When Alice fell through the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, she was convinced that she had fallen right through the earth and was destined to come out where people would be upside down. She referred to such reversals as Antipathies—though she did wonder whether or not that was the right word. Alice may not have chosen the correct word, but she was on target when it came to identifying the way we feel when our world is turned upside down. That is, of course, when the reversal that we experience resembles the collapse of the stock market. We would be overcome by entirely different emotions if we had won the lottery. When she finally landed, Alice discovered that the world was not upside down, but it certainly was out of proportion to her size. She had to change, to get smaller in order to enter that mysterious world.
The Third Sunday of Advent invites us into a world of reversals, a world where the captives are freed, where the hungry are filled and where the rich are sent away empty. It is certainly a world where things are turned upside down. From the point of view of social order, such reversals could be considered Antipathies. But from God’s point of view, they are the signs of transformation. In order to appreciate the strength of today’s message from Isaiah, we must remember that he was speaking to people who were dispossessed, people in need of a message of hope, a promise of some kind of economic reversal. This same description of reversal is found in the passage from Luke. There we see that the lowly enjoy the blessings that God promised long ago.
It is not that God wants to make us unhappy by turning our world upside down. Rather, God offers us the possibility of a new world. The Wonderland to which we are invited is not some mad tea party attended by an array of strange guests. It is a world established in justice and peace, a world in which all will hear the glad tidings of salvation. It is a world in which everyone can enjoy the happiness of the bride and bridegroom or relish the fruits of the luxurious garden. The dramatic metaphors that Isaiah employs are not meant simply to be poetic flights of fancy. They capture the essence of what we are experiencing internally far better than straightforward prose can. A wedding is certainly a sign of new and transformative life, just as a sumptuous garden typifies bountiful sustenance.
In order to enter the mysterious new world that lies before us, like Alice, we might have to undergo some kind of change. Paul is conscious of our need of transformation, for he prays that the God of peace will make us perfectly holy, blameless at the coming of the Lord. In line with this thinking, the basis of the preaching of John the Baptist is repentance. His message today is the same as it was last week: Make straight the way of the Lord! Get rid of any obstacle that might deter his arrival. Eliminate from your lives the greed that impoverishes others, the arrogance that tries to set you above the rest, the power that makes you abusive, the selfishness that turns you in on your own concerns alone. Today we are all aware of the destructive evil that such attitudes have spawned. We suffer the consequences of their corrosive power. But our faith reminds us that we do not have to remain victims of these forces.
There is a far better way of living in the world, and on this Third Sunday of Advent we stand at its threshold. The question, however, is: Are we willing to step forward? Or are we afraid to have our world turned upside down? Are we the poor who will hear the good news of reversal, or are we the ones responsible for their poverty? Are we the brokenhearted who will be healed, or have we broken their hearts? Are we the captives who will be freed, or are we the captors who have restrained them? On what side of the reversals do we find ourselves?
Advent is a time to search our hearts, to discover where, both individually and as a community, we need to change. It is a time of expectation, for we are told that there is one who has the power to heal our personal brokenness, to heal our fractured families, to heal our troubled church, to heal our bleeding world. Paul tells us that he is coming; John tells us that he is already in our midst. His presence among us should make us rejoice; the saving power that he brings should give us confidence. If we open our hearts to this saving power, we can indeed transform our society; we can renew our church, we can work toward peace in the world—we can turn our world upside down.