The writings that we know as the Book of Isaiah is more than likely three separate groups of writings. (1) Chaps. 1-39, probably written about 8th century (bce) (742-701), which more than likely includes the words of the person that we know of as “the Prophet Isaiah”. During the time leading up to the exile, the people had developed a sense of God as creator of the whole world and this is reflected. (2) Chaps. 40-55, probably written at the end of the exile (About 540 bce), reminding the people that God’s word can be trusted for redemption, for recreation, and (3) Chaps. 56-66, which are more than likely Post-exilic, written about 520 bce, when the Jews began reshaping their community after the exile. When reading the Book of Isaiah, it is important to try to view this without our Christian “hindsight” lens reshaping what it was meant to be (or the idea that the book contains a prophetic telling of the coming of Christ centuries later). It is a story of God’s deliverance and redemption, but the notion of Christ as the redeemer was imposed by later New Testament writers.
The prophet Isaiah (who probably wrote the words of the passage that we read) was the son of Amoz and was probably active in Jerusalem through most of the 2nd half of the 8th century bce. This would have been during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. During most of Isaiah’s lifetime, Judah lived under the threat of Assyrian domination and the conflicts that surrounded that threat. The writer seemed to see the coming destruction of the temple and the community’s way of life. During this time, king after king failed to give the people the security and the prosperity that they needed, so the community began to look to the hope of the Messiah, which they believed would come if they could just trust in God. At this point they saw that they were beginning to lose what they knew. The passage that we read announces the elevation of Zion and the establishment of peace among all nations.
There is a marked similarity between this passage and Micah 4:1-4. We’re really not even sure which prophet said it first. Even though there is no specific claim of authority (such as “thus says the Lord”), there is no doubt that the prophet is doing what he is supposed to do—proclaim the coming reign of God. The sequence of events is important. First, the mountain of the Lord’s house (Zion) will be exalted. This probably should not be taken literally since Mount Zion is really a tiny little hill surrounded by larger ones. Then there will be a holy pilgrimage of all peoples to the mountain. The people will call upon the Lord to teach them new ways. And the word of Yahweh will go forth from Jerusalem. Yahweh will then bring about a permanent reign of peace. Essentially, the writer Isaiah speaks beyond the present.
There is a timelessness to this passage. It reminds us that our world is not separated from God’s eternity. What we do is already part of our eternity. All that we see and all that we are is leading up to this. This is not some sort of naïve utopian vision laid out by the prophet. This is not the stuff of dreams. This is what will be when we are would it mean to want this so desperately in our deepest selves, to awaken to God’s vision for peace and shalom?
In verse 2, the prophet depicts all the nations streaming toward the holy mountain, all the nations and all the peoples of the earth walking together toward peace and justice and God’s vision of what we were all meant to be. Maybe this verse is the crux. Maybe it’s about time we start walking, start following the light of the Lord.
a. What images, for you, does this passage evoke?
b. What vision of eternity do you have?
c. What does that mean for you?
d. What does it mean for our Advent season?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 13: 11-14
The main theme of Romans is that God’s gospel unveils God’s righteousness. Many Jews of Paul’s day recognized that the story they knew from the Hebrew Scriptures that promised the reign of God had still not concluded. They believed that their faithfulness to God determined that conclusion but as long as they remained under pagan rule, God’s reign could not come. So in this letter, Paul concentrates on the Gentile audience, not because he thought the Jews had denied Jesus but because he truly thought that for God’s reign to be ushered in to fullness, the whole world must come into the picture.
The passage that we read is set in the context of knowing what time it is. For Paul, it is almost daybreak. The Reign of God is about to be ushered in. The belief held here is that while the Resurrection of Christ has seen the dawn of a new age, the fullness of the day has yet to come. Paul assumes, though, that history is reaching its climax. Here, the “night” depicts the evils of the world. Paul assumes that the believers will understand what “time” it is—not a chronological, but kairos—God’s time. He urges readers to move away from what they know into a new life with Christ.
This is one of those passages that is easily sectioned off into “good and bad”, light and darkness”, “the “ins” and the “outs”. I actually think that’s a dangerous road to traverse. After all, who says what is good or bad. Who declares who is in and out? This Scripture is not meant to divide but rather to wake us up to the Reign of God as it is ushered in. And the God of all Creation would certainly not leave the darkness behind but gather it into the Light.
William Long equates Advent to an “echo chamber” that heightens our senses, that makes us realize that those small sounds of salvation that we hear are all around us. Salvation is not something “out there” or, even worse, “up there”. Whatever you may think that heaven or whatever is next is, it is not way up ahead. It is not shielded from view. It is all around us. The air is thick with its presence. The only reason it is veiled is that we have too much clouding our view.
a. What does this image of time mean for us?
b. What does it mean to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light?
c. How can we keep this vision alive more than 2,000 years later?
GOSPEL: Matthew 24: 36-44
It is interesting for our first reading of Advent, our first reading of the year, that we would start toward the end of the Gospel According to the Writer Matthew. That sort of contributes once again to the “timelessness” of it all. In the passage, the comparison with the days of Noah is probably not talking about wickedness but, rather, the fact that life was going on as normal. There were no mysterious signs pointing to the approaching judgment.
This particular passage is one that fuels the whole view of modern dispensationalists that understand this as those who are “taken” being temporarily or permanently removed from this world at the rapture. Matthew does not have this idea in his eschatological understanding. Those who are “taken” refers to being gathered into the saved community at the eschaton, just as some were taken into the ark. For Matthew, to be a believer is to endure what is to come; not to escape from it. Once again, we have the repeating them—Keep alert and watch!
What if the surprise turns out to be that Jesus was here all along, that ahead of time himself, he has been calling and gathering and elightening and sanctifying all along? Quit guessing—just do it. (Bonhoeffer—“he really means for us to get on with it.”)
And, again, think back to last week’s Scripture. We were again given the image of Jesus hanging on the Cross, minutes away from death. And there, there beside him was the thief. “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The thief was not left behind but instead was gathered into the Reign of God. Advent is not waiting to see whether or not you make the cut but rather waking up to the glorious Gathering that is happening all around us.
The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.
You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.
The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.
But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.
(“Advent”, by Frederick Buechner, available at http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-advent.)
a. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b. Do you read this as a “negative” warning? What effect does that have on the “Good News” of Christ?
c. What does the idea of “end times” have to do with Advent?
d. What does the whole notion of being awake mean for you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world. (Oscar Wilde)
Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. (Roy Arundhati)
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)
Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. Amen.
(Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 13.)
And join me for my Advent devotionals or Virtual Study or whatever you want to call it on http://dancingtogod.com/. I’ll be posting every day beginning December 1st. There will be some crossover with these notes, but join me!