Grace Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2022, Advent 2A
Advent Disruption, part 2: An Unexpected Voice
There is something of a split personality in the themes of Advent. The given scriptures for any particular Sunday of the cycle can point you in quite different directions sometimes, and one can identify at least two different themes for the season that sometimes work together, and sometimes are in tension with each other.
You can hear one such theme in the liturgies we are using for the lighting of the Advent candles this year. Last week’s liturgy pointed to the theme of “hope,” concluding like this:
As we light our first Advent candle, we pray for holy hope of God.
Come now, O Child of Mary. Come now, O Prince of Hope.
In case you don’t already know, the next two weeks will point to “joy” and “love.”
On the other hand, the banners that are going up one per week, which have been part of our Advent worship for a few years now, point to a different theme. While the hope-peace-joy-love cycle has a pretty upbeat and, well, hopeful vibe to them, the other cycle is one that requires a bit more of us. Last week’s banner charging us to “watch,” you’ll notice, has been joined by a new banner urging us to “prepare.” And in case you don’t remember, the two weeks following this one will urge us to “rejoice” and “behold.”
Both of these themes can be found in the scriptures for each week of Advent, and that jolting contrast in the themes given for today shows up particularly strongly in today’s readings. First we hear from Isaiah, a particularly striking and even fantastic bit of prophetic utterance with some extremely striking imagery, especially in verses 6-9. Aside from the last half of verse 4 it’s quite a joyous and positive oracle, and one that points towards a time of peace as if with a flashing neon sign, even if the word “peace” itself is not prominently featured in Isaiah’s verses. Especially the arresting images of the “peaceable kingdom” in those verses 6-9 stand out, with the fantastical suggestion that “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Anyone who’s ever owned a domestic cat knows that felines aren’t herbivores, not if you want them to be healthy. The radical nature-bending quality of this peace is hard to escape.
The psalm chimes in with verse 7’s plea for peace to abound, and the reading from Romans, while quoting from Isaiah’s image of the one who comes from Jesse’s tribe, also ends with the plea that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…“. So yes, peace does seem to be an easy theme to pick out from those readings.
Then there’s the gospel. More precisely, there’s John.
Looking a bit like a threadbare Elijah and with the eccentricities to match, John “appeared” in the wilderness alongside the Jordan River, preaching a gospel of repentance. That quotation from another passage in Isaiah gives us our “prepare” prompt for the week, and John’s message follows suit, although it might be hard to imagine John using such an erudite word as “prepare”; he seems much more likely to be hollering “get ready!” at the top of his voice.
John is no peacemaker; he is a disruptor, which becomes clearest when those religious leaders come check him out and he’s calling them a “brood of vipers” when they’re barely within earshot. His harshest words are reserved for them, the unofficial guarantors of the security of the Temple and those who partake in it. Challenging them was only going to draw attention, even out in the wilderness and well away from the power centers of Jerusalem. We will see later in Matthew’s gospel how that ended up for him.
Disruption is, again, a major part of Advent, and that makes John a pretty ideal character to be featured. And disruption, as we typically think of it, is not something we typically welcome. But I think that can be a mistake.
I think it works out well for this message to come along today, a day when artist members of Art Studios of Grace are with us. The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that art is potentially one of the most disruptive things in society.
One can imagine art as disruption on a grand scale by considering the impact of a painting like Guernica, the Picasso rendering of the attack on that Basque city during the Spanish civil war, widely regarded as one of the greatest anti-war works of art ever. But the disruptive power of art can work in different ways still.
John appears on the scene to disrupt the status quo. If one were to imagine the Temple authorities singing the old Bruce Hornsby refrain “That’s just the way it is,” John is the one who answers with the end of that refrain: “ah, but don’t you believe it.”
Art can do that for us even now. Amidst the drumbeat of hopelessness and despair and conflict that hammers us with the insistence that this really is “the way it is,” art stops us and says “look at this, see this, stop and pay attention, don’t be hypnotized by that; this is the way God’s world is…” We are jolted out of the throes of that grim march of hopelessness to see the things the world encourages us to overlook, to act as if they’re not there or as if they don’t matter. Stop. See this. See what is real. We are disrupted from the monotony of daily struggle to see things that touch us in ways we can neither imagine nor comprehend, but that stay with us and, if we let it, break up that dullness of “just the way it is” and reminds us “but don’t you believe it.”
In the end, the disruption of the likes of John, that demanding call to “prepare,” is the stuf that makes for the “peace” that Isaiah is going on about. Those two themes really do go together. And holding them in balance is perhaps our greatest task in the disruptive time of Advent.
For the disruption that John brings us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #—, Prepare your hearts; #93, Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates