Advent is that season of quiet waiting. A time of giving voice to long held hopes and desires. The lessons of the four weeks of Advent can be looked at as a unit, a series that has some movement.
Last week the lesson were vague in their sense of hope in the future, in broad terms, the message was simply "Wait." This week's lessons refine that message a bit and point to the hope in the arrival of an individual. Next week the hope is more specifically placed in God and the fourth week is the culmination of those hopes in the God made manifest in human form.
The lesson from Isaiah refers to a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse. It's a poetic way of stating a hope that the monarchy of Israel would be restored. Most everyone has heard of King David. From our earliest church school days we heard stories about David and Goliath - the young man who single-handedly slew the great giant and saved his country. It's a story as cherished now as it was when it was first spoken. Later David becomes King and establishes a long line of kings. David's father's name was Jesse. And although Jesse was a simple man of humble birth, the line of Kings in Israel is sometimes referred to by his name -- the House of Jesse.
One of the images of Kings is a mighty tree, but in the case of Israel several hundred years after David lived, the line was broken by a foreign invasion. The last King of Israel was captured, tortured and marched in chains through the town in front of his subjects. One of the legacies of that humiliation was the enduring hatred Israel developed for its enemies and the distrust of neighboring countries.
Yet even in disgrace, humiliation and occupation, Isaiah wrote of a hope that the line of Jesse would somehow be re-established. That a shoot would grow out of the stump of the mighty tree that had been cut down.
Medieval times echoed this kind of hope in the emergence of the legends of King Arthur. The people waited in hope for the one who would pull the sword from the stone. And even after that legend ran its cycle, hope of a king like Arthur lived on.
Part of the waiting for any king under painful circumstances is that the expectations get bigger and bigger. Isaiah rhapsodizes over the future king. He describes how God would endow him with wisdom and understanding, knowledge and faith. He would rule with great righteousness and courage. Peace would be brought at last and a just society would be established -- even the animals would get along peacefully.
This hope is echoed in the psalm from this morning also. "He shall defend the needy among the people, he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor. He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure...." The hope of the people for such a king stands in equal proportion to the despair they felt for the circumstances in which they lived.
It's beautiful poetry and in the case of the psalms, music was composed to accompany it and it became their souls' songs. But there was a built in problem with these hopes as they were expressed. As Isaiah wrote, " He shall judge...; he shall strike the Earth with the rod of his mouth; righteousness shall be his belt; the breath of his lips shall kill the wicked...." A dynamic was being created that the individual alone would do all these things. The expectation places all the work on the shoulders of the new king and the people would watch and be vindicated for their endured suffering. They would be taken care of.
Yesterday I accompanied several of the members of our healing study group to a quiet day in Manhattan led by Brother Andrew, a monk from the Order of the Holy Cross. I got to know Brother Andrew on my sabbatical while he was in the monastery in Grahamstown, South Africa. Sometime last year he left South Africa and returned to the mother house in West Park, New York to assume new duties as the novice master. He also gets invited to lead retreats and quiet days. When I discovered that he would be leading one so close, I asked the group that usually meets on Saturday mornings if they wanted to go. It was a wonderful day of addresses and meditations on the psalms used in this season of Advent. He discussed a lot about the nature of song and its importance to people in expressing their soul. We've heard the term "soul music" before but even that term gets glossed over and speaks of rhythms rather than the true depth of soul stirring it does.
When the soul is in its deepest pain or joy or fear or hope, music arises and when it's expressed it touches the soul of another with resonances that go far beyond the words. Instrumentalists feel this as much as vocalists and audiences respond through applause, because a response is called for. One of the unfortunate traditions of the Episcopal Church is not to applaud after a piece of music. The rationale for that is that music is prayer, not performance. But I think applause is a natural outpouring of the soul's response to having been stirred -- and perhaps shaken. In truth, silence can be an eloquent response allowing the music to drift heavenward on our behalf, but sometimes you just have to clap or shout amen.
Brother Andrew told of the role of the psalms in the life of the Israelites as an oppressed people and compared it to the traditional music of the black South Africans during Apartheid. It voiced the hope that change would come, that freedom would come, that God would come and heal the pain of cruel bondage. As he was talking I thought a similar case could be made for the music of the Negro spirituals sung during American slavery. Music kept the soul glowing the flames of hope.
The Israelites were in bondage and occupation for many generations -- Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. As one empire rose and fell to the next, they watched their hopes of freedom rise and fall, but never lost the sense of promise that one day a King would arise and establish God's promised land again. And each generation the hope got bigger and bigger.
It's into this terrain that John the Baptist appeared. He shouted that the time was near and that the long waiting was about to end. He told them to prepare and get ready. He told them to repent, to turn and start to live with integrity and righteousness. John's words planted a new thought into an old idea. The king will bring leadership and the people will help. In order to help they needed to prepare themselves. It's the difference between watching the race and getting in it. Watching the work be done, or rolling up the sleeves and pitching in.
Jesus came to build the kingdom of God, but not by himself. He came to preach the Good News, but not by himself. He prepared his disciples to continue his work, not sit back and watch him do it. This Saturday, Mary Davis will be ordained a priest, and like so many before her, myself included, she's chosen a lesson from Isaiah which ends with the prophet hearing God's question, "Who will go for us, and whom shall we send." The prophet responds, "Here am I send me."
The Israelites were tired from their captivity and years of occupation. They wanted the shoot of Jesse to fix the world for them so they could rest. It's tempting to let our fatigue or frustration take us out of the race. But God's call is not to fall away, but prepare by taking care of ourselves and each other so that we can stay in it.
Advent is that season of waiting for the coming of God to in our lives each day. Establishing justice through our justice, and righteousness through our righteousness. Establishing love through our love. Not on our behalf, but through us. When we sing, we sing our soul's hopes and fears, frustrations and joys. We sing of God's grace in our lives that strengthens us and supports us. Each day is a new beginning and a new hope. Each day brings a new discovery of how God will use us to establish the world we so deeply need and desire. Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