Following Christ is like feast or famine. There are times when everything is quiet and still. Times when God’s face might even be hidden from you. Those dark nights of the soul make me think of an astronaut’s space walk. Inside your thick, padded, insulated suit, it’s just a simple tether that links you to your vessel. I bet you, the gloves are so thick that you can’t even feel that simple strap. Floating in space. Not feeling your tether. Of course you’re connected, but maybe with a strange sense of being on your own.
Or there are times when it’s all too much to bear. You hand yourself over to God for His use, and lo and behold, He takes you up on the offer! Maybe you’re in learning mode, and God sees to it that you have plenty of opportunities to learn. As in right now – let’s go!
As I tried to reflect on the scriptures this week, it was a pretty rough exercise for me. I don’t know if it’s just the challenge and mystery of Advent, but it was hard to figure out what was standing out to me in these readings. Kind of like being floating in space, not really feeling anything especially concrete or grounding. But my friend Linda recently shared with me about living under the Word. Kind of abstract, but yet, I’ve been learning over these months that it’s not so much about writing something fabulous, but really about dwelling within the Word. Spending time and thought to somehow walk with the scriptures, and finding that it really affects my worship, and my thoughts over the week. Anyway, hopefully you might find something interesting here….
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. – Isaiah 40:1-2
Sin. Punishment. Suffering. Release. The people of Judea were like God’s grand demonstration to the world. A people created, named, and claimed by God. People who know their Creator. People with a covenant, a relationship, with their God. People who could show us the meaning of “right relationship.” But, things went awry. Tremendously. Just what happened?
This passage from so-called Second Isaiah comes to us after wars and conflicts, while God’s people sit in Babylonian exile from everything they knew. While First Isaiah showers condemnation on the misguided leaders of Judea and shows their downfall, and Third Isaiah finds the people returned from their exile, Second Isaiah is the in-between. These people are not where they think they’re meant to be. So, let’s just pretend we don’t know what happens next. How much like us? We see economic collapse and injustice on the horizon, and powerful systems at play that we just don’t understand. Like the exiles, don’t we feel like we’re not where we’re meant to be? We just can’t seem to wrap our minds around it all. But at least we have our Christmas shopping to distract us, right? Until…. whatever happens next.
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. – Isaiah 40:6-8
There really isn’t anything unusual about our time and place. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Sitting here and writing this, I make myself to be like the prophet. This post becomes my lament on what I see people doing, and what I don’t hear them thinking. And yet, I am just like them as I trouble myself over Christmas lists, parties, and still getting out my next software release. Shouldn’t I know better? Am I not called to be God’s grand demonstration? And yet, I am subject to the same systems of consumerism and inequality as everyone else. We have no choice but to cry out for relief – God yearns to hear our cries. And yet, what shall we cry? We are these people – them in their time, and us now.
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.” – Isaiah 40:3-5
The wilderness is the place of discomfort and unknown. But also, the place where God’s extravagance and care can be perceived. Isaiah proclaims great change on the horizon. Valleys, mountains, rough places. Maybe we could we even think of global warming. In the face of economic crisis and people behaving so very badly (faded flowers and withered grass indeed), it’s not just a promise of God’s coming glory. All people shall see it together! Every eye, every thought, every heart shall be turned toward our God, as we enter into that holiness that only comes from God. And even now, as the broken people we are, what else do we hear Isaiah saying?
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!” – Isaiah 40:9
Heralds of good tidings? How seasonal is that? This passage from Isaiah isn’t just some kind of grand and glorious vision to give us hope in the dark days of winter. We are heralds of good tidings. Isaiah isn’t laying down a commandment here – he’s telling us who we are. First Isaiah reminded us plenty of how far we’ve fallen. But now, the promise. How can we cling to the hope of God’s restoration, be restored by it, and not share it with the world? This passage is our call to live as the future people that we are.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. – 2 Peter 3:13-15
Future people indeed! Fast forward some centuries, and righteousness has yet to find a home among us. I gravitate toward these verses because they empower us as God’s people living in this in-between time. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (Verse 8) If we want to understand ourselves as God’s people, we need to understand what that looks like. And this verse helps us to see part of that life. We really don’t have any choice but to hope for, and to strive for, patience that we do not have.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. – 2 Peter 3:9-10
As future people living in wait for the coming of the Lord’s day, wondering when, wondering how, take special note. God’s patience is tied up with hope for the world. Not wanting any to perish, and wanting repentance from all people. Don’t read this like another volume of Left Behind, or like the apocalypse is hastening and we’re racing to convert everybody. God’s patience is infinite, as is everything about God. One heart means the world to God, just as God rejoices in your own repentance and your cries to Him.
In the midst of our seasonal wilderness, let us have hope for the promise of the future, without overwhelming ourselves with the sheer magnitude of bad behavior in the shopping malls of our existence. What can reaching out to one other heart mean, to you and to God?
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. – Mark 1:4-8
John the Baptist. He’s no Santa Claus! In another century, here’s another group of God’s people trying to make sense of living in their own in-between time. Can you just picture it? Hair shirt? Eating bugs? These people aren’t quite like the Judeans from Isaiah. They’re not living in exile from what they know. But yet, things aren’t how they’re supposed to be. They had the Temple, they had as much cultic tradition as you can imagine, and yet, why John? So severe. So caustic. So…. different.
When we hunger for some respite from all that we think is going wrong, surely something radically different is what will fix it, right? This baptizer’s popularity attests to it. And yet, he points the finger away from himself. He knows he himself is not the answer. But, as Mark quotes from Isaiah, John the Baptist is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” (Verse 3) In our own wilderness, again, we need to cry out. We don’t need to wear hair shirts and eat bugs in order to cry out to God right where we are, here and now. And what shall we cry? Cry that we don’t understand what will happen. Cry that we are fearful. Cry that God is our hope and our redemption, as the world is not what it should be. And learn how to take hold of God’s promises for us – the not yet that will transform the world.
The readings for this week have set their sights on what it means to live in an in-between time. We have been introduced to multiple generations of people who had to negotiate it in their own times, just as we must do here and now. We have a future promise in which we can hope, but yet, there are things to be done right now. What things? First, crying out to God. Recognizing that things are not what they should be, and crying out to God that we recognize it. God is our only hope. Second, reaching out to those around us as the heralds of good tidings that Isaiah says we are. Sharing that vision of promise to which we cling, that others might be able to cling to it as well. For, the scriptures this week reinforce God’s desire that none perish, and that all people shall see it together.
I hope that this week you might be able to reflect on what it would mean for you to cry out. How will you cry out? What will you cry out for? How will you live into being vulnerable, without distraction from the unpleasantness of it all? Only in your own wilderness, will you ever manage to see just how great God’s goodness and mercy can be.