We tend to identify ourselves by our faults and weaknesses. Past failures and present flaws loom large in the mirror. But when Jesus is baptized as one of us, it is not this “self” he affirms. We bring this brokenness to the waters, but God gathers and guides us through those waters.
With all the yearnings and warnings of the prophets in your imagination, read today from the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel:
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Before she was in labor
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her—
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.
Our Rest and Consolation
In a 12th-century Advent sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux taught that there are three “advents” or “comings” of the Lord. We are certainly familiar with two: his birth in the flesh and his return to restore all things. The whole tension of Advent is that we live in between these two arrivals, but Bernard of Clairvaux proposes a third arrival in the meantime:
“The intermediate coming is a hidden one…Listen to what our Lord himself says: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him. There is another passage of Scripture which reads: He who fears God will do good, but something further has been said about the one who loves, that is, that he will keep God’s word. Where is God’s word to be kept? Obviously in the heart, as the prophet says: I have hidden your words in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.
Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.
The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.
They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame—
those who trust in carved images,
who say to cast images,
“You are our gods.”
Listen, you that are deaf;
and you that are blind, look up and see!
The Advent season provides us a time to “be still” and know that God is God. Verse fourteen states, “For a long time I have kept silent. I have been quiet and held myself back.” Perhaps we should step back and realize there were four hundred years of “silence” between the last of the prophets and the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Amazing how we tend to rush toward Christmas. By November, lights are already appearing in various places. Halloween stuff is being replaced by Christmas décor and shopping for just the appropriate gifts for those on our lists. But Advent reminds us to contemplate the arrival of God’s greatest gift to humanity, his one and only Son. John tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” May we pause and reflect, even meditate on the first great doctrine of the Christian faith: The Incarnation. Yesuah/Jesus, whose name means “YHWH Saves,” is unique among all the “founders” of the world’s three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I first came to Peachtree under the ministry of Dr. Jim Collins. One of the things I recall he often said, “At Peachtree, we are not about “religion.” Religion kills people. Jesus brings people together.”
As in many ways we rush toward Christmas, Advent provides a “holy hush”—a time of introspection, illumination, and reflection as each candle of the Advent wreath reminds us of the entry of the Light into this sin-darkened world. Isaiah entreats us: “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth. You who go down to the sea and all that is in it, you islands and all who live them. Let the desert and its town raise their voices rejoice….let them shout from the mountain tops, Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his name…he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.”
by Rev. Bob Tyler
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
A Covenant Remains
One of the foundational principles throughout Scripture comes into view in understanding the difference between a covenant and a contract. Whereas a contract is voided if one party violates the agreed terms, a covenant remains. God’s covenant with Israel emerges as a promise that endures despite Israel’s repeated follies. The text of Jeremiah 31 plainly acknowledges that the people have broken their promise—their covenant. And yet, here again, God acts to renew his promise that had been made in the past. God will be faithful even still.
In renewing this covenant promise, the text of Jeremiah speaks of what it would look like for Israel to take its pledge and promise to heart. With prophetic urgency, now is the time for the people to live with unwavering commitment. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, the intent is for this renewed covenant to be: “as readily accepted as breathing and eating. Israel will practice obedience because it belongs in Israel’s character to live in this way.”
In the end, the fact that the “new covenant” is not to be like the “old covenant” is not a word about God having given up on his people. God has always been faithful—the point is for the people to stay true to their word in their next iteration. Jeremiah’s text is a declaration that imagines what it would be like for the people to keep up their promises—to live out their love of God and neighbor in ways that are earnest and heartfelt.
Let us take Jeremiah’s proclamation to heart in our own age. Let us, too, renew our promises to be faithful in what we say and how we live.
And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of daughter Zion,
to you it shall come,
the former dominion shall come,
the sovereignty of daughter Jerusalem.
Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pangs have seized you like a woman in labor?
Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion,
like a woman in labor;
for now you shall go forth from the city
and camp in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued,
there the Lord will redeem you
from the hands of your enemies.
Now many nations
are assembled against you,
saying, “Let her be profaned,
and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.”
But they do not know
the thoughts of the Lord;
they do not understand his plan,
that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor.
Arise and thresh,
O daughter Zion,
for I will make your horn iron
and your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples,
and shall devote their gain to the Lord,
their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.
