Who Wants to Talk About Virtue?
Our Isaiah passage and our psalm today are among my most beloved scriptures in the Bible.
How many of us can ever read Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel’s setting of it for Messiah?
And Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” I count as one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the Dream of God in all of scripture.
I notice a shared image between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85.
Isaiah is commanded to proclaim: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”
Psalm 85 says, “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven…and our land will yield its increase.”
These are images of plants growing up from the ground, but we notice that the result is very different in each case.
We humans are like blooming plants, but we do not last. We fade and wither, and quickly return to the Earth, our source.
What plants grow up strong and stand fast forever? The virtues or values of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.
What do we make of this? What does it have to say to us in our walk of faith?
Advent is a good time to reflect on our mortality.
It is technically a penitential season, which means it is our opportunity to reflect on sin and death.
As grim as that seems, we don’t reflect on sin and death to be morbid or self-abasing. We do it because it helps us gain needed perspective, to see ourselves as those flowers that fade and the grass that is cut down.
And what’s the purpose of that?
To teach us to cherish every moment we have in this mortal life, and also to remember that no matter how big the mistakes and regrets we have, they too are as fleeting and mortal as the grass in the sweep of the long story of our loving and forgiving God.
So we learn from our texts that virtue lasts: truth, righteousness, mercy, and peace.
What does that actually mean?
It means that what we dedicate ourselves to putting out into the world has an enduring effect.
There’s a saying attributed to several different people: “People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
The cultivation of virtue in our lives is an old-fashioned and unpopular pursuit in an age of self-actualization and rigid fidelity to the authenticity of our feelings.
But as valuable as those pursuits are, we are supposed to be in a process of sanctification. We are supposed to be growing up into the full stature of Christ.
That means being changed over time.
That means moving from being less loving to becoming more loving.
That means setting aside our own wishes and desires and feelings sometimes to do the right thing, the kind thing, the generous thing.
That is the pursuit of virtue.
And don’t let the word “virtue” scare you.
We tend to associate it with either Victorian prudery or Calvinist self-righteous severity.
But the origin of the word goes back to the Old French word vertu, which means “valor or merit,” and from that, all the way back to the Latin vir, which means “man.”
I interpret that to mean that “virtue” is nothing more than having the courage to become fully human, embodying all that God dreams of our being.
The wonderful thing is that our failure at attaining virtue is already built into the plan.
God tells us over and over again in scripture that we are cherished and beloved exactly as we are, and as Bishop Lee of Chicago says, God loves us far too much to leave us that way.
So one way of looking at the life of faith is as the process of the Holy Spirit slowly drawing out of our depths all the beautiful virtues—truth, mercy, peace and righteousness.
And those virtues—not our own efforts or self-congratulation—are what make the good work we are given to do have a lasting impact.
The presence of God in what we are led to do is what keeps what we leave to this world from fading away like the flowers of the field.
What else lasts according to our texts? The Word of God.
That means several different things to us.
First and foremost, it means Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word Made Flesh.
It also means the corpus of Holy Scripture.
But we see it in smaller, more subtle ways, any time we lend ourselves to proclaiming or hearing God in our everyday lives.
The Word of God, in order to be a Word, requires two things: a speaker and a listener.
We have the opportunity to be both in this life. What does that take?
Most of us are pretty comfortable with listening to the Word of God.
We pay attention to the scriptures as they’re read in church, and we may have our own spiritual discipline of Bible reading and study.
But remember that listening for the Word of God is much broader than that.
Listening for the Word of God means paying attention to where Jesus shows up in our lives every day.
That could be in the kind word of a colleague, the laughter of our child, even the cleansing tears wept with a friend over a shared grief.
So we understand how to listen for the Word of God. But do we see ourselves as speakers of the Word of God?
God lends God’s voice to us any time we open ourselves to be vessels of grace.
We can pray every single morning to be made use of by God that day, for the Holy Spirit to act through us as a Consoler, a Comforter, even a Proclaimer of Justice.
And this brings us back around to our original question: if virtues like peace, truth and mercy are what really lasts in life, how do we welcome God to bring them forth in our lives?
By paying attention to the Word of God, from the most literal sense of reading scripture to the subtle, everyday spiritual discipline of opening ourselves to listening to and speaking the Word of God each day.
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever,” Isaiah says.
If we long for mercy and truth to meet together in our hearts, for righteousness and peace to kiss each other in our lives, we must root ourselves in the Word of God in every possible way.
Why does all this matter particularly in the season of Advent?
Because the Word of God spoken through humanity is the trigger for it all.
Listen to the words in our gospel, which Mark takes from Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
And then John appears in the wilderness with his proclamation.
Isaiah, John, Mark–they all have said “yes” to being vessels of the Word of God.
And this takes place in the wilderness, where we expect nothing to grow, where we expect everything to fade and wilt and die like the flowers and grass Isaiah names.
Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mark all know that in the wilderness, nothing fragile like small, selfish human priorities will last. Only the great Voice of God proclaiming truth, righteousness, mercy and peace will take root and grow.
And so they agree to be vessels of the Word of God, molded by the virtues and graces of the Holy Spirit to speak the message of the coming Christ.
They are preparing us to walk the path of the greatest vessel of the Word of God, the one who bore him in her own body, Mary the Mother of Jesus.
She said yes to the greatest and most lasting virtue of all being planted, rooted and grown within her: Love.
She heard then agreed to speak Love into the world. We have the chance to do the same every day.
Isaiah wonders at first how to live out his call as a Vessel of the Word. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’”
Now we know.
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