He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2.4 (NRSV)
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and inspires our time together.
In his early 20th century anthology entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse African American writer and poet James Weldon Johnson – who also wrote the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – captures the spirit, fervor, and urgency of black preaching in seven poems. His poems recall theological themes such as the “Creation,” “The Crucifixion,” the story of Noah’s Ark, and the parable of the “Prodigal Son.” But, the seventh poem called “The Judgment Day” is where I want to focus this morning.
Johnson begins his poem with this verse:
In that great day,
People, in that great day,
God’s a-going to rain down fire.
God’s a-going to sit in the middle of the air
To judge the quick and the dead.
Early one of these mornings,
God’s a-going to call for Gabriel,
That tall, bright angel, Gabriel;
And God’s a-going to say to him: Gabriel,
Blow your silver trumpet,
And wake the living nations.
What I appreciate the most about Johnson’s poetry in God’s Trombones is its urgency. Johnson had committed to recording what was previously an oral tradition – Gospel proclamation of enslaved and marginalized black communities that spoke to what Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.” In Johnson’s “The Judgment Day,” the days of sin were numbered because God had promised to set all things right.
This fierce urgency is reflected today as we both begin again and begin anew.
Advent is a time of beginning again, a season in the life of the Church where we recall the advent – the “coming” – of Jesus Christ in the flesh 2,000 years ago, in his promise of return, and in his daily visitation. Our readings today from the prophet Isaiah, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Matthew’s Gospel all reflect this urgency, this reality that the way the world looks and works around us is not the way God desires it to be. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” Paul says. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
It seems like now is always the moment for us to wake from sleep. Now is all we have. As Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, President of Morehouse College and mentor to Dr. King, recalled in a Commencement address:
I’ve only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give an account if I abuse it,
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.
Now is the time to wake up! Now is always the time to be woke because the pervasive power of sin constantly seduces us away from God, away from one another, away from our true home in the sacred heart of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We must wake up because, “In days to come,” says the prophet, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains, and shall be raised above all the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” In days to come the things that God stands for, the things that God loves, the things that move the heart of God, the things that have the regard of Heaven will be the things we stand for, the things we love, the things that move our hearts, and the things that have our regard.
What am I trying to say? So often we think of Advent as quiet and meditative, and maybe it has developed that character. But what if we flipped Advent? What if we actively responded to the urgent call from the Gabriel’s silver trumpet? What if heard the words of the Prophet, the Apostle, and the Evangelist and woke up?
What if we recommitted to the story we are about to walk through, a story that starts with heralding the coming of Christ in the season of Advent. It continues in Christmas as we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation – the infleshing – of God who walked among us. In continues into the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate the revealing of Christ as the Light of the World to each and every human heart. It continues yet further in Lent as we contemplate the self-suffering of Christ. During Holy Week, we walk in the final, saving and suffering steps of Our Lord as he gave himself over to the worst of humanity to reveal the very best of God. The story continues in Easter where we celebrate the mystery of the Resurrection, God’s absolute final statement to hatred and death. On Pentecost, we celebrate our commissioning to carry that story out into our world. That is the journey that we are on. Over and over. Higher and higher. Deeper and deeper.
Now, we begin again and we begin anew.
Last week I had the great privilege of going to the Evangelism Matters Conference sponsored by the Forward Movement of the Episcopal Church. For those who don’t know, Evangelism is no longer a four-letter word in the Episcopal Church. In fact, it is our mandate, our call, our mission. It is who we are as the holy, baptized people of God.
In this conference, we discussed best practices, shared stories, and talked about what Evangelism is and what it is not. Most importantly, we recommitted ourselves to this necessary work. You see, as Daniel T. Niles, United Methodist Evangelist and Missionary, writes, the Christian story – our story – “is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Have you found bread?
Let me ask this more clearly: have you found in faith what you needed?
Let me ask it slightly differently: what is it about Jesus that satisfies the deepest longing of your soul?
Our mission as bearers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t simply to hoard the bread to ourselves. No. Generosity, not acquisitiveness, is a hallmark of the Kingdom of God. We are called to draw others to this bread. Our mission is to bear this bread out into the world as signposts that there is an alternate, more-holy, more-just, more-loving reality.
So as we begin again, and as we begin anew, I invite you to think about the difference Jesus has made in your life. I invite you consider what you find here. I invite you to reflect on the power of God in your life.
And then I want you to keep your eyes and ears open for ways of deepening your relationship to God this year. Signing up with an outreach group – pay attention. Enrolling in a new formation class – keep your eyes open. Maybe you want to read through the Bible this year with your family – keep your ears open. Begin thinking about what beginning again and beginning anew will mean for you and your family this year.
Johnson closes his poem “The Judgment Day” with these words:
And I hear a voice, crying, crying:
Time shall be no more!
Time shall be no more!
Time shall be no more!
And the sun will go out like a candle in the wind,
The moon will turn to dripping blood,
The stars will fall like cinders,
And the sea will burn like tar;
And the earth shall melt away and be dissolved,
And the sky will roll up like a scroll.
With a wave of his hand God will blot out time,
And start the wheel of eternity.
Sinner, oh, sinner,
Where will you stand
In that great day when God’s a-going to rain down fire?
It sounds terrifying, but hear them in concert with the Gospel of Stevie Wonder:
And now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you aways
Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky – always.
Until the ocean covers every mountain high – always.
Until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea – always.
Until we dream of life and life becomes a dream.
Beloved in Christ, eventually the relentless tide of history will cease and God will unveil the fullness of the God’s reign; but, In the meantime, we must awaken from sleep and get to work, because the Master has called us – you and I – to this sacred, urgent task, and there is a lot of work to do.
 James Weldon Johnson. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (The Viking Press; New York, 1927), 35.
 Romans 13.11
 Johnson. God’s Trombones, 56-67.
 Stevie Wonder. “As” from Songs in the Key of Life.