A Homily for the Third Wednesday of Advent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who makes speed to save us. Amen.
It’s doom and gloom for the northern kingdom.
A quick crash course in Israelite history: the twelve tribes united under King Saul, and then there was a bit of a civil war as Saul and David fought for the throne. David became king over Judah and then over all Israel, and he was followed by his son Solomon. The united kingdom was short-lived, though, as the ten tribes in the north broke away and kingdom split between north (Israel) and south (Judah). The northern kingdom was a lot less stable than their southern neighbors: Israel had as many kings in two centuries as Judah had in three and a half. And now, tonight, it’s on the verge of collapse.
Over the past few weeks, as we’ve read through various parts of Isaiah on both Sunday and Wednesday, I’ve referenced “a coming cataclysm” – the advance of the Assyrian Empire led by Tiglath-Pileser III, who styled himself King of the Universe. (Second Kings, especially chapters fifteen and seventeen, detail the decline and fall of Israel, calling the Assyrian army “the rod of [God’s] anger.”
Tonight, we see the full extent of this coming cataclysm spelled out in poetic detail:
the Arameans in the east and the Philistines in the west,
and they devoured Israel with open mouth….
the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,
palm branch and reed in one day—
elders and dignitaries are the head,
and prophets who teach lies are the tail;
for those who led this people led them astray,
and those who were led by them were left in confusion.
Not even the young, the widows, or the orphans are spared. And the prophet’s not done expounding upon the terror actively befalling Israel. He continues in the verses beyond this evening’s lection:
For wickedness burned like a fire,
consuming briers and thorns;
it kindled the thickets of the forest,
and they swirled upwards in a column of smoke.
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
the land was burned,
and the people became like fuel for the fire;
no one spared another….
Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,
and together they were against Judah.
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.
But in spite of the violence and chaos we see in this chapter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Chapter nine provides sudden whiplash. The verses we just read are dark and foreboding, but just before, in verses one through seven, we see some of the most beautiful passages of hope, verses that still resonate with us, and I have to stop myself from singing Handel’s Messiah as I quote them:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined….
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Reading chapter nine straight through is like running through a beautiful field of sunflowers on a clear, sunny day only to fall suddenly into a deep, dark cave: The zeal of the Lord sending a great light to those in darkness, a child who will bring about endless peace…boom, the word of the Lord falling against Israel, nations devouring each other.
And such is life. So much of this existence is spent searching for hope until the fallen creation surrounds us, choking out the light, reminding us that we are captive to the power of sin and death, that we cannot free ourselves. It’s so often unfair – that even the widows and orphans are caught up in the destruction.
This Advent season is a time of expectation, but to truly and fully anticipate the coming joy, we must first open our eyes to the destruction around us. When stone falls from stone, and the trees are laid flat, we cannot, in our own arrogance say will simply build back better. No, during this season – during 2020 and during Advent – we realize that we are not the light. But in doing so, we turn east with eager anticipation to see the Advent of our Lord, God-with-us, the Prince of Peace who will set all things to right.
He is coming, and soon.