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A Ringing in Our Ears
December 1, 2013
Isa. 2:1-5; Matt 24:36-44
There is a ringing in our ears. Across the country, the bells of Christmas have already begun to ring. Salvation Army volunteers ringing their bell outside the grocery store. Sleigh bells ringing merrily from our television screens advertising holiday sales. The Carol of the Bells resounding from our car speakers and office radios. Yes, we all hear it, the persistent ringing of the most wonderful time of the year. Some of us succumb merrily to the ringing, the bells acting as a starter pistol to a season of parties, shopping, and family gatherings. Some of us got sick of the ringing a month ago when the first of the Christmas trees began appearing as the Jack o Lanterns were being moved to the clearance aisle. For some of us, the ringing resurfaces difficult memories of loved ones lost or of families struggling to stay together. Yet whether you love it, hate it, try to drown it out, or crank it up loud, we all hear it. There is a ringing in our ears.
This is the first Sunday of Advent, and we the people of God begin once again to tell the story of Christ. The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the life of the church. The timing of Advent is no accident. For the next four weeks, we enter the darkest time of the year. The days are shorter, the nights grow long and cold. We descend into this time of darkness, both physically and spiritually to prepare our hearts for the coming again of the light. We yearn for that great planetary shift where light and warmth return to the earth, life blooms again, and opportunities for flourishing abound. In the same way, we yearn for the story of Christmas, that miraculous day we celebrate the Word of God becoming flesh and walking among us, the light of the world and the life of our souls. Advent is a season of yearning, a season of preparation, a season of hope. So we gather together in this darkness, in this time of beginning again, and we listen expectantly to hear what will happen next.
A prophet stands in our midst – his voice ringing in our ears. He begins to sing – of a mountain, of nations streaming to it, of holy instruction resounding from the house of the Lord. The words of the prophet’s song tell of the Lord’s listening to the cries of the nations and of the Lord’s work to reconcile the nations back together. The melody of the song picks up as the nations turn from learning the ways of war and begin to build bridges of peace through the seeking of justice.
The song of the prophet ends with a moment of silence, then, faintly, we hear a new sound begin to rise. Softly at first, then the ringing begins to build. This is not the predictable ringing of finely tuned bells, nor the saccharine twinkling of sleigh bells, but the harsh, metallic clanging of hammers striking iron. It is the sound of justice and of peace – the physical manifestation of reconciliation being made real. The ringing that we hear is that of the blacksmith’s forge, the beating of the weapons of war into the tools of life. At the foot of the mountain of the Lord, the nations of the earth accept the judgment of God and agree to the ways of peace. With all reasons for retribution, division, violence and greed abolished from the earth, weapons become an irrelevant waste. Since aggressions have been abandoned, resources once diverted for battle are now available for the provision of health, life, and communal growth.
The instruments designed for the taking of life are being refashioned into instruments for sustaining life. The world’s occupation with learning the ways of destruction is now refocused to learning the ways of God. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.
This apocalyptic song of the prophet tells of the day when the Lord’s reign will be made known on the earth, war will cease, and peace and justice will be accessible to all. Our Gospel reading today echoes the prophet’s words with its own resounding images of the unknown hour, of Noah and the flood, and the Day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night. We are instructed to keep watch, always prepared for the day when Christ will come again to bring all of creation to the great banquet feast in the new heaven and the new earth. For some of us, such warnings may give us the heebie-jeebies. In an age where the “Left Behind” book series has made more of an impression upon our understandings of the “end times” than the actual Bible, some of us live in fear of this “day of the Lord.” Frightening images of rapture, of hellish tribulation, great beasts and plagues fill our imaginations. Such understandings inspire an almost crippling anxiety – that at any moment, this world will end and we will be called before the judgment seat of God to account for our sin.
For others of us, the idea that one day Christ will come again and beauty queens will get their wish for world peace, and all nations will lay down their weapons is the stuff of fantasy. In this past year alone, we have watched as a super typhoon devastated the Philippines, terrorists struck a mall in Kenya, the US government shutdown, a chemical weapons attack in Syria, a deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and a school shooting that left 20 children and 6 adults dead. Yes indeed, there is a ringing in our ears – the echoes of bomb blasts, gunshots, and cries of grief surround us with a deafening clamor. How could we fool ourselves that this world is getting any better? In fact, this world seems only to get worse by the day. The prophet’s song reads like an overly optimistic and thoroughly naïve fairy tale.
