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We’re hearing a call to worship today. A call to go up to worship. To praise. To thank. To adore. To listen.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” This is how the song begins. Psalm 122. This was not the Psalmist’s idea, note. It came from outside of himself. What would it look like for us to be glad together? What would it look like for us to rejoice together? I’m not talking about the manufactured joy that is so much a part of the Christmas season. I’m not talking about the joy that is so often expected of us - to the point where we might feel that there’s something wrong with us if we’re not feeling it. I’m certainly not talking about the joy that is promised through the perfect gift or the perfect Christmas dinner or the perfect…. Whatever perfect is supposed to be and however much it’s supposed to cost – providing of course that we have the means.
We might say that gladness or joy is beyond us. We have too much to take care of. We have too much to worry about. We know too much. We’ve seen too much. We’ve heard too much. To which I say let us hear the echo of the song as it rings through the ages – I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Let us go up together because movement toward worship, movement toward God, is always up. Let us move up together through these weeks of Advent with songs of ascent. It’s not something we have to manufacture ourselves or even spur our own selves on toward. We can certainly spur one another on; encourage one another on. If teammates can spur one another on after putting the ball in the basket in a particularly athletic and inspiring (and deflating for the other team) way with hand claps and cries of “Let’s goooo!” then surely we can spur one another on.
I was glad when they said to me – say it with me – “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” And now our feet are standing with your gates, O Jerusalem, O city of peace. O city of salvation. O city of deliverance. We see beyond what we can see, and we remember what happened in Jerusalem, or at least right outside of it. I know I’m talking about Good Friday at Christmas, but the wood of the manger should always bring to mind the wood of the cross. We know what happened just outside Jerusalem (the foundation of peace) on that Friday we call good. These lines are from Psalm 122, one of the Psalms of Ascents that go from Psalm 120 to 134. Songs that were sung by pilgrims as they began their journey up, or made their way up, or had already made their way up. Jerusalem, built as a city that is firmly bound together – compacted. Let’s not think of this negatively though, as in an urban density kind of way, particularly in light of how urban density has traditionally been thought of as a sign of unhealthy or connected to poverty. Let us think of it rather in light of our interconnectedness and interdependence.
We’re not meant to make this journey on our own, after all. Let us go. Let us go to a place of peace and justice. Let us go to a place of thanksgiving. Let us go to a place of transformation and renewal and restoration and revitalization. New life. Could such a thing be possible? Wouldn’t you want to go? Let’s go together. I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Do you want that? The invitation is there. I remember not many years ago an electronics retailer had a Christmas ad campaign which put the consumerist orientation quite plainly (and good for them for putting it so plainly. “I want that” was the line. What is it that we want? “Let us go to the house of the Lord” is the invitation. I’ll tell you what I want. I want to live in that house. I want to move on up to that house. It can’t be just me.
So let’s go dear family.
Over the weeks of Advent we’re going to be sitting with hope, peace, joy, and love. These are not coming from nowhere because we’ve been sitting with them the whole time if you’ve been sitting with us (and if you haven’t please sit with us, you’re so welcome!). We’re going to be looking at various scriptures, our anchor scripture each week being from the prophet Isaiah. As we sing our songs of ascent through these weeks, it is my prayer that we may be able to look back on Advent 2022 and be able to say, “I rejoiced.” “I was glad.” I don’t believe this to be impossible. I don’t think we’ve seen too much, heard too much, know too much, worry about too much, have too much to do. I don’t believe that rejoicing and gladness are out of reach, no matter our circumstance. I don’t believe restoration or renewal or revitalization (new life) is beyond us. I believe that it starts here (points to heart).
The prophet Isaiah had seen much and knew much. He consorted with kings. He knew the pressures of family life, this son of Amoz/husband of the prophetess/father of Shearjashub (“A remnant shall return) and Mahershalalhashbaz. He saw rulers who were more interested in bribes than justice. He saw oppressive laws being written. He saw the poor being robbed of their rights. He saw the most marginalized (widows and orphans) being turned into prey. He saw people depending on their wealth. He saw geo-political upheaval and invasion. He saw nations depending on arms. He saw destruction to come. He saw a people who remained and a people who turned to God.
