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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 1, 2013 The First Sunday of Advent

Scripture:  Isaiah 2:1-5


When I was young, one of my favorite toys was a kaleidoscope.  Do you remember those?  We had several different versions—longer and shorter, wider and skinnier, simpler and more complex.  My favorite one was a shiny purple cardboard tube, about a foot long and maybe an inch in diameter.  One end had a clear, flat lens, and the other end had a rounded one, almost like half of a big marble.  I never opened it up to see what was inside, but it must have contained some particular, precise combination of mirrors and beads or jewels or bits of colored glass.

If you held the flat end up to your eye and looked through it, you would see shifting, swirling, multicolored, geometric patterns.  As you turned the tube one way, the shapes would twirl and bend inward toward the center of the circle.  As you turned it the other way, they would morph in the opposite direction, out toward the edges.  It was captivating.  Some things never get old, and this was one of them.

The reason I was so enamored of this particular kaleidoscope—aside from the fact that it was purple, which was my favorite color—was that the patterns I saw changed depending on where I pointed it.  If I looked toward a window, I would see that rectangle of daylight in the kaleidoscope—refracted and rearranged, but still recognizable.  If I looked toward the quilt on my bed, I would see the colors and patterns of those fabrics—differently arranged, but still familiar.  If I looked toward a lamp or a candle flame, I would see that point of light, multiplied and reflected, dancing before my eye.

The word kaleidoscope is derived from three Greek words:  kalos, which means “beautiful,” eidos, which means “shape” or “form,” and scopeo, which means “look” or “examine.”  So, together, “observation of beautiful forms.”  Or, in the case of my favorite kaleidoscope, ordinary forms made beautiful in the observation.

That kaleidoscope gave me a different way of seeing what was around me.  It drew out new patterns.  It changed my ordinary stuff into something striking.  It turned my everyday life into something beautiful.


The prophet Isaiah lived long before kaleidoscopes had been invented.  But he didn’t need a cardboard tube, or colorful beads, or reflecting mirrors, or a prismatic glass lens, to see something beautiful in the midst of everyday life, because he had the eyes of a prophet.

The world Isaiah lived in was a difficult one.  It was torn by shifting political allegiances, devastated by violent conflicts, ground down by poverty and struggle.  Isaiah’s prophet-eyes didn’t stop him from seeing the hard realities of his world.  If you read chapter one of the book of Isaiah, before we get to today’s reading, you’ll hear about desolate, burned-out towns; about cities under siege; about untreated wounds; about greedy, corrupt rulers who are deaf to the cries of the orphan and the widow.

Isaiah saw all that, but he saw something else, too.  In the midst of all that hardship, he saw possibility.  He saw hope.  He saw God’s promise of better days to come.  Did you notice the first line of this morning’s scripture reading?  “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.”  Not, “the word that Isaiah heard,” but, “the word that Isaiah saw.”

God gave Isaiah a word of hope and consolation, and it came in the form of a vision, a glimpse of something new, like holding up a kaleidoscope and seeing familiar forms bent into new and beautiful patterns.  Isaiah saw a world in which implements of destruction are transformed into instruments of cultivation.  He saw a world in which all human conflict is resolved by divine arbitration, not by war.  He saw a world in which all nations would stream toward God, hungry to hear God’s teaching and eager to follow God’s instruction.  He saw a world in which all people would walk in the shining, glorious, beautiful light of the Lord.


Isaiah didn’t need a kaleidoscope because he had the eyes of a prophet, because he received visions directly from God.  Most of us, most of the time, are not so lucky—and that’s one reason why we need Advent.

Advent is a season of hopeful waiting and expectant watching.  It is the season when we press our noses against the window like a child anticipating a long-awaited visitor.  It is the season when we peer out like a child holding a kaleidoscope up to her eye, turning it this way and that until our everyday, ordinary lives are transformed into something beautiful—until we catch a glimpse of God’s presence breaking into our world.  The reflective spirit of the season gives us an opportunity to look with new eyes at our lives, to see where God is at work in our midst, to discern signs of hope for ourselves and for our world.

We peer through the Advent kaleidoscope until we see, in the news of a nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran, a glimpse of God’s realm where swords are beaten into plowshares.  We look and look and look until we see, in the recent votes in Illinois and Hawaii, a glimmer of God’s realm where every child of God knows that he is loved.  We turn it one way and another until we see, in the outpouring of support after the typhoon in the Philippines, a sign of assurance that disaster will not have the last word.

We peer through the prophet-eyes of Isaiah until we see, in one person’s story of recovery from addiction, a glimpse of God’s power that frees all who are captive.  We look and look and look until we see, in the courage of a widow moving forward in her life, a glimmer of God’s realm where mourning and crying and pain and death itself will be no more.  We hold that Advent kaleidoscope to our eyes until we see, in the brimming eyes of parents and grandparents as they look at a newborn baby, a snapshot of the face of God as God beholds us.


Where do you see a glimmer of hope?  Where do you see a sign of God’s presence emerging?  Where do you see the Spirit at work?  Where do you see the light of the Lord shining forth?

The kids aren’t the only ones who need a pair of Advent glasses.  This season offers an opportunity for all of us to scour the world for glimpses of hope.  So pick up that kaleidoscope and look.  Look at your everyday life and watch for God to illuminate a new pattern, something striking and beautiful shining out of what was drab and ordinary.  Look again, and again, and again, and watch the patterns shift and merge and fall into place.

For the God who cannot lie has promised to be born anew in our midst again.  Emmanuel is coming.  The Lord is near.  The Spirit is at work.  Advent may come around every year, but some things never get old, and this is one of them.