In the face of such insurmountable challenges, why bother investing the hope in a new world to come? Such cynicism produces within us a deep apathy. We begin to see any action we take toward peacemaking and reconciliation as futile. We lose our drive to take discipleship seriously and we fill our days with the fleeting pleasures of stuff and status. We collapse in on ourselves and become individualized and disconnected from our neighbors. Church becomes just another extracurricular activity in service to the multitude of all the other demands on our time and energy. Why bother, we ask ourselves. Why work toward a fruitless goal? Why believe in the prophet’s vision of the Holy Mountain and peace on earth?
As we ponder these difficult questions, a simple answer rises to our lips. Because we want to. Because we want to believe. We want to have hope. We want to see God’s new peaceable reality come to fruition in this world. The prophet’s vision of the Holy Mountain is not one that relies on a historical reality. The prophet’s song does not speak of this holy conclave of reconciling nations occurring with a particular date in mind. Instead, the prophet touches upon our deep yearning for a new way of life, our unquenchable desire for peace, our longing for the light to return to the earth. Yes, the timing of Advent is no accident. Every year, we begin by naming our fears, our pain, our disappointment and disillusionment. We enter intentionally into a season of gathering darkness. We join together in a season of hoping for the impossible and dreaming of the unimaginable. For four weeks we will question, mediate, slow down, and reflect on a world shrouded in darkness. We watch and pray, knowing that in the days to come, the impossible, the unimaginable, and the unthinkable will happen.
We prepare ourselves so that when the impossible does occur, we are ready to respond, ready to act, and ready to give thanks to God. We will be ready to witness the birth of the Christ child, the healing of the sick, the forgiving of sinners, the feeding of the hungry, the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of our God in glory. We are a people who hope in the impossible and believe in the new world to come.
It is this hope that calms our anxieties. We are reassured that in the midst of our world’s sufferings, God is at work. When Jesus speaks of the Day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night, his message is clear – we must always be ready to witness Christ appearing among us, the work of God overcoming the fear and division in this world. We must be watchful for Christ appearing among us, not in some fearful apocalyptic sense, but in the small, everyday appearances when we see God’s love breaking into situations of despair and loss. One of our common practices in the youth ministry here at UPC is to ask the question, “Where did you see God today?” Keeping the daily practice of being observant of God’s presence restores our hope that God is with us still.
This Advent message of hope also prevents us from becoming cynical – apathetic to the needs of our sisters and brothers in our community and around the world. In both the words of the prophet and those of Jesus, we are called to take an active roll in the coming of God’s peace. Together with God, we become co-creators of the new world to come, co-laborers in reshaping the tools of war, and co-educators in the teaching of unity and peace.
There is a ringing in our ears. A box of spent bullet casings skitters across the workbench in front of an HIV – positive woman in Ethiopia. She picks up her hammer and begins to pound a brass bullet casing flat. She pounds another and another, forming them into thin disks that she then begins to shape into a bracelet – a bracelet that she will sell to support her family. She was trained in her work by workers from Raven & Lily, a US company that seeks to empower women in Cambodia, Ethiopia, and India to support themselves through meaningful and creative work.
There is a ringing in our ears. The bell tower of the St. Louis University chapel calls its students to worship. As the people gather to pray, a soft light glows from fixtures made from 20th century artillery shells. Their lethal contents removed, the shells now hold light for people to pray by.
There is a ringing in our ears. A Pakistani man hammers the final nail into a wooden trough below a newly installed well provided by Water for the World. As the pump is switched on a child puts her hand into the trough and scoops up her first drink of its clean, fresh water.
There is a ringing in our ears. The beautiful strains of music rise from members of the Landfill Harmonic orchestra in the midst of a garbage dump. Years ago, a music teacher in the village of Cateura, a town in Paraguay essentially built on top of a landfill, saw its children scavenging the trash to find sellable items to support their family. The music teacher began to fashion instruments out of the trash and to teach the people how to play. Today, the residents of the village offer their beautiful music from violins crafted from oil drums and trumpets with bottle cap buttons.
There is a ringing in our ears. It echoes up the halls and stairways of this church throughout the week. The noise of people receiving assistance and a hot breakfast at Uplift or food at Micah 6. The singing of the Ukirk Campus students during Taize prayer. The rehearsing of the choir. The joyful laughter of children and the noisy conversations of youth as they explore their faith.
This place, this country, this world, is full of the ringing sounds of swords being made into plowshares, the weapons of destruction and division being made into the works of life. And as this ringing grows and grows, we hear the final stanza of the prophet’s song “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Let us walk church. Let us walk boldly into this Advent season of darkness and acknowledge the cries of the nations. Let us walk to the Holy Mountain of God to receive instruction in the ways of life. Let us walk ever forward in the footsteps of Christ, in the ways of prayer and service. Let us walk, preparing to ring out the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.