Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent
December 8, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:9-10; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)
"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem; proclaim to her that her service is at an end." Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Last year at this time we were still numb from the events of September 11. Our leaders were trying to restore our confidence by displaying our military and technological might in the hills of Tora Bora. We would show Al-Qaida. We would bomb them back to the stone age.
And this Advent, what's different? The only difference is that we have changed the name of our enemy. Instead of the Taliban it is Iraq. A world that has been in bondage to war for so long awaits once more the word that this does not have to be, we do not have to deal with one another in these ways.
In the three readings of today's liturgy our church offers a series of glimpses that cut across the whole history of God's fidelity to us in the face of our infidelity. We see the figure of Moses at the time of the liberation and exodus from Egypt, and Isaiah as the people are being freed from the Babylonian captivity. We see Elijah the messenger, and David the shepherd-king, and on to John the Baptizer and Jesus himself, and finally Peter.
Again and again, over and over, there is the same reassuring word of the Lord. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. This is the word of a lover wooing his beloved. It is the same language as that of Ruth when she is blessed by her husband Boaz, and of Joseph when he embraces and is reconciled with his brothers in Egypt after they had abandoned him to die in a cistern on the way.
A word of tenderness, yes. But a word of power also.
When Isaiah is told to cry out he responds, "but what shall I cry out?" And the answer is given:
"All mankind is grass, and their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts,
the word of our God stands forever."
The message is all about the power of God which will not be denied. But that power, instead of being something to be feared, is put in the service of tender compassion and care. He carries the lambs in his bosom and leads the ewes with care.
The whole of Isaiah 40-60 is a series of hymns about the promise of God, the radical assurance that comes from God's love. But our ability to receive that promise is rooted in our willingness to give up our belief that we can do it ourselves. The cry echoes frequently through the Old Testament: put not your trust in princes, in horses and chariots!
Just listen to some of the dramatic phrases: (from chapter 40)
Who has cupped in his hand the waters of the sea, and marked off the heavens with a span? Who has held in a measure the dust of the earth, weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or has instructed him as his counselor? Whom did he consult to gain knowledge? Who taught him the path of judgment, or showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations count as a drop of the bucket, as dust on the scales; the coastlands weigh no more than powder.
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Was it not foretold you from the beginning? Have you not understood? Since the earth was founded he sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; he stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He brings princes ti nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound. Though young men faint and grow weary, and youths stagger and fall, they that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles' wings; they will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.
Our faith is not in George Bush. It is not in Donald Rumsfeld, or Colin Powell, or the U.N., or the generals, or the latest super missile launcher.
You may agree with our government's policy. That's OK. You may disagree. That's OK too. But whether you agree or disagree, anyone would be a fool not to recognize the great tragedy and pain a war will bring on our world.
There is an issue of the morality or immorality of what our government intends to do, the actions it takes, and we can and must debate that question as befits a free people striving to pursue a moral course. For we will be implicated in those choices -- precisely because we are a free people.
But beyond the issues of morality you and I are captives in any case; as much as the Israelites in Egypt or Babylon. As much as the Iraqis who will suffer the most as a result of our country's choices. If we are to be liberated, to know the freedom of the children of God, we have to first recognize our captivity, our chains, our pain and weakness and inability to halt --- by our own power --- the violence we do to one another in this world.
Try as a we may to be a moral people, ultimately we are called to put our trust in the only power that can free us from ourselves, the faithful God of our long history.
Isaiah cries out "One day the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people -- yes, all Muslims and Israelis, and Iraqis and Americans -- all shall see it together."
We do not know the day when this will happen. A day? A thousand years? God's time is not ours. But the word of the Lord stands forever. It is the only place worthy of our conditional trust.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. The Lord will come. Amen?