Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Advent.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
I was fortunate enough, this past week, to be able to go home to Virginia for Thanksgiving. The trip is about six hours, and I am not the most patient person when it comes to the car, so I have been stocking up on audiobooks to pass the time. This week I downloaded a book I’ve been meaning to get around to, written by a professor of mine from college. It’s called The Stargazer’s Sister, and it didn’t occur to me until after I finished listening to it about halfway up the double A what a perfect doorway it was into the season of Advent.
The Stargazer’s Sister is the based on the life of Caroline Herschel, the first woman in England to be officially recognized for her contributions to science. Trained by her astronomer brother, William Herschel, Caroline herself discovered several comets and produced catalogs of astronomical phenomena. Caroline kept detailed notes for both her brother and herself; she referred to her work as “minding the heavens.”
It felt appropriate to me, in the week leading up to Advent, to be listening to the author’s descriptions of stars and planets and nebulae. Advent is full of beautiful words—scripture and songs and poetry—but behind it all is always, for me, images of light in the dark, whether candles or stars. And of course Advent is full of stars—the star of Bethlehem and Christ the Day-star and the light that shines in the darkness.
Much of the book is about how the pair of astronomers learned to see—in a very literal sense, how William and Caroline designed and built larger telescopes with bigger mirrors, so that they could refract more of the universe’s light into their eyes, and how they learned to adjust their eyesight between the regular darkness and the darkness of the heavens. William wrote that seeing is an art, which must be learned.
Seeing is an art which must be learned, because there is so much we cannot see if we do not learn to look for it. Take a moment and think about the stars, which have not dimmed their light just because the sun has blinded us to their presence; or think about the microbes at work in your body, which do not cease to be effective because we cannot see them. There is always more to God’s world than meets the eye.
That is a truth the prophet Isaiah knew well, and clung to. For my money, Isaiah offers us some of the most beautiful writing in our entire Bible. The prophet is a gifted writer, but more than that, a gifted seer: he sees not beyond our world to God’s world, but that God’s world is in our world, if we could only see it. He looks at the mountain rising in the distance—the same mountain anyone can see—and sees there also the house of the Lord, and the nations streaming to it. God’s house, revealed in the midst of our mountains. He looks at the swords and spears that litter bloody battlefields and sees how they could be bent and shaped into plowshares and pruning hooks—the same piece of metal, re-seen and re-shaped into a tool of life. And perhaps most importantly, he sees God’s light—and not just as a future promise, the way he couches most of his vision, but as a current reality—come, let us walk in the light of the Lord now. Let us see what there is to be seen of God’s presence now.
Isaiah’s ability to see, his ability to dream, did not stem from a starry-eyed naiveté, or from childish fantasies. Isaiah’s world was as dark and violent and fearful as any generation’s; in all my study of history, I have never found a decade where the tranquility and prosperity of some was not achieved by the suffering of others. In Isaiah’s time, the Assyrians were the enemy of the day, and Isaiah worked in the court of the King, where the stresses of shifting alliances and pressure of approaching armies was greatest. As beautiful as today’s scripture is, much of Isaiah is darker, full of anger and disgust at the arrogance of the people of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s hope in a future of faith and peace does not rest in what he can see around him, does not rest in the priests with their expensive offerings or the generals with their ramshackle armies or the landowners who get rich off the backs of the poor. On the surface, Isaiah does not like what he sees: people who have chosen profit and self-security over compassion and justice. But Isaiah’s great gift is that he can see deeper, under and through the surface world of faithless behavior, to God’s world standing strong and true within it all, to the promises of God’s justice that leaves no one in need of weapons, for revenge or protection. Isaiah can see both worlds at once: the world in which the people of Jerusalem place their trust in swords and storehouses and lawsuits, and the world in which the people of Jerusalem could turn to God for instruction. It is like Isaiah has a sort of spiritual telescope: with his naked eye, he sees only the darkness of the world, but with effort, he can see beyond the darkness to the light.
