Here is an Advent story. It comes from a recent New York Times article about the just-released audiotape from the south tower of the World Trade Center. The voices of the firefighters are clearly heard. The article describes the calm, professional way that the men were going about their job. It quotes a lot of what they were saying as they climbed from floor to floor, calling for specific tools, calling for more men, describing the conditions in their technical shorthand. The reporter writes, “Nested in the code language of the tape…are powerful human dramas.” Some of the firefighters, we know, climbed as high as the sky lobby of the south tower, on the 78th floor. Scores of people, many of them severely injured, had been stuck there for nearly an hour, those who escaped later described the lobby as “a desolate vista of the dead, the dying, and the trapped.” At 9:48 am, Fire Chief Orio J. Palmer arrived with men from Ladder Company 15. The reporter asks us to imagine what it must have meant to the people who had been desperately waiting for rescue when they saw before them a fire chief, a fire marshal, and their men. “In their final two minutes, they could behold the promise of deliverance.”
End of article. At 9:50 am, the south tower collapsed. The voices on the tape were never heard again.
Why is this an Advent story? Because the promise and the deathblow arrived at the same time. The moment of deliverance and the moment of annihilation are overlaid, like two slides placed one on top of the other so that you see them both at once. The season of Advent is like that. Judgment and mercy arrive at the same time. War and peace are announced by the same voice.
Portions of the prophet Isaiah are always read during Advent. The reading you heard this morning is a message of coming deliverance:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create…They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their children with them… The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-18, 23-25)
It is important to realize, however, that prophetic messages of hope are balanced by passages of judgment. Indeed, the book of Isaiah ends with judgment. The context for the prophecies of restoration is prophecies of destruction. Or is it the other way round? Let me try to illustrate. We cannot have Isaiah’s rhapsodic vision of a new creation without the chapter that goes just before it, a section that is also related to Advent. The people are begging God not to be silent, to show his presence to themæeven if it has to be in judgment:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…! When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains quaked at thy presence…Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away…all our pleasant places have become ruins. Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely? (Isaiah 64:1, 3,5-6,11-12)
So you see what I mean about the overlap of condemnation and mercy. Isaiah laments God’s absence in the midst of proclaiming his presence. All the works of the Hebrew prophets are like this; passages of severe judgment are interleaved with passages of divine promise. In some prophets, judgment predominates: others emphasize promise, but all put forth this mixture. The ending of Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to mind; no play has ever presented a more terrifying spectacle of cosmic judgment, yet there are some who believe that in the very moment of Lear’s death, as he holds his daughter’s corpse, he sees her resurrection.
The greatness of this season, and the reason some of us cherish it more than any other, is related to its uncompromising view of the human situation. There is some irony in this. Here we are in this spectacular building this morning, surrounded by beauty, reading words of comfort, hearing a message that the warfare of Jerusalem is accomplished. What could be more bitterly ironic than that? There is no peace in Jerusalem; and it was little more than a year ago that just across the Potomac the Pentagon was in flames. Now it is widely believed that we are on the brink of a new war.
I’ve just been reading a new book about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I recommend this book very highly; the title is easy to rememberæLincoln’s Greatest Speech. The Second Inaugural is one of the most distinguished works of Christian theology ever written, and I mean that quite seriously. It has this very plain sentence: “And the war came.” Lincoln struggled to understand the war for four years, struggled with every fiber of his being. He seems to conclude that “the war came” with an independent life of its own, precisely as a judgment of God on both South and North. The book, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, shows that Lincoln was addressing a real audience of real peopleæwounded soldiers, bereaved parents and widows, freed slaves, politicians of every stripe, and the man who would kill him in four weeksæall of whom know that the war was almost over and that the South was going to lose. That’s what makes this address so amazing. There is no gloating; there is no bombast; there is no self-righteousness; there are no recriminations. There is no hint that the South is wicked and deserves to be defeated. On the contrary, he suggests in his powerful prose that “[God] now wills to remove [the offense of slavery]…He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Do you see how remarkable this is? “The offense came” by both South and North! He calls upon both sides to shoulder the blame and to acknowledge that
as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).