A Woman in Labor
As I read the writings of the prophet Micah, the echoes of salvation are heard beyond the groans of lament. I envision, Mary, the mother of Jesus responding to Micah with these words.
Micah: “Is there no king in you?”
Mary: “But, oh yes there is!”
Micah: “Has your counselor perished that pangs have seized you?”
Mary: “These pangs that seize me are needed to save you.”
Micah: “Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion!”
Mary: “My groans give birth to rejoicing!”
Micah: “For now you go shall go forth from the city and camp in the open country!”
Mary: “We have left our home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. In the country, God has met me!”
Micah: “There you shall be rescued!”
Mary: “Yes, there we have been rescued”
Micah: “There the Lord will redeem you.”
Mary: “The Lord will surely redeem us.”
Micah: “They do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan.”
Mary: “His plan is that the salvation of all must come from the suffering of one.”
by Kim Bolden
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
God’s Got this
The prophet wrote these words at a time when the people of Judah lived under the might of the conquering Assyrian Empire. He reminds the enslaved people that earthly powers cannot defeat the power of God. “I will trust, and not be afraid.”
Today, whether we are worried about national and global news or something personal that is devastating and life changing, we know that it is no small thing to stare uncertainty in the face and say, “I will trust, and not be afraid.”
Verse three reminds us that God's “got this,” whatever the problem. God’s “wells of salvation” makes it possible to choose trust instead of fear when the day brings situations and events beyond our control. My mother knew this, and she often went to God’s
“wells” that sustained and fortified her spirit of joy. When Mother faced death, she did not waver. She said, “I am not afraid.” She calmly passed over into God’s embrace.
During Advent, we wait for the day when God's salvation will come to us in all its fullness. "Do not be afraid," the angel will say, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”.
As we look toward Christmas, let’s all go to the “well” just as those who went before us. We will trust God and not be afraid. We will “shout aloud and sing for joy” and together proclaim to all who would hear: “Great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel."
by Rev. Nancy Oliver
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
The Earth Will Be Full
This has long been for me one of the most moving visions of the prophets. A few years ago, my wife actually did a couple paintings inspired by Isaiah 11. One of a cow and bear grazing together was given to a friend. Another of children playing with snakes hung unfinished in our dining room for a time, startling nearly every new visitor to our home. The sight of something delicate delighting in something dangerous.
It seems an absurd dream, but prophets are not strategists. What they offer is not a ten-step plan but tantalizing poetry. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined.”
Prophets bend and break our expectations for what is possible. Hurt and destruction seem inevitable. Predator and prey are locked in an unending dance. We not only accept but expect headlines of another mass shooting, another kidnapped child, another public scandal. We do not know a world without hostility, violence, and death. But we shall.
Isaiah has already envisioned weapons of war being beaten into farming tools (2:4). Human violence will end. Now, even the animal world is turned upside down. The dynamic of death that seems to sustain the natural world will disappear.
This vision reminds us that the “judgment” dimension of Christ’s coming is not a narrow matter of sorting out sins and punishments. It is about filling the whole earth together with the incredible peace and complete knowledge of the Lord. May his kingdom come.
The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
—except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.
For lo, I will command,
and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
but no pebble shall fall to the ground.
All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
who say, “Evil shall not overtake or meet us.”
On that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,
says the Lord who does this.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.
Fast and Feast
For the better part of Christian history, Advent has been seen and practiced as a season of fasting. Just as Lent is a period of preparation for Easter, so Advent was a fast before the feast of Christmas. It has even been called a “little Lent.” We have obviously lost hold of this pattern in our own culture, but the rhythm of this passage invites us back into it.
Yesterday’s passage predicted famine—not of food but of God’s Word. But here Amos assures us that this famine will not last forever. Feasting will return; our tables will be filled. Just as “the time is surely coming” for wandering and fasting, so “the time is surely coming” when wine will flow. God’s Word will not only be spoken. it will take on flesh and blood.
Such a mystery—Word of God made flesh—is so beyond our capacity to comprehend and control that it is indisputably “the Lord who does this,” not us. The Lord is clear: “I will restore the fortunes…I will plant them upon their land.” Restoration, joy, and fruitfulness come as a holy surprise in the midst of our fasting, a surprise to which we can only respond with gratitude. The Incarnation of God interrupts injustice, sorrow, and hopelessness to bring new life out of the ground.
