November 27, 2016 — First Sunday of Advent
Rev. Alison Quin
Advent Reflection on Jerusalem
Last spring, when I went on a pilgrimage to Israel, we landed in Tel Aviv and met our tour guide and bus driver, and drove to Jerusalem. We were staying at St. George’s Guesthouse, which is connected to the Cathedral for the Diocese of Jerusalem. After we rested a while, we walked around the Old City, which was beautiful and ancient. We actually saw Herod’s Gate—it’s still there. And many parts of the city date back centuries before Herod.
We crashed early after a long trip. The next morning, we gathered for morning prayer in the Cathedral. Our opening psalm was Psalm 122, which we just heard. “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
Like the millions of pilgrims who had traveled there before us, we were overwhelmed to be in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a holy site for 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and 14 million Jews around the world.
In Jesus’ time, and long before, Jews were required to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great festivals of their faith. This psalm is what is called a psalm of ascent, meaning that they would sing it as they ascended the hill on which the city stands.
“I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem—built as a city at unity with itself, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”
This is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. We have completed the pilgrimage of the last year, and it is time to begin our journey of faith once more. The readings urge us to wake up, to renew our faith and hope and trust in God. From the Letter to the Romans: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.”
But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. The life of faith requires us to reckon with the reality around us. At the very moment I was giving thanks for being in the holy city of Jerusalem, I was aware that it is not a city at unity with itself—far from it. The city itself is divided into quarters: the Christian quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. (BTW, Armenians are Christians, but they are the most ancient group of Christians and they get their own quarter). And we drove from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on a highway that runs through Palestinian territory, but is forbidden to Palestinians. There is a high fence with concertina wire on both sides of the highway, and we had to pass through a security checkpoint where armed guards checked our passports and interrogated our driver and our guide. Palestinians who have to travel to Jerusalem for work have to use other, smaller roads.
The contrast between the joy and beauty of the life of faith, and the divisions and violence that hurt and destroy God’s people was in evidence everywhere on our trip. But Israel is not alone in being a mass of contradictions—to be human is to live in the midst of such contradictions.
People blame religion for the violence in the world, and certainly people have committed many acts of violence in the name of God. And there are parts of the Bible in which God is portrayed as commanding violence.
But the Bible moves steadily toward an understanding that God’s vision for us is peace, with justice. This is especially clear in the prophets and the New Testament, and is beautifully expressed in today’s reading from Isaiah:
“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Who knows how much worse the world would be without a God-given vision of peace? Christians are now less than 1% of the population of Israel-Palestine, and yet they have an outsized impact on the area. They run 35 schools, hospitals and clinics, serving a population with little access to education or health care. They host interfaith dialogue groups and seek reconciliation. And they sponsor a camp called Kids4Peace, which brings Jewish and Muslim kids together to build friendships and help them to see another perspective. The Archbishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem described the Christian presence in the Holy Land as “precious and precarious.”
To be a person of faith is to look at the past and look at the present, and trust that neither the past nor the present determine the future. We must face the reality around us, the divisions in our own country, with realism and determination. For that matter, we must face the reality of our own lives, our inner divisions and strife. But that reality does not define us and does not limit the possibilities. We are Easter people in an Advent world.
The future belongs to God and God is not limited by the past or the present. God chooses to forgive sins and allow us to become new people. God chooses life, not death, and invites us to embrace life as well, for ourselves and for every living thing. God has a goal for history: a world in which swords are hammered into plowshares, and war is no more.
As you begin your pilgrimage this year, remember that the past does not define you. Trust in God, who came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. Hope in the future that God has shown us in Christ and in the sacred word of Scripture. Pray for the unity and justice and peace of the world. Keep awake and alert for God’s call to you, for the ways in which you can be peace in the world and a sign of hope. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”