Tuesday Week 2 of Advent

I would not be a happy sheep. No matter how comforting and homely that shepherds voice, no matter the promise of protection from wolves, no matter the assurance of food in the belly and warmth at night. No matter—because I would know that in the end I would be the one on the block, on the spit, and on the table. So, good luck to that one sensible sheep who listens to the herder’s voice and still hightails it out of the flock and off on her own.
Voices can be confusing. They can be deceptive. They can be prophetic. Ambrose, as military governor goes to the church to quell a riot between rival factions fighting over who is to be the next bishop of Milan and words of such soothing eloquence issue from his lips that the voice of a child pipes up “Ambrose for Bishop!” Well, every voice there joins in … and Ambrose, Ambrose runs like hell. And to show the people how wrong they are, he indulges in a spot of impromptu torturing and whoring but to no avail—he cannot run from the people’s call.
Voices can be very confusing. If the first Isaiah was called by a vision, today we hear second Isaiah called by audition. All those voices surrounding him. And it’s hard to tell whose they are. In one sense, of course, they are all his own. He writes them, his lips utter them, and his hand shapes the ink on the page. But who is speaking? Who are the voices crying out? Only one is clear and that’s Isaiah’s own, and it’s fighting the call. “Speak tenderly, give comfort,” says the voice and Isaiah snarls back, “all flesh is grass, it withers it wilts.”
And he’s got a point. Do you believe the words given us each day of Advent? The desert will bloom, the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more poverty, no more hunger, no more dying and crying, the mountains will lie down and the valleys rise up to make a Holy Way for the coming together of all nations. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
Stirs the heart while we are here but go and read the newspaper. Never has the earth been more troubled by the presence of humanity. Never has humanity been so troubled by itself.
“Comfort, oh comfort my people,” says the voice of God. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock,” says another. But isn’t there always the haunting voice whispering that when the banquet is prepared we will be the ones on the menu.
What amazes me is that though the prophet resists the voice of his calling, though he knows only too well the tragedy of a broken people in exile from their land and their God, even so he produces some of the finest poetry of hope and consolation the world has ever heard. Poetry of such promise and eloquence, such confidence in God. And such a God! A God who not only gathers home from exile the lost tribes of Israel but makes the whole earth a home for all. Transforming the very ground under our feet and the heavens above us. Doing away with death and enmity, violence and decay, predator and prey. No more disasters. No more fear.
Do we believe it? No! But could we? Maybe …
For centuries we’ve been pursuing our own salvation at the expense of the earth’s. Hell, at the expense of the other guys! Isaiah’s voices promise us more than we want, more than we can believe—there is hope, there is consolation, there is good news—but it doesn’t come to us alone. It comes to all things or to none because our fate is tied to the planets not just in the simple sense that if we mess it up we mess up our own home but in the difficult sense that God’s dream is so much larger than our own. It’s for every created thing that creeps and crawls upon this earth and all the things that don’t even manage that. And maybe the earth knows the dream before we do, maybe it hears the promise better than we do. Maybe the earth feels the need more.
According to legend, long before that voice spoke up in the church and sealed Ambrose’s fate, when he was still a child, a swarm of bees settled on his lips, sign of the sweet words he was to live by. Sometimes the earth knows these things before we do. And if that is even a tiny bit true then this Advent we could do much worse than listen to the voices of creation yearning all around us. Listen to the silent voices of bee and grass, the long rumble of mountains, the sharp longing of the salmon heading home, the aching of Antarctic ice throwing itself into the sea. And, if we hear, when we hear, speak what we hear, speak challenge, speak comfort, speak hope, speak truth.
Ambrose said told his people that God created the universe so that all might find their life within it, the earth as common inheritance. “When you give to the poor,” he said, “you are giving them back what is their own, you are paying back a debt.” We are in debt to all things no matter how small, and somehow our fate will be theirs. But “comfort, oh comfort my people—it is God’s desire that not a single one of these little ones shall ever come to grief.”