The time is surely coming when we will fast.
The time is surely coming when we will feast.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
Who Will you help?
The prophet Amos delivers fierce warnings to God’s people. In chapter 8, he blasts out a furious message from God that rails against trampling on the poor and needy in a heartless quest for profit. It seems some of the people in his time were grumbling against the religious holy days because they interrupted commerce. They were impatient to get back to business, even in some cases to shady business with ruthless tactics.
Cleary, the situation has now flipped, and business and busy-ness control the pace of Advent. Commerce dominates the seasonal messages of our holy days. “What do you want for Christmas?” is the dominant question this time of year.
And yet, just imagine if that mantra were switched from “what do you want” to something like “who will you help this Christmas?” What if we swap some of the objects we want for actions we’ll perform? It might look like this: volunteer at a shelter or nursing home, take a veteran to lunch, invite “holiday orphans” to your Christmas feast, visit homebound people, invite your neighbors to Christmas eve services, call an old friend and revive a friendship, mend fences with an estranged family member, look around you for overlooked people and create a relationship with them, inject kindness into hard situations.
And then, what if we repeat our list frequently throughout the year? What would Amos say to that kind of religious observance? What would Jesus say? What do you say?
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
LIKE THOSE WHO DREAM
This psalm has two hands, one that reaches into the past and one into the future, bringing both near to the present. The first half looks to the past: “When the Lord restored our fortunes.” The second half looks to the future: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” This shift in tense is significant for us as we celebrate Advent, which is a season of waiting, not only for the birth of Christ but also the day of his return. We live in the time in between these two arrivals, in the tension between memory and hope. Just like the psalmist, like Israel in exile, we remember the past of what God has done and look to the future of what God has promised to do. Desperation and joy can overlap as we cry out in the same breath “You restored us, please restore us!”
Our dreams for the future grow our of the past. They are not the phantoms of empty optimism, the projections of human progress. I think of the missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who famously said “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” Our dreams are the paradoxical, astonishing promises of God who has proved himself faithful. God has shown us his dream, and we can dream again. We can have laughter and joy, even in strange times and places. For Christ has come, and Christ will come again.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A World of Dreams
No matter who we are, where we are living, or what time of the day, we live in a world of dreams. The reality of the moment is interrupted by the dreams of our hopes. Israel finds its life in a mess. What is going to happen? Can it survive? Isaiah plants his feet and pours out a message of hope that is almost unreal. A picture painted in the minds of his people of a land where God is present and in control. So as we dream of hope we too can find a place where God is and where we are at peace. That is the hope and message of Advent and Christmas. No matter what is happening in our lives, God is present and we are His. It has been stated that this is the first prelude to what Christ brought to the world in the Bible. So our journey in this life is not the most comfortable. We need help! Then let’s do two things: Put this passage in our dream world, and then open our hearts to the magnificent picture of the Christmas story.
by Rev. Tom Money
On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
Blessing for all people
My favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” like today’s reading from Isaiah, speaks of God’s deliverance from a place of pain. In the words of an earlier version of the hymn, Israel’s exilic plea is for God to act in history—yet again—to “close the path to misery.”
Throughout the Old Testament, the exodus story functions as a reminder that God sees and hears the cries of his people. The biblical logic is that if God heard and responded to these laments in the past, God can also act in the future in the most comprehensive way imaginable. Isaiah not only envisions God making a way forward, but it also dreams of an altar to God being built in Egypt—in the place where the people of God had once been oppressed under Pharaoh’s cruelty. Israel’s creative remembering in this way allows for the reader to imagine what it would be like for there to be a place firmly established in their future circumstances where God would be rightly acknowledged.
Remarkably, in this imaginative remembrance and forward projection, God’s acting in the past is not premised on inflicting retribution. The prayer for God to act is one thoroughly convinced that God’s action should be known as a blessing for all people—for Egypt, for Assyria (i.e., even for our enemies). It looks forward to a day when the people of God can be “a blessing at the center of the world.”
In this season of Advent, let us sing, pray, and look forward to God’s hope and healing being experienced in the world. And let us also labor and live in such a way that God’s blessings are made known whatever our circumstances.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
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 forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Comfort, O Comfort
I remember sitting in a pew at our little island church with my face covered in tears. Heart-wrenching news came earlier that Sunday morning. My father was dead. Feelings of concern and confusion were muddled with fresh grief as I sat wondering if God saw and was attentive to my despair. I felt like life had ended for me too. Had God forgotten about me?
