This is part of what I saw and heard in the School of Hard Knocks. For one of the startling things said in today’s reading from Isaiah, is that the prophet ‘saw’ this ‘word’, or message, concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Think about it; the prophet ‘saw’ the ‘word’. How does someone see a ‘word’, do you think? It is a striking illustration for us that the ‘word’ we find in the Bible is not to be regarded like the words we ordinarily use, or find, for example, in a legal document or code of conduct. Sadly some Christians are tempted to treat the ‘word’, and words, we find in the Bible in that manner. They treat the biblical ‘word’ as if it were literal, or a law code. Yet the vision in today’s passage from Isaiah, as in other parts of the Bible, is clearly not about being literal but about calling us to share in the imagination of God. The prophet, like us, cannot literally see the promise of peace and righteousness. Yet, with God’s Spirit, he can imagine it and thereby help it come into being. It is not a foregone conclusion, as if it were a done deal without human participation. For biblical prophecy, as the word ‘prophecy itself tells us linguistically, is not so much a fore-telling, as it is a forth-telling. It is more a proclamation than a prediction: a proclamation, a telling forth, of what God intends and will bring into being; and a proclamation of what we too are invited to bring forth in our faith and lives.
Seeing the ‘word’ of hope and promise, and walking in its light: theologically, that is part of what we can see in the School of Hard Knocks’. For the members of the School have many reasons to lack hope and not walk in light. Many have suffered abuse and violence. Many are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged. All are poor and struggling in various ways. Yet, with the support of the organisation of the School of Hard Knocks, they are no longer wholly crushed by their own experience of destruction and exile. Bit by bit they can find some peace and restoration. To see and hear them is to see the ‘word’ of peace and restoration coming alive, to be touched by that peace and restoration for oneself, and to be empowered to help make that peace and restoration more real for others too.
In a sense, the School of Hard Knocks is a kind of prophetic sign and witness. It grew out of the Choir of Hard Knocks, founded by the wonderful Australian choir conductor, opera singer and voice teacher Jonathon Welch. It is certainly a terrific inspiration. For it encourages us, as Christians, can learn its lessons too, as part of our Advent journey. Despite our past and present, our failings, our pain and struggles, our hard knocks, can we believe in, and live out, the hope and promise offered to us? Can we, like the prophet Isaiah, see, and act, on the ‘word’ given to us? Can we share in God’s re-imagining of our lives and world, and let that vision be born in us?
At this time of year, it is possible to be weary and downcast, even in the face of precipitate and imminent festive jollity. In contrast, our Advent themes offer us both a welcome jolt of reality and also a marvelous injection of imagination and hope. They call us to wake up, rub our tired and sleepy eyes, and see the ‘word’ of God made real among us. They inspire us to walk in that light and live it out. For, as the great early church theologian Augustine of Hippo put it, as Christians, as a Church community together, we are not a gathering of perfected saints. We are rather a school for sinners, for the stumbling as well as the striving. What matters is what we are looking at and whether we are open to God’s grace. In other words, we are called ourselves to be a School of Hard Knocks, and of Eternal Hope and re-imagination. May it be so: in the Name of Jesus, who bore the hard knocks and showed us the Way, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Advent Sunday, Year B, Sunday 27 November 2016