by The Rev. John Roop
Daily Lectionary Reading for December 7th: AM Psalms 148, 149, 150; PM Psalms 114, 115; Isaiah 5:1-7; 2 Peter 3:11-18; Luke 7:28-35
The nave is bathed in flickering candlelight. As the service of Advent Lessons and Carols draws to a close, the children’s choir begins to sing Silent Night, after which the congregation will depart in reverent silence. The children’s final line – Christ the Savior is born – still echoes, still paints each face with a gentle smile when, unexpectedly the musicians continue to play. Something is wrong, though. The music, while still recognizable as Silent Night, has changed to a minor key. The children begin to sing an additional, somber verse:
Silent night, fearful night
Infants hiding, out of sight
Herod’s soldiers to Bethlehem come
Turn each nursery into a tomb
Where is heavenly peace?
There is no heavenly peace.
This gentle song of peace and joy has turned sinister and the congregants are rightly confused, even a bit angry at the bitter twist of the lyrics.
It was the time of the grape harvest in Israel, a time of joy and celebration and singing. All the workers knew the vineyard songs as well as we know Silent Night; they sang them with rejoicing every year. And as they sang of the vineyard, they knew they sang also of Israel, the choice vine planted and tended by God himself, secure in its walled vineyard. It would perhaps not be surprising when the prophet Isaiah joined in the song with them, leading them in a verse.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes (Is 5:1-2, ESV except as noted).
So far, so good: this was the familiar song, the comforting lyric. But suddenly everything changed as Isaiah shifted to a minor key and twisted the lyrics out of shape:
he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry! (Is 5:2b-7)
The song of harvest rejoicing had turned sinister and the workers were rightly confused, even a bit angry at the bitter twist of the lyrics and at the prophet who sang them.
What is the lesson for us in this chosen text, in this strange Advent song? At least this: Advent is no time for sentimental half-truths; it is a time for honesty, sometimes brutal in its force, a time for self-examination, and a time for repentance. Yes, Herod’s soldiers did shatter the gentle, silent night of Bethlehem with the king’s jealous rage, a clear sign that evil is alive and well in the world and perhaps sometimes even in ourselves. Yes, God did pronounce judgment on his beloved vineyard Israel, destroy Jerusalem, and condemn his people to exile, a clear sign that God has dealt with and will deal with sin and with those who resolutely oppose his will. The baby who entered the silent night of Bethlehem is the Savior who dealt with sin on the hard wood of the cross, and, Advent reminds us, the Judge who is to come and who will destroy sin and death forever. And, on that great and final day, when sin has been utterly vanquished, the sometimes bitter songs of Advents past will give way to the triumphant songs of Advent eternal:
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.
Let Israel rejoice in his Maker;
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise his Name in the dance;
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.
For the LORD takes pleasure in his people
and adorns the poor with victory.
Let the faithful rejoice in triumph (Ps 149: 1-5a, BCP 1979).
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.