Similar to the Jews in Babylonian exile, we find ourselves in the midst of spiritual and emotional deserts feeling abandoned and forgotten. It seems like all we have encountered are trials and tribulations. Tears of hardship and tears of heartache are our food. We ask, “Where is God?”
Isaiah 40 responds with words to encourage the soul. The Lord has indeed heard our cries in the midst of the wilderness and has sent words of comfort. Listen! Hear the good news! The Lord is coming! The Lord, our rescue, will sustain us. Justice and mercy are in his hands. The Father to the fatherless has not forgotten his own.
Cry out in the dry places of death and defeat. Our God will hear you. Prepare your hearts to meet God. The Comforter will surely come. Our present tears will be exchanged for future joy. Dear friends, wait expectantly, work diligently, and worship wholeheartedly. Be encouraged!
“The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
by Kim Bolden
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Great and Terrible
This is hardly the “oven” we want to hear about this time of year. Instead of being filled with cookies or a roast, it’s filled with the arrogant and evildoers. The image becomes even more striking, as those who fear the Lord are seen as runaway calves skipping and stomping on the ashes of the wicked.
But nestled within this vivd imagery of wildfire and livestock is the very heart of the prophets: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses.” The message of the prophets brings the past into the present in order to heal and hope for the future. They continually call for the return and renewal of the covenant that God created when he called Israel out of Egypt. The exodus founded a community of freedom and forgiveness, and the greatly anticipated Day of the Lord is always seen as a final fulfillment of this community.
Malachi specifically envisions the reconciliation of families, an image that might be tender to us during this season. Over the coming weeks., all the holiday gathering and gifting may remind us of hurts and absences.
It is indeed “great and terrible” to seek reconciliation, to see the walls that separate us go up in flames. It is risky and humbling to reach out and restore broken relationships. Grudges build cramped stalls. God frees us through forgiveness. This season is a time for reconciliation—not out of sentimentality, but because the arrival of God means that his forgiveness and freedom are here.
You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord. Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?” You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”
Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
What Does it Profit?
Have you ever thought to yourself that it may pay to be bad? It sometimes seems like people who have little regard for the rules and have disrespect for others come out on top. In our scripture today, we see that the people had these thoughts and came to the conclusion that it was “vain to serve God.” They were mistaking what it meant to be blessed. They saw evildoers prospering and failed to understand that success is not wealth, fame, or power but intimacy with the Lord.
God took notice of the faithful and in an amazing display of grace, accepted those who turned back to him. He showed them mercy—the mercy a good parent shows his children. God’s treatment of these forgiven people, as special possessions, is shown completely when he sent his own Son, Jesus, to be the perfect sacrifice to bring them close to him.
We must struggle against the desire to place our trust in material blessings rather than in Jesus Christ. During this advent season, ask the Lord to bring you close that you may know his grace and mercy in powerful ways.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
Robbing and Returning
The prophet proclaims the faithfulness of the Lord and the waywardness of his children. A call to return to the Lord leaves them asking, “How shall we return?” They then get accused of robbing God.
When I was young, I took something from my piano teacher’s home without asking. It was a few slips of paper from a very pretty notepad. I failed to take it out of my piano book the following week and when she saw them, she confronted me about not asking her if I could have them. From that day on, I felt ashamed and uncomfortable at each lesson. I didn’t want to be around her. I had robbed her and my relationship with her had changed.
I imagine that the people of God felt the same when they failed to bring God their tithes and offering. In the Old Testament, giving tithes and offering wasn’t simply about money. The gifts brought into the temple provided food for the Levites and the poor. When God commanded his people to stop robbing him of tithes and offerings, he is actually inviting them to come and share a meal with others.
Sitting down at a meal together wasn’t automatically going to set everything right, however, it was a simple gesture to begin to restore the relationship between the people, the priests and God. Sharing with the poor also begins to restore justice between those who have enough and those who don’t.
During Advent we await the ultimate Restorer of our relationship with God the Father. Give thanks and praise that we can return to God and our relationship with others can be strengthened through Christ.
Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you;
I will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
For you shall be ashamed of the oaks
in which you delighted;
and you shall blush for the gardens
that you have chosen.
For you shall be like an oak
whose leaf withers,
and like a garden without water.
The strong shall become like tinder,
and their work like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together,
with no one to quench them.
Several years ago, I attended a prayer vigil shortly before Christmas to mourn the loss of a mother who had been tragically murdered. We collectively grasped for words, held hands, prayed, and read Scripture on streets that were already decorated with Christmas joy. Our words were clumsy, unfiltered, and full of grief. Sometimes pain collides with joy—interrupting our prayers, thoughts, and desires.
The late Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs once described the tail end of the first chapter of Isaiah as an exilic dirge. In other words, there is something in this passage that feels drawn from the same well of words that are drawn to mind during a funeral procession. There’s something raw, incomplete, and out of place if we fail to comprehend that these troubling words are coming within a context of unfathomable loss. Israel, facing the painful demise of one part of its story, utters words of unbridled anger and lament. The end of this first chapter of Isaiah reads as a brittle prayer spilling across the page. It’s a prayer for God to intervene in the midst of a pain that—without God—would be insurmountable.
In being honest with the text, the human desire is one of retribution—of wanting someone else to suffer for the harm and trauma they’ve caused. Depending on your life experiences, you might find this desire comforting, off-putting, or confusing. But in processing these words, it’s important to see that violence isn’t being enacted by those who were wronged. Instead it’s a prayer for God to act in accordance with God’s own sense of justice. It’s a cry of desperation by a people whose pain has blurred their sense judgment. These words are a cry for God to act with clarity and righteousness. In this season—and in every season—let us pray for God’s goodness and justice to be known.
2 Samuel 7:18–29
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, con rm it forever; do as you have promised. us your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”
Whether we’re decking our halls, visiting family, or singing “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” our imaginations gravitate home during the holiday season. I love the way this chapter in 2 Samuel begins: “Now when the king was settled in his house...” I see David with his feet up on the hearth and a steaming mug of hot chocolate (or something stiffer), Bing Crosby crooning carols in the background. Now that everything else is in order—desserts are baked, gifts purchased and wrapped—now that we’re all relaxed and cozy, we can actually enjoy the “reason for the season.” Settled in our houses, we begin to make room for God.
But when David proposes from his comfortable home to build God a house of his own, God has different ideas: “I will build you a house.” God won’t let us set a place for him. God arrives out of doors. is is the hospitality of God, and it is more expansive then our expectations. Christmas gives us a longing for home—for togetherness, belonging, festivity, and rest. And rightly so. e sending of Christ (Christ-mass) brings peace on earth, good will to all. But we would do well to ask with David, “who am I, and what is my house?” And what does it mean for God himself to “be home for Christmas.” We, like David, want to prepare a place for Jesus to arrive. What we get instead is a baby born out back of the small town motel, a child destined to have “no place to rest his head.”
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house, from all the leaders of their ancestral houses. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each ancestral house. Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you. Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among theirs. So Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant.
When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. en Moses brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the Israelites; and they looked, and each man took his staff. And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the staff of Aaron before the covenant, to be kept as a warning to rebels, so that you may make an end of their complaints against me, or else they will die.” Moses did so; just as the Lord commanded him, so he did.
The Dry Wood Yielded Fruit
This is what God does: fruit from the fruitless, birth in barrenness. From the very beginning: light from the void, humanity from the dust, Isaac from Sarah’s barren womb, water from the wilderness rock. All of these prepare us for another mystery: the virgin birth of Christ. Aaron is even included the cover image above, which depicts Old Testament saints surrounding Christ and the Virgin Mary. He holds his blossoming staff in symbolic anticipation of Christ. It may not be the most popular Old Testament image that foreshadows the coming of Christ, but it does not escape the imagination of fourth century hymn-writer Ephrem the Syrian:
Thee staff of Aaron, it budded,
and the dry wood yielded fruit!
Its mystery is cleared up to-day,
for the virgin womb a Child hath borne!
Just as in this blooming, Aaron was chosen to lead the priestly tribe, so in his birth Jesus is chosen as High Priest over God’s priestly people, the Church. The covenant has been renewed. e author of Hebrews expands on this theme more than any other New Testament writer, so I will leave it to him to encourage us:
“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrew 10:21–25).
The Day approaches. Hold fast.