He saw the word of God. He saw restoration. Advent is not simply a countdown. Advent is not simply a looking back, though it is a looking back. We look back at God acting in human history in the person of the one called Emmanuel – God with us. We look forward to the fulfillment of the kingdom of God or the reign of God. Isaiah describes it in terms of the mountain of the Lord’s house being established as the highest of mountains, not to lord it over others but as a beacon to which all nations are drawn. It’s a vision of diversity. It’s a vision of people saying “Let’s go and learn the ways of God so that we can walk in God’s way together!” Out of Zion will go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Judgement and justice will be known.
Peace will be known. Weapons of wear turned into instruments of agriculture. People being fed and provided for rather than being killed. Swords into plowshares. Tanks turned into combine harvesters. Spears into pruning hooks. Assault rifles turned into garden shears. What a jarring juxtaposition. We’ve seen the opposite of this over the last year in Ukraine; the traditional breadbasket of Europe turned into a place of devastation and death. It’s easy to be blinded when all we can see it what is in front of our eyes. Isaiah invites us into a larger and longer vision. It’s the kind of vision that we often hear in African-American spirituals. I’m gonna lay down my burden/Down by the riverside. I’m gonna put on my long white robe/Down by the riverside. I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside/Study war no more. (You know that oftentimes the loudest and most meaningful calls for justice and peace come from the most oppressed. The rest can be quite content to continue on in our comfortable lives.) “Neither shall they learn war any more.”
We look back and we look ahead at Advent. Isaiah was looking ahead. “In days to come” is how he puts it. We know that a return of the people and an element of restoration would come to Jerusalem. We read about it last year in Ezra and Nehemiah. We know that in the coming of the Prince of Peace, deliverance would be made known in Jerusalem. We know that the promise of the Holy Spirit would be made known in Jerusalem, and the ways of God would not only be taught but enabled within the people of God through the indwelling/inliving presence of the Spirit of Christ. We’ve talked about looking back and we’ve talked about looking ahead. We’re also called to look around us. I said that we should not let present circumstances blind us to God’s vision. At the same time, we are not called to be people who are blind to what is going on around us. What does it look like for us to be called to be a people who wait well?
We’ve already heard an invitation in the call to worship sung by the Psalmist – “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” If you’re still hearing these words then you’ve responded positively to this invitation. Good. Here’s another invitation from the prophet, and it’s so good and so apt and so reflected in the traditions of this season like our Advent Candles and our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Are you ready for the invitation? Here it is. “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Let us hear Jesus’ words resonate and echo. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life.” (John 8:12) “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matt 5:14)
Come let us walk in the light of the Lord! Let us be attentive. What a great thing to pray. On our Sunday away from you we took the opportunity to go with Nicole’s mom to her Greek Orthodox church, St. Constantine and St. Helen on Trethewey. That was one of the prayers around communion. Let us be attentive to where God is at work around us in the most unlikely places, in the most unlikely ways, or in the most unlikely people. Let us look for God’s promises of joy and peace and love breaking through into our present. The worship that we share together at that point turns outward (because you knew that wasn’t all about us). Someone has put it like this:
“What stories will we tell? What examples will we live out? How will we make our space ready to receive the one who comes and the family invited to share? We can choose songs about anticipation and hope, not just completion. We can pray prayers that lean into the not yet and the invitation. We can pledge ourselves to the task of preparing the way and shouting in the wilderness that God is near to the brokenhearted. We can light the lights that speak of our confidence and joy that God is among us and desires to be known.”
We gather in the Lord’s house not to take part in an empty annual ritual, but to be restored. To have our hearts restored; to have our gladness restored; to have our mission restored. “You know what time it is,” writes Paul in Romans 13:11. Now is the time to wake from sleep. Now is the time to walk in the light of the new day that is dawning, and sing in anticipation of the Son in the same way that birds sing in anticipation of the sun. Let’s get ahead of the day. If you’re like me you know what it is to sleep in and let the day get away from you (I know sometimes we need the sleep). This world – this age – rolls along, but a new age has broken in and is breaking in. The night is far gone. The day is near. Let us live honourably as in the day. Let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all the hope, peace, joy and love he brings.
I want that. God grant that it may be so for each of us this Advent season.