is a great image.
How many of you have ever been in a real, working blacksmith shop? There is a working blacksmith shop at the Frontier Culture Museum that you can visit and see a blacksmith forging nails and door latches. There are at least two things that I think everyone notices when they walk into that blacksmith shop: it is dirty, and it is hot. The blacksmiths emerge from their shops covered in soot and sweat. They don’t look good, and they don’t smell good.
Just like real blacksmith work, metaphorical beating swords into plowshares is going to be work. And no, we won’t solve violence, and we won’t prevent every suicide. But we can make a difference. We can proleptically embody the eschaton.
When someone asks Bob why he has a garden trowel on his desk with a pistol grip and trigger, he can share his story of depression and his struggles with disappointment. Bob is not trying to provide a quick fix or wishy-washy theology. He isn’t simply telling this person to just pray and everything is going to be okay. Bob is sitting in the dark. But Bob is also beating swords into plowshares in the process. Taking thoughts of death and turning them into thoughts of life.
When you volunteer to feed the hungry at the Valley Mission, or you give financially to the Salvation Army or SACRA, you aren’t just helping someone in need. You are sitting with people in their darkness, you are bringing life to death, beating swords into plowshares. And when someone asks you why you do this, you can tell them that you are proleptically embodying the eschaton.
We proleptically embody the eschaton because we are living in a period between creation and recreation. We are living in a time when there is suffering and pain. Our job as the church isn’t to ignore suffering and pain, but to be present with people through the suffering and pain. And in the midst of that suffering and pain, as the people of this world wait for something better to come along, we show them glimpses of the world promised through Isaiah the prophet, and Jesus the Messiah. We proleptically embody the eschaton, not because we think providing a meal to a poor person or caring for a sick person will change the world. No, we do it because Jesus will set the world right, and he has invited us to help in the project.