Growing up, I wasn’t around seafaring vessels. I suppose that’s true for a lot of people from the Central Midwest. The crick on the farm in Kansas wasn’t big enough to float anyone’s boat. So, I was more than grown before I found out I am prone to that nauseating, mind-numbing feeling of seasickness. A friend talked me into making the ferry ride from the shores of Connecticut to Block Island, Rhode Island. When we pulled out, the ocean looked placid, but as soon as we were out of the harbor, the water started churning, and so did my stomach.
My friend, seeing how green I was looking, gave me space – or deserted me- depending on your perspective. It was a crewmember who took pity on me. Go up to the top deck, he said and followed me up the steps as I pitched from side to side. Go there to the front. Stand at the railing. I suspected he was just making sure I wouldn’t get the floors dirty. Look out, he said then, “as far as you can.” I lifted my head, and queasily tried to focus. Focus on the horizon. The horizon is always there, and it is always steady. Now, just act like you are already standing on dry ground.
I didn’t feel perfect. But I didn’t lose my breakfast. My stomach felt a little more settled, my head a bit clearer. I knew there was solid land just over the horizon – and despite the winds and white caps around me – I believed I would get there.
The world in which the prophet Isaiah lived was tossing the nation of Israel about, like a ship on unsettled seas. The nation lived in a storm that buffeted it about between mighty Assyrians to the north and east and threatening Egyptians to the south and west. Waves of worry washed over the people as the king and other leaders scrambled to protect themselves – more than the nation.
During these rough times, people tried to quell the nausea of their fear. Material possessions became the focus of attention. Families wanted to be confident they had what they needed to make it through the tough times, even if it meant others did not. “Women and children first” was no motto for filling the lifeboats in this crisis. It was “every man for himself.” The waters foamed and tossed the neediest about – orphans, widows, the chronically ill. The soul of a nation was drowning in the chaos of the storm in which it lived.
During this turmoil, the prophet Isaiah spoke. He spoke with the authority of God’s vision.
Look! He said. Focus far ahead. Look at the horizon. There on the shore of this turbulent time is the mountain of the house of Lord.
It will rise up. The highest of mountains. People of all races will look to it. They will say to one another: Let us make our way together to the mountain of the Lord. The Lord will teach us the right ways to live so we can live the way we were made. God will settle things fairly between nations and make things right between many peoples. The people – do you see it? Weapons of war will be turned from harm to the harvest. Nation will no longer battle against nation. There will be no more schools of war.
The book of the prophet Isaiah unflinchingly laid out the consequences of accumulating wealth among the wealthy, neglecting the needs of the poor, abandoning worship in favor of idolatry and building up. Yet Isaiah believed completely that the sickness which draws into a whirlpool of violence and injustice can be stopped. Isaiah was encouraging us to live as if we are standing on dry ground right now.
When people beat swords and spears into productive implements, the storms of war and chaos diminish. They don’t disappear, just yet, but we have hope.
It takes the willingness to point each other to the horizon of hope to quell the sickness that swells around us.
Focus far ahead. Feel new ground beneath your feet. Hope for the future. Live so it will become a reality. Those are the fundamental paradoxes of Advent. We know that Jesus Christ has come. We wait for Christ to come again.
A surprising place to see this paradoxical reality at fruitful work is in prisons. Inmates live in a storm of gale force proportions. Often, they have lived there for years, even decades before finding themselves incarcerated. It is only by looking to the far horizon that they can still the storms of anger, recrimination, guilt, and fear that wash over them. It is only by living as if they are already walking on that solid ground that they can be prepared for the future for which they hope.
Liz Milner is a prison chaplain who works with inmates, leading them through a process to write about their hopes and their present using poetry. Liz says that the first step is for an inmate to remember, acknowledge, and face where he or she has come from and where they are now. Then the inmates are invited to look ahead, with hope, to what each long for and what God has promised.
She invites us to listen to these words from D. D. lost almost everything but lives with courage, honesty, and hope.
I am from the front yard.
I am from gunshots, running from cops.
I am from a broken home.
I am from a weed plant with foul smoke if you hit it you would choke.
I am from BBQs that end in fights and cops come and someone goes to jail tonight.
I am from where the fear of God is not number one.
I am from soups and beans were what we had and if you cried you got slapped.
I am from drug task force kicking in the door.
I am from gunshots at our house, cops coming, someone hit.
But that’s not the end of my story…
I am to a loving wife.
I am to showing my wife that I am worth her love.
I am to being better than I was.
I am to God’s loving hands.
I am to never hurting my family again and making up for what I have done.
I am to better days where people see people for people not color or race
and gangs see people not red or blue.
I am to the best I can be, now and until I meet God.
We are all from a stormy world. But that’s not the end of the story. We have been tossed about by powers we cannot control. We have been caught in a fury of conditions that we have created for ourselves. We have been sickened by what we see. But that’s not the end of our story. We are going to God’s loving hands. We are going to God’s good vision.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that hope is the belief in the promised vision of God. It is far ahead and is right now. When we focus on what God is bringing about in the gift of Jesus Christ, we live as people who are standing on solid ground. Then we can help one another to quell the sickness in our souls, our communities, and the world.
Focus far ahead on the horizon of hope. Live as if you are already standing on God’s holy ground.