Reading great chunks of Scripture can bring surprising gifts. Don’t get me wrong: I’m also a big believer in spending time with very small passages. I’m passionate about the value of classical lectio divina for instance.
But I’ve been reading through the sixty-six chapters of Isaiah during Advent (Here are weeks 1, 2, and 3). Taking this book in great huge bites reveals different things than I find in meditation on the individual morsels.
Cruising through chapter forty and beyond, I came to the “Servant Songs,” which bring to mind events of Christ’s Passion rather than his Nativity. Still, in these ancient poems about Israel’s hope of salvation, this Advent I find the ancient version of my own Christian hope.
It is like looking closely at a canvas, finding brushstrokes consistently going in the same directions and in the same colors. Then, stepping back a bit, a picture emerges out of the details.
First I see the dire situation of the people:
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
all of them are trapped in holes
and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!’ (42:22, NRSV)
In Isaiah it often looks bad for God’s people. Often enough it is not a prediction or a threat of what is to come, some kind of judgement on God. Often enough the prophet describes a grim present reality.
People know the circumstances of this passage today as well. For some it may be a very private suffering: a grief or depression, a betrayal or illness. For many it is very public: a nation displaced by warfare; a coastal community destroyed by tsunami; a continent facing epidemic or starvation.
Robbed, plundered, trapped, beyond human help. If you are free of such threats today, thank God–and pray for the millions.
God steps into Israel’s situation, the prophet tells us. Part of what God does is issue a challenge–a call to choose where we place our hope and our trust, to choose who, or what, we will love above all others.
Sometimes it is a challenge issued directly to the other gods of the surrounding culture:
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
that we may be afraid and terrified.
You, indeed, are nothing
and your work is nothing at all;
whoever chooses you is an abomination. (41:23-24, NRSV)
Even when the poetry addresses these deities, God, through the prophet, actually speaks to Israel–and to us.
We are being challenged to put our other options to the test.
We seek well-being by acquisition: can that new piece of technology really do anything to touch our deepest needs? Buying literal or metaphorical comfort food cannot make us known, or loved, or healed.
We pride ourselves on our political ideologies: can any party say what is going to happen on the national or global stage? If some of their prognostications are right, can they actually do anything helpful about it?
Isaiah’s God is ready to throw off the gloves and take on any deity willing to stand up and face him. Any deity able to even try, that is–and that is the point.
God’s willingness to take on any competitor for our faith, our hope, and our love is more than a claim of superiority. It is a promise of help in our place of deepest need:
When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water. (41:17-18, NRSV)
That is good news. That is a picture of genuine tangible help. That is the Advent hope–with the coming of Jesus we see our deepest needs met. In the ministry of Jesus we see the hungry fed and the ill healed.
Some will surely note that suffering continues today. We remain a world full of people with deep needs. Has God failed?
As well as a promise to us, this Advent, Isaiah gives us a challenge.
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (42:6-7, NRSV)
Yes, Jesus comes at Christmas. We wait for him, and in him we know our deepest needs are met.
And joined to him in faith, in Baptism, in Eucharist, we are called to continue the very work that drew us to him.
As Advent ends and Christmas begins, may God use you to bring light in dark places, to open blind eyes, and to release those long imprisoned.
I would love to hear from you in the comments! Is Isaiah giving you more of a challenge, a promise, or call this year?
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