The first word the church hears in Advent is a magnificent portrait of peace, spoken by the prophet Isaiah: his vision of days to come when nations stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house. The nations come not to conquer, plunder, and destroy as in days past, no, they come to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. The nations come not because they have been defeated by a yet another empire and are now forced to pay tribute; no, they come willingly, uncoercedly, eager to learn. They come to let God’s justice be their justice, and they are finally free to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.
The first sound of Advent is the sound of days to come when from all the ends of the earth people are making their way to the city of God. The first sound of Advent is this symphony of people, their chatter and laughter, their stories and songs, and the clanging of hammers falling on anvils, ringing across the land, bright and clear as bells. Swords are being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, tanks into school buses and war ships into bridges, fighter jets into bicycles and M16s into water mains—every tool of destruction is being forged into a tool of shared life. Through the din of Black Friday commercials and the relentless news of violence and war we hear the sound of days to come—that our feet may pick up the rhythm and we may learn the tune by heart and hum the new song as we go up the road of hope.
Hope wasn’t Isaiah’s first word, though. His first word was a clear-eyed description of what he saw when he looked around the city and the land: the words that stand out from just the first four verses of the book’s opening chapter are rebellion, iniquity, sinful, evil, corrupt, estranged – and it doesn’t stop there. The religious festivals have become a burden God is weary of bearing. The country lies desolate. The city where righteousness is meant to lodge, is marked by injustice. Her silver has become dross, her wine is diluted with water, her princes are companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
The prophet’s first word is a long litany of indictments, line after line written with tears of fury and the fire of wrath: “The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them.” Thirty-one verses of relentless accusation and judgment, and then Isaiah abruptly stops. It’s as though his ears have picked up, above his mournful and angry lamentation, fragments of a different tune, a song as old as creation and overflowing with the promise of newness. It’s like he must start over, because in the doom and gloom of human faithlessness, suddenly, light shines, divine light. And so he begins to speak of days to come, of a newness far beyond the possibilities of current circumstances; he draws a wide horizon of hope opened up by the faithfulness of God.
A colleague of mine from Memphis was on a summer vacation in Maine, and one morning he took the ferry to one of the islands. The sea was smooth as glass, mirroring the clear, blue sky; it made for a most pleasant crossing. The trip back later that day, though, was a different story. A front had moved in and where earlier there had been only a gentle breeze, now there were stiff gusts of wind. Before long, the sea became quite choppy and the adventurer from Tennessee was starting to feel a storm brewing in the pit of his stomach. The captain took one look at him, noticed the hint of green in his complexion, and gave him a good word.
“Sit down, find a point on the shoreline and focus on it.”
That’s exactly what he did. He sat down near the rail. Then he picked a spot, far away on the rocky shore, a sharp peak with a lighthouse on it, and he kept his eyes on it. The boat kept pitching and rolling, but he kept his eyes fixed on that point. Soon his stomach became calmer, his head cleared, and he began to breathe deeply. “I’m going to make it,” he said to himself.
The word that Isaiah saw is a point on the horizon of time, a focal point in the turbulent days of injustice, fear, and war. We keep our eyes fixed on God’s promise, not only to calm our storm-tossed souls, but to keep the end of the journey in mind, to remember where we are headed, and to walk with courage.
Ruby Bridges was one of four children to integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960; she was the only black child to enter the William Frantz Elementary School that year. On her way to school, for days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months, this child had to brave angry mobs who were hurling threats and slurs at her. Every day, federal marshals walked with her to school and brought her home. At first, she attended school all by herself, because of a total boycott by white families. She sat alone in the classroom, and only one teacher overcame her own fear and taught her.
Robert Coles was a young psychiatrist working in New Orleans, and he volunteered to talk with Ruby to help her process the daily terror. A teacher told him,
I was standing in the classroom, looking out the window, and I saw Ruby coming down the street, with the federal marshals on both sides of her. The crowd was there, shouting, as usual. A woman spat at Ruby but missed; Ruby smiled at her. A man shook his fist at her. Ruby smiled. And then she walked up the steps, and she stopped and turned around and smiled one more time. You know what she told one of those marshals? She told him she prays for those people, the ones in that mob. She prays for them every night before going to sleep.
Ruby told him, “Yes, I do pray for them.”
“Why?” Coles asked her.
“I go to church,” she told him, “every Sunday, and we’re told to pray for everyone, even the bad peeple, and so I do.” When the subject came up again she said, “They keep coming and saying the bad words. But my momma says they’ll get tired after a while and then they’ll stop coming. They’ll stay home. The minister came to our house and he said the same thing, and not to worry, and I don’t. The minister said God is watching and He won’t forget, because He never does. The minister says if I forgive the people, and smile at them and pray for them, God will keep a good eye on everything and He’ll be our protection.”
Coles asked her if she believed the minister was on the right track.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I’m sure God knows what’s happening. He’s got a lot to worry about; but there is bad trouble here, and He can’t help but notice. He may not rush to do anything, not right away. But there will come a day, like you hear in church.”
Little Ruby didn’t keep her eyes fixed on the steps to the school house; she looked at the people who harassed and assailed her, but her eyes were fixed on God’s promise. There is bad trouble here, and God can’t help but notice. He may not rush to do anything, not right away. But there will come a day. There will come a day.
Little Ruby had learned, young as she was, that the most important question to ask in Advent is not, “When?” but “Who?” The future doesn’t belong to the haters and harassers, but to the One who is coming.
About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
When, we do not know, but be believe that the One who is coming is the same who has come and who is with us always, to the end of the age. We see great courage in Ruby and in countless others who have kept their eyes fixed on the promises of God in times of turmoil; it’s a courage born of deep trust that Christ has made us his own. He lived fully for the kingdom of God, and he entrusted himself completely to the faithfulness of God. He died alone on a hill that looked nothing like the mountain of the house of the Lord. He died, scorned and taunted, surrounded by swords, pierced with a spear. And there the depth of God’s commitment to us was revealed.
We didn’t start the fire in the forge where the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. God did by raising Jesus from the dead.
And so we begin the year with Advent, we begin by awaiting the fullness of him who was, who is, and who is to come. The future doesn’t belong to the haters and harassers, but to him who fills all of creation with the light of his love. Through the din of Black Friday commercials and endless news of violence and war we hear the sound of days to come—and our feet pick up the rhythm and we learn the tune by heart and we hum the new song as we go up the road of hope. Come! Come let us walk in the light of the Lord!
 Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986) 22-24.