Let us pray: Holy and loving God, orient us once more to your Holy Word. Guide our paths with the Light of your word that we may seek and follow you in faithful obedience. Grant us strength in your Spirit that we will persist in seeking you until your kingdom is made perfect here on earth. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, O Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The month of December begins today, but we have already been saturated with fantasies of what the Big Event of Christmas may look like for some people: brand new vehicles topped with a pretty bow, a Pelotan cycling machine and a one-year video diary thank-you note; the power wheels vehicles from Wal-Mart, a lovely piece of jewelry given to you by your significant other who conveniently is wearing matching pajamas. In addition to enticing us to spend more money than is necessary, these illustrations entice us to lean in with anticipation to the Big Day, to the Big Event.
Earlier this week, my spouse and I were reminiscing about how much simpler it was to be a lay member of our churches during Advent. As pastors, we live between the tension of this complex and important season of waiting and anticipating the coming of Christ and busying ourselves with all of the preparations for Christmas Day that come with being parents to young children and the household hosting the big family Christmas meal. The world around us has not made the jobs of pastors any easier by playing Christmas songs on the radio beginning November 1, Christmas in July movies on the Hallmark channel (sorry Dave), and Christmas Decorations and deals making appearances in stores before Halloween. Meanwhile, as a pastor, I am concerned with keeping us grounded in the present season of Advent; to help us all prepare for and anticipate Christ’s arrival in four weeks from now. I have been wondering this week if the reason we move quickly from Thanksgiving to busying ourselves for Christmas is because we are hoping to catch the Spirit of Christmas. We are hoping to find that which fills the void that is present in our lives. We are longing for that special moment when we are assured that whatever road we are traveling, whatever challenges and uncertainties confront us, we do not travel alone.
This morning the prophet Isaiah shows us—not tells us—but shows us what our hearts are tuned for: that God’s presence will become more compelling in our lives as the mountain of the Lord is raised above all other mountains and hills. Isaiah offers a vision of all people streaming to God out of a shared desire to learn and to walk in the ways of God. Isaiah’s vision follows the condemnation of the people of Israel. Following the Syro-Ephramatic War, Jerusalem was left “deserted, [its] cities burned with fire, [its] lands [devoured by strangers in plain sight.]” Yet, Isaiah also prophesies that God has spared a few people from Jerusalem and will redeem Zion by justice. One day, Isaiah prophesies, we will stop trying to manipulate relationships to our personal benefit, and we will learn from God how to live peacefully in community with all people. In other words, one day all of us will stop trying to merely survive on distant memories of Christmas mornings long past, and we will press towards God’s word come down to earth. We will press towards God, and through God we will be transformed.
No longer will our concerns and motivations be making Christmas the best day we can for ourselves and our families, but we will better understand the height, width, depth, and breadth with which God loves us as God is raised up to the guiding light through which we understand to how to live and act justly towards all people. No longer will we worry about how our neighbor will be celebrating the coming of Christ, because we will release our need to judge back to God and God will judge between the nations and settle disputes among the people. The word of God within us will make a difference in the way we operate in the world: inequities balanced, shackles loosed, and wrongs set right.
As a child, and even more so when I was growing up, I remember how careful my mother was about spending the same amount on my brother and me, or spending the same amount of money on all of her grandchildren. She did not want anyone to think they were loved less because she got a better deal on one gift than she did the other. I think the reason we plan and carefully shop for the ones we love is because we, like my mom, want what Isaiah proclaims in this passage. If only for one day, we want to experience a time with those who have impacted our lives the most, and we want to show each other that we love each other, that our differences are not as great as our mutual affection, that if we can make it through one day peacefully together, maybe we can make it through two days, or three days, and so on…
The reality, at least in my family, is that my children will tear through their gifts—not remembering or really even caring who gave them what. My husband’s family will all respond with a polite thank you, and then when pressed by my husband if they really liked their gift, they will offer a forced, “yes, it’s nice,” or “yeah, it’s okay.” By the end of the day, my mother and I will have retreated to our respective rooms simply because we are all peopled out and feel overstimulated. The truth is the days to come that Isaiah describes sometimes feel like they will never come at all, no matter what we say or do.
Here’s the rub, at least for me: it is so much easier to pin my deepest desires for love and peace on my imperfect family and relationships. At least, I know what I have; as I lovingly tell my niece from time to time, our family puts the fun in dysfunctional. I know how to prepare myself for the disappointments Christmas Day might bring me.
It is much harder to open our hearts to the possibility of the future that Isaiah shows us. Some of us have seen first-hand what war between nations looks like; we have seen our loved ones deployed; we have been in irreconcilable relationships or have felt like the collateral damage of an irreconcilable relationship. We understand the wounds that conflict leaves, even if the conflict is not physical. We know that at a time when everyone is touting hope and peace, we feel lost and restless.
There are people today for whom this whole season is one pained breath after another; if that person is you, beloved, then please hear these words of hope and of peace. Isaiah is inviting you to draw near, and to lean in to the light of God. There is power and freedom in knowing that we do not have to walk alone in the dark, trying to figure life out on our own while wearing a mask of fake contentment for everybody to see. Walking in the light with God begins with one step and is experienced one step at a time with a community of people who like you are longing for a deeper relationship with God. We all stumble, and thank God, when we do, there is someone to lift you up, to dust you off, to take your hand, and to walk together with you in the light of God. The future belongs wholly to God, but the first step towards that future belongs to each of us as we respond to Isaiah’s vision by opening our hearts and trusting God enough to believe that the light of God lies ahead. I offer these words to you this day in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother of us all. Amen.