Advent Reflections

Building something beautiful with God

Isaiah 26:1-6
Psalm 118:19-24
Matthew 7:21-27

Last week, twelve priests were arrested in the US for reading Bible verses in the senate office building as an act of protest. The verses were some of the over 2,000 verses about God’s love and care for the poor. Today’s readings challenge us to think about the role that the poor, the oppressed, and the rejected play in God’s plan for the world. They tell of a world of reversal and transformation, where the high and mighty are brought low and the vulnerable and rejected are the foundation of a new and beautiful city.

 

In the translation I looked at, this passage from Isaiah is titled ‘Judah’s Song of Victory’. It opens with a comforting vision of a secure city with strong walls, victorious and righteous. People are at peace because of their trust in God. But as soon as we get comfortable with this image of safety, the prophet tells us that this victory has been achieved thanks to God casting down other lofty cities, not through military might or material wealth, but by trampling them into dust under “the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy”. God has brought about a strange victory. And as people who sit in secure homes with strong walls, we might find this passage a source of unease rather than peace.

 

Yet in the next passage, a familiar section from the Psalms, we hear that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”. We understand this to be Jesus. He was rejected, tortured, his life extinguished, yet he became the foundation of all our hopes for healing, for relationship with God, and for new life for all. I think I’m probably not alone in finding this passage very easy to celebrate and feel comfortable about. But when we read it following on the heels of the reading from Isaiah, it becomes more challenging.

 

Jesus was victorious in his weakness. How do we treat the people we perceive as weak? Jesus shared food and spent time with people who nobody else thought was worth speaking to. How do we treat those same people? Are we building a city where the victory of the poor is a welcome event? Can we look at instances where God raises up the vulnerable and the weak and genuinely say “this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?” Do we build our lives and our societies in such a way that good news for the poor is good news for us? Or in contrast, do we view ourselves as being in competition with other people, and celebrate our victories when they come at the expense of others?

 

The answers matter. In our final passage, we hear that having great faith doesn’t matter if we don’t act on it. Acting on the words we hear from Jesus is like building our house on a rock. This is the last of three building metaphors: we have a song of victory for a city of righteousness that stands after others have been trampled to dust; a rejected stone becoming the cornerstone; and a firm home built on the rock. These passages tell us the kind of world that God is building. What are we building? Are we working alongside God, or are we working to different ends, with different values?

This is a challenge that I need to hear. I have a comfortable middle-class life. I don’t find social justice work easy. It’s not my passion, and it’s not my gift. I am much more comfortable to write a cheque and stay in the background. So what does celebrating the good news that God loves the poor and the vulnerable look like in my life right now? It looks like taking a leap of faith and getting involved with refugee sponsorship. It looks like saying hello to everyone (and I mean everyone!) I walk past with my daughter on our morning walk to daycare, and teaching her to call everyone she sees “neighbour”. It looks like keeping a stash of Tim’s cards and bus tickets in my wallet, and not ignoring neighbours who ask for help. I’m sure most of us have a similar cluster of small acts we do to try and respond to the poverty and suffering we see around the block and around the world. The hope that I take from today’s readings is that all of these different things we do as we try to live up to God’s call… even if we screw them up, even if they’re not enough, even if our good intentions lead us to dead ends now and again… are open doors for God to come into our lives, and take all of our small offerings, and gather them together into something beautiful and beyond what we could ask or imagine. These readings tell us to look at what we are doing. But they also tell us to look at what God is doing and has been doing all along. God has been subverting expectations. God has been transforming the world. Strange as it might feel to claim to be part of something that big, that’s the opportunity we have through our faith. Advent feels like the right time of year to open ourselves up to change and transformation. May God help us to take concrete steps to start building something beautiful.

Alison Hurlburt

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