Four days from now, the second installment of the Lord of the Rings movie will hit the theaters. I just bought the illustrated movie guide. It has a very thoughtful introduction written by Viggo Mortensen, the actor who plays Aragorn. Here is some of what he wrote:
The second installment of The Lord of the Rings comes to theatres in a world that is no more secure than the one in which the first was released last year…It would seem from even a cursory reading of world history that there is no new horror under the sun, that we will perhaps always have to contend with destructive impulses in ourselves and others…The most enlightened beings in Middle-Earth are conscious of the ubiquity of good and evil in neighbors, strangers, adversaries, and most important, themselves. There can be little future in adopting a permanent policy of “an eye for an eye.” If we were all regularly to put into effect such an inflexible approach, we would all soon be blind, as Gandhi pointed out…[italics added for emphasis]
It seems to me that that’s a pretty good set of reflections to come out of the entertainment industry. I am not advertising the movie particularly; the book by J. R. R. Tolkien is the thing. It is much clearer in the book that the War of the Ring is a purely defensive war, fought only as a last resort because the Enemy has already begun to penetrate and overrun the peaceful lands of Middle-earth. Our situation with regard to Iraq is not so clear. I do not know what we should do about Iraq. What we do know is that followers of Jesus Christ will always want to remember that the true and righteous judgments of the Lord are applicable to every side of every conflict. At yet another funeral in Israel two weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu said that we are in the midst of “a war of worlds.” Yes, we areæor, if you prefer, a “clash of civilizations” æbut if we are following Lincoln’s Biblical wisdom we will not be so certain that our side is always unblemished. Our two greatest Presidents, Washington and Lincoln, both in their time called America to self-examination, humility and repentance. It is hard to imagine any President doing that today. It is therefore the vocation of the Christian church to do it. That is what Advent is for. As we read in the first Epistle of Peter, “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (I Peter 4:17).
Oddly, of all the seasons of the year, Advent preaching is the easiest, at least in my opinion. Why is that? It is because Advent is about a world in darkness, and it is not at all difficult to show that this is a world of darkness, certainly not at this period in our history. Advent is therefore a season in which we help one another to face up to the truth about the human race in general and also the truth about ourselves. Another splendid book has just come out from a well-known war correspondent, Chris Hedges. He writes to remind us of the darkness within ourselves. He says that his book “is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance.” He questions the “moral certainty of the state in wartime…a dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal.” It will be seen right away that Abraham Lincoln in the Second Inaugural categorically rejected this kind of religion and called the nation away from moral certainty about itself toward a future of “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
Why would God allow such a man to be killed at the moment the nation, and especially the defeated South, needed him most? That is an Advent question to which there is no answer in this world. Death was at work even as Lincoln spoke; the face of his assassin, John Wilkes Boothe, can be seen in the photograph taken that day. We can be certain, however, that Lincoln, had he known, would have repeated the Psalm again: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
That leads us to the largest question, a question that includes all the other questions. This is the key to the whole enterprise. Looking back at the actor Viggo Mortensen’s remarks, admirable as they are, we see that there is something missing in them. He writes as if there were no God. He writes as though the “war between worlds” was up to us. In that case, truly, we will indeed “always have to contend with destructive impulses in ourselves and others,” for without intervention from another sphere of power, there is no way out. The real question for this season, and for every season, is this: Is there a living God who acts on behalf of his creation? Is there a righteous God who is working his purposes out in and through the griefs and atrocities of the human drama? Is there a God who can make good on his promise of deliverance in our last hour?
Abraham Lincoln thought so; J. R. R. Tolkien thought so; the prophet Isaiah not only thought so but knew so. He knew it not because he was more spiritual than anyone else, but because against his own inclinations he had been impressed into the Lord’s service, summoned into the presence of God to hear the divine counsel and to bring the Word of the Lord to the people. And the Word of the Lord said,
Be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create…. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard…the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be…an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days,,, They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isaiah 64:18-25)
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”. (Isaiah 40:4-5)