SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2011, THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (“GAUDETE” SUNDAY)

Congratulations!  Today, ladies and gentlemen, we are halfway through the season of Advent.  Today is Gaudete Sunday for the first word in the introit for this mass (Gaudete in Domino semper, “Rejoice in the Lord always”).  Other Advent Sundays are somber and repentant, and the vestments are purple because that is the color of penitence, of royalty, and, yes, of a bruise.  But today we get just the briefest splash of rose.  No show of hands, but am I the only person in the parish who doesn’t like these “rose” (pink) vestments?  I am, I’m afraid.  I call today “Gaudy” Sunday because of these things, but I suppose the good news is, if I become nauseated at any moment, I can spill Pepto Bismol on myself and none of you will ever know.  Yet the pink serves a purpose.  We lighten from purple to pink this week (just as we do one week during Lent) because today, if only for a moment, we lift our eyes from our work of penitence and catch a glimpse of the joy that is to come. 

“In the year King Uzziah died” (Isa. 6.1ff), God called Isaiah to be a prophet.  It was mid-8th century BC, a period of great political turmoil and upheaval after a half century of prosperity.  If you’ve been in Entr’acte, you know what is about to happen.  Forces are gathering from the north; within just a few years, the kingdom of Israel will fall, and in 586 Judah will fall, as well, and its citizens will be swept into exile in Babylon.  In the course of his career, Isaiah had visions that Judah’s sin was too great to stop it from careening into exile.  But, at the end of this book, in what some scholars call “trito-Isaiah,” he also sees the return of God’s people from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  Like Gaudete Sunday, Isaiah lightens things up with the promise of return.  Today, I want us to spend a few minutes with the prophet Isaiah and look for three things:  The promise, the problem, and the provision.

First, the promise:  This is where we do some theology on the fly.  Chapter 65 is all about God doing “new things.”  Although his people had forgotten him, God never forgot them.  Indeed, God has their names carved into the palms of his hands.  (Isa. 49.16)  Through their sin, they have brought upon themselves the curse, but that’s not the end of the story.  Every Red Sox fan remembers the sign that used to be on Storrow Drive down close to Fenway.  The sign read “Reverse Curve,” but some ingenious person had gotten up there with spray paint and amended it to read “Reverse the Curse,” and that’s what God is up to here.  This curse reversal has three parts: 

First, there is a new creation -- For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.  (65.17)  Isaiah’s promise for the returning exiles is over the top.  Not only should they expect return from exile, but new heavens and a new earth.  This is a clear allusion to the very first verse of the bible where “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  (Gen. 1.1)  Now, after sin forced Adam and Eve from the Garden, and evil has done its best to undo the creative power of God, God is creating again.  And the new situation will be so wonderful that they won’t even remember the “former things” -- exile, oppression, even death. 

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, after the arduous trek to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, Sam fell into exhausted sleep, and as he wakes he sees his friend Gandalf, whom Sam had believed to be dead.  Gandalf says:  “Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” 

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer.  At last he gasped:  “Gandalf!  I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?  What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.  It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.  But he himself burst into tears.  Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed. 

Like in Lord of the Rings, “a great Shadow has departed,” and the exiles are coming home.  Such will be the laughter from their joy, that none of their suffering would come to mind again. 

But the promise is also of a new city -- But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.  (65.18)  Remember the creation mandate from Genesis 1?  God blessed them, and God said to them “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it . . . .”  (Gen. 1.28a)  If I had to exegete that in a sentence, I’d say God’s plan for humankind was for us to build cities -- places of safety, of culture and creativity and flourishing, and as places of worship, places God meets his people.  But what we actually built was just a twisted version of that dream.  Babel was our first great public works project, an attempt to organize the world for our own selfish ends, to make a name for ourselves, not for God, and build our own stairway up to heaven.  (Gen. 11.1-9)  That project ended in disaster, and the spirit that gave rise to Babel led ultimately to Babylon, and selfish power-grabbing became the driving principle at work in every city.  God was bringing the exiles back to Jerusalem to reverse that and build a city where God would again dwell among his people, and where justice and peace would reign.

Lastly, the promise is about a new society - They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat . . . .  (65.21-22)  We have very little time to dig into this, but in Deut. 28.30, the curse for breaking the covenant with God is described like this:  You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, and you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, and you shall not use the fruit of it.  Again, in bringing the exiles home, God is reversing the curse they brought upon themselves.  Once again they will live in their own homes and enjoy their own vineyards.  That’s the promise of Isaiah.

But it doesn’t take a genius to see the problem:  What Isaiah saw in prophetic vision, we see now “in the cold, clear light of history.”  The hearts of the exiles will turn again to God, but only for a time.  They will come home to Jerusalem, and the temple will be rebuilt, but the Maccabean wars will come, and Jewish national glory will end with Roman conquest; Jerusalem and the temple will fall again in 70 A.D.  If the promise of Isaiah wan’t to be an empty one, then something else had to happen.   

That’s the third point:  The provision - Early in his career, Isaiah saw a sign from God, a very familiar sign that the church has interpreted as referring to the messiah.  From chapter 7:  Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  (Isa. 7.14b)  The provision God made for the ultimate return of all exiles was what we raise our eyes from our purple Advent season to see -- the Incarnation.  The birth of a child, the child, who will set his people free.  A child born to be exiled to the grave so we can be brought home.  The child who created the world will be driven outside the city to be crucified. 

One last quick point:  The prophecy at the end of Isaiah was to a “between-the-times” people.  The exiles were returning to a city still in ruins.  It hadn’t yet regained its former glory, and even the glory it would again obtain wouldn’t last.  And we are, also, an in-between people.  We have returned from exile, been freed from slavery to sin and death, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth.  And yet we still weep.  People still build houses and others live in them.  The earth still groans under the weight of sin.  Jerusalem is known more for political unrest than for justice and peace.  But that’s because we are “in between” the two Advents.  The kingdom is “already,” but it’s still yet to come.  We live in the now and the not yet, but the story isn’t over.  At the very end of the book of Revelation, in my favorite passage in the bible, we read this: 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making all things new!”

So look up, people of God.  The great Shadow has departed.  God is making all things new, and the former things will not come to mind again.  Everything sad will come untrue. 

If there’s anything to wear pink for, that’s it.

Amen.


Notes & Sources ::

  1. Although the prevailing scholarly view has been that the prophet Isaiah wrote chapters 1-39, while the rest of the book was written much later by a “deutero-Isaiah” and a school of writers known collectively as “trito-Isaiah,” I remain unconvinced that the textual evidence requires multiple authors.  Suffice it to say, however, that scholarly opinion about authorship is not of import to this sermon.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1995): 930-31.
  3. Timothy Keller, “A Biblical Theology of the City” <http:> (last visited 9 December 2011).</http:>
  4. God’s vision for making all things new includes a new creation, a new city and a new society.  Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999): 398-99.
  5. Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996): 219.  See Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah.