The gospel story, speaking not just of today's message, and even going beyond everything contained in the four gospels, is a story that tells us of things being shaken up. It tells of a world where everything is figuratively flattened. However, it's a Good News story, a story of salvation told by its being lived out, told in the lives of human beings who encounter one another in the messy world of their experiences.
More than other times of the year, today's scripture summons us to listen. The prophetic voice speaks repeatedly. "Get ready! Prepare the way." Advent sets a particular tone, but not just for the season. It does it in a way that we should let the season shape our outlook for the way we live our lives at all times: a way that habitually looks ahead to what's on the horizon.
More than once over the years I've heard of Advent as an opportunity to slow down and retreat during the busyness of the shopping season. It's spoken of as a kind of refuge from the hustle and bustle between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. Slow down, calm down, and turn down the lights and sound before going out there again. I suppose it's okay to think of Advent this way, but I always felt that doing so missed the point by a long way. It somehow failed to satisfy and left me feeling that something important had been skipped.
With the theme of the prophetic voice weighing in as heavily as it does in the scripture this weekend, I doubted that I should even mention the suburban shopping cult. After all, the prophetic voice in Advent is about so much more than parking lot wars or even escaping momentarily by finding a quiet moment of introspective meditation. It's about announcing something that has the power to obliterate the altar of Mammon along with all the other idols to which we are drawn.
We shouldn't find it strange that the tone Advent sets for us and the proclamation of the Good News of salvation have more than a little in common. Still, sometimes we need it spelled out for us. The world we live in passes a little more each day, and we are summoned to wake up, take courage, find the light and shine it into the darkness. Advent says, "Get ready, a change is coming."
As I was getting ready for this morning's talk, there were a couple things I considered, things that seem to be prerequisite to realizing the kingdom among us. The first had to do with being able to recognize the prophetic voice in our times, the voice that instructs us how to live authentically Christian lives, and the second had to do with the possibility that we, precisely, are called to be that voice for all the rest of the world.
Many times I've considered the difficult truth that the voice of the prophet often seems to remain silent in our world if not be absent altogether. Perhaps it's more that the competing voices in our times, our idols and ideologies, tend to drown it out. It also could be that we don't hear prophetic voices because we fail to do prophetic things, but there is an answer – as David solved his problem with the harp we turn to the Psalm.
Psalm 85 in today's readings tells us that "Justice shall walk before him and prepare the way of his steps." In Advent we say that we are preparing for the coming of the Lord. We are preparing for his coming as an infant born in Bethlehem—in the worst imaginable surroundings—and we are preparing for his Second Coming in glory, but are we letting justice walk before him?
There can be no doubt that justice must walk before him, but too often we imagine justice to be anything but what it really is. Justice really does have something to do with the surroundings in which God chose for his Son to be born, and this too is what the Good News is about. If there is anything that has the power to flatten the world, it is that which takes the ones who are on the bottom of life and places them at the top.
We all love charity it seems, especially when it's offered to those who deserve it. However, when we start talking about accepting those who we have been conditioned to reject, it's a different story. Yet justice is exactly about accepting those who are on the outside of what we are willing to accept in humanity. Justice makes everything and everyone equal—it lays the field flat. Justice indeed is the prophetic voice and indeed it announces a salvation in which God asks us to love even our enemies. It is the ringing bell of peace and the beginning of a new world. Consequently it often gets silenced.
If you've read the end of the book you know how it all turns out. Justice wins out in the end. The old ways pass in figurative flames that assure the ways of our long centuries of failure get forgotten by and by. The Good News, the gospel story, is completed and Advent teaches us to look in that direction and live accordingly.