It is my firm belief that as people of faith we are called to this double-sight. We are called to see the world as it is: to look bravely at the darkness, at the places where there is pain and suffering, or cruelty or faithlessness, but also to stretch our eyes until we can see the light too, see glimpses of God’s world amidst our own. We are not called to the cynics’ position, of saying that what you see is what you get and there’s no use believing things could ever get better; neither are we called to blind optimism, insisting that everything is just fine and dandy, thank you very much. We are called to see the world as it is and as it could be, both together, and work to bring the two visions into alignment.
Practicing double-sight is a spiritual discipline, like prayer or service. It often requires looking at something for a long time, until God’s presence swims into shape. That is part of why, I think, we build up our Christmas traditions—over the years, we hope can see God more clearly in them.
I was brought up cold a few weeks back by a comment our executive presbyter made. She asked us what we thought our most valuable offering was. People joked that we were about to get a fundraising spiel. But her response amazed me. “The most valuable thing you have to offer,” she said, “is your attention. And there are people paying millions and millions of dollars to grab it from you.”
She’s right. The advertising business is a multi-million dollar affair, and it hits its peak around Christmas. The world is designed to blind us, to keep us chasing after our own wants and desires. Taking the time to pay attention to God and God’s work is therefore revolutionary. To make a holy sacrifice of our attention! To take the time to look for God. It’s simple, but so, so easy to forget.
In 1781, with Caroline’s help, William Herschel discovered a new planet, the first planet discovered since antiquity. In the book, they are both astonished, and Caroline asks her brother, “How did you know where to look?”
“It is not that I knew where to look,” William says. “It’s that it was there. I only built the device by which to see it.”
William had always been looking at the part of the sky where the planet was, with smaller, less powerful telescopes, as had all the other millions of people on the earth. Each one of them had the planet in their line of sight—and not one could see it.
It is easy to be tempted by the idea, if we are struggling to see God’s light, or feel God’s presence, that God must be elsewhere, somewhere more dramatic or romantic. Perhaps if we went and did mission work in the slums of India, we could see God; or perhaps if we went to a slick Christian concert, we could see God; or perhaps if we went to the Holy Land, we could see God; or perhaps if we put together the perfect Christmas, we could see God. We know we should be able to see God’s presence in the world; we believe in God; we just want to know where to look.
But of course, it’s not a matter of knowing where to look. It’s a matter of knowing how to look. Because wherever you are looking, God is already there. You just have to practice seeing God; practice looking for glimpses of hope, of love, of peace; practice being patient enough for your eyes to adjust.
In a moment we will sing the Advent hymn People Look East. It’s a favorite of mine, I think mostly because it gives me directions for how to look. Most of the music of the season tells the story of the first Christmas; the angels and shepherds and magi; and while that is a beautiful story, I’m not going to see it for real walking around my neighborhood. But People Look East directs me to pay attention to the birds; the stars; the flowers; the loved ones who come to gather around the table. It tells me how to look for Christ—not just in the plastic mangers, but in the beauty of the world all around me, in the lights that shine in the darkness.
When Isaiah wanted to see God, he did not need to even leave his room. He simply looked to the mountain, and as he looked, he began to see all nations streaming to it, singing as they went.
One last quote from the book, one that I am adopting as my motto this Advent season. It is a favorite quote of both the astronomers, the official motto of the Royal Astronomical Society: “Let whatever shines be noted.”
Let whatever shines be noted.
It is easy, in the frantic run-up to Christmas, to get through these next weeks without stopping to notice much of anything, except perhaps how tired we are. But I think we do better to spend as much time looking for God as we do looking for gifts, taking time to really see glimpses of God at work in our lives and our world, to notice where we feel hopeful, or at peace, or joyous, or loved. To notice Christ’s light as it glimmers here and there, waiting for us to reflect it out. Remember, there is always more to God’s world than meets the eye.
This Advent, I invite you—and I give you permission, if that helps—to pause, and to notice. You do not have to create the light. You do not have to buy it, make it, craft it, or in any other way make it happen. You are simply invited to see it, and to walk in it.
This Advent, let whatever shines in your life be noticed. Amen.