Lent & Advent


Carolyn Matthews

December 10, 2022

Broken-String Advent

Jim Brenneman

(Rev. Dr. James E. Brenneman is president of the Berkeley School of Theology, Berkeley, CA)


Isaiah 52:3-10 (NRSVUE)

For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money. For thus says the Lord God: Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. Now therefore what am I doing here, says the Lord, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers howl, says the Lord, and continually, all day long, my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name; on that day they shall know that it is I who speak—it is I!


How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy,
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth; shout together for joy,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God


The great violinist Itzhak Perlman contracted polio when he was four years old. Ever since, he has struggled through life with leg braces and crutches. He has every right to be a cynic – a man confined, embittered by his trauma. When he plays a concert, he slowly makes his way across the stage, sits in his chair, undoes his braces, picks up his violin, then nods to the conductor that he is ready. It is an arduous process, but worth the wait. If you have ever heard him play or speak, he is one of the most enthusiastic, cheerful, souls you’ll ever encounter. How beautiful are his immobile feet, that bring good news, life-affirming music, to every valley and upon every mountain they tread.


If you’re like me, given present-day realities – like debilitating disease, the war in Ukraine, lingering effects of COVID, waves of increasing violence – this year’s advent season brings with it enough sorrow, pain, anguish, and heartache to last a lifetime. So, when I hear Isaiah’s cheerful words in verse 7: “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news (of happiness), and then invites us to “shout for joy,” I want to say, “Excuse me, prophet! You sound a bit like that old Bobby McFerrin song, ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’ in the middle of Kyiv right now.”


And yet, I am moved by the fact that Isaiah acknowledges the pain and trauma of his world. Clearly, Isaiah is no naïve optimist. Nor is he a cynic. In the opening lines of this advent reading, (verses 3-6), Isaiah rehearses Israel’s long history of bondage to foreign powers reminding them of their oppression as slaves in Egypt, then, again, as refugees under Assyrian rule and now, living under Babylonian captivity. He’s writing as a realist because he, too, has experienced refugee-status. He knows the cruelty of tyrants. He knows the kinds of vicious power that beats people down, crucifies innocents, shoots kids in their classrooms, or bombs old folks in their sleep. Indeed, in the very next chapter (53), he describes a litany of abuse the people as a collective have endured using these words: despised, rejected, suffered, infirm, diseased, stricken, wounded, crushed, bruised, punished, oppressed, afflicted, slaughtered, cut off, pain, anguish, and death. Isaiah knows of bad news!


However, for Isaiah in a world where God reigns (verse 7), bad news, though real, is temporary. The last word belongs to God, and that word is good news!  The people are seeing (verse 8): “in plain sight, the return of the LORD to Zion.” Soon they will be returning to their homeland, where they’ll experience political salvation. There will be dancing in the street, toppling of statues, honking horns, shouts of joy!


I’m struck by how contagious such good news can be. In verse 7 the beautiful feet belong to only one messenger who initially comes on his own announcing peace, bringing good news to a traumatized people. Before long, (verse 8) the sentinels” lift their (plural) voices and “together they sing for joy.” And then, before long (verse 9) “all of the ruins of Jerusalem,” a whole choir, are invited to “break forth together in singing.”


When we look around our world, with its own set of bad-news experiences, it’s hard not to feel like a three-stringed violin, crippled in song and speech. The bridge between cynicism and hope seems like a chasm too wide to bridge. And yet, Itzhak Perlman, like the prophet Isaiah, learned to bridge that gap.


On November 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman played a concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. That night, he crossed the stage, reached his chair, undid his braces, nodded to the conductor, and the music began. A few bars into the concert, one of the strings of the violin broke. Everyone heard it snap and assumed he would exchange instruments or find another violin. But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes, and signaled the conductor that he was ready. The orchestra began, and Perlman played the whole symphony with just three strings. He modulated, changed, and recomposed the piece in his head. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. Then everyone rose and cheered. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience, and said, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”


In this season of Advent, perhaps, it’s our task as followers of Christ, to find out how much music we can still make in a broken world of deep sadness’s. I believe the gospel of Isaiah, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of Itzhak, the gospel of peace, calls us to reach for that vision of a flourishing life, even when we can’t always see it or feel it. Let us reach forward to reconciliation; reach toward justice, and wholeness, and human flourishing. The gospel is the good news of Advent precisely because it’s a word of hope coming out of pain, suffering, tragedy, and the cross, even death itself. Advent is all about the music you can still make with whatever gifts and graces that you have left.


Prayer:  Lord God of this Advent season, let us be messengers of your peace to a world longing for good news. May we sing the songs of hope, announce the good news of your reign, so that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.”