Advent 1–Bible Study and Questions for Reflection
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. –Isaiah 58:1-12
A perfect fall morning in Phoenix: pumpkin latte in hand. A cool crisp 62 degrees out. I am on a porch swing with a background of lush foliage, bleeding slowly from green into reds and browns and yellows. I am wearing my favorite brown sweatshirt, and reading a really great library book. The day ahead is miraculously full of nothing but open time, save playing with my kids, and later having some friends over for dinner.
OK, so the pumpkin latte might be attainable. But the truth is, Phoenix has neither porches, nor swings. And in October, no sweatshirts and certainly no fall colors. Most mornings, it’s 85 degrees outside, not 62, and climbing toward triple digits. So that little scenario I cooked up there, that is the fall morning in my head. The place where I go when I feel like I cannot take another day of the extreme heat without losing my mind.
I don’t just like fall. I crave it. Come September, every fiber of my being begs me to dig out the boots, to put some chili in the crock pot, to plan a day-long hiking trip, to light a candle that smells like some blessed mix of apples, spice and outside, turn on some Neil Young and plan a big party for my friends–one that involves smoking some meat and baking lots of pies. My body and soul refuse to believe the thermostat. They urge me outside in a sweater, while my physical, tactile self has to pull back and say “wait a sec… it is *&^$%#@ hot outside!”
I love the desert, but I don’t think my whole self will ever adjust to the loss of autumn. Sure, it’s worth it in January, when our “abundance of sunshine” brings freezing easterners out in droves. Or in March, when we can break out the sandals and swimsuits again. Or in April, when the wildflowers bloom in the desert foothills–a sign of the holy in the wilderness if ever there was one. But for all of those blessings, something in me has to grieve through September and October.
Everyone has a season. The season of the soul’s best self; the change that makes the year complete; the transformation that awakes every sense and makes way for new life. Even desert people. The Spirit moves us, at least 4 times a year, to make way for new life, to engage all our senses anew, and to seek something holy in the world outside our window.
What are we waiting for? Other than Christmas, of course…What is it that speaks to us in a season change? A voice whispers to us on the warmer or cooler air. It says “something is coming… are you ready?” Something speaks to us in the changing light; we glimpse our higher selves, reflected in the shifting shadows as days get longer or shorter. We come awake at the scent of rain on the air (especially in the desert). We connect with memories of past seasons—the sensory overload taking us to other times and places, people we have known, loved, and lost—in short, we find our pattern of every day interrupted. And in the sudden jolt, we bump into our soul. Oh hi, we might say. I’d forgotten about you.
And so we hurry. We hurry to grab onto the coming season so as not to lose touch with that soul encounter. It’s why we put on sandals in March at the first glimpse of sunshine, even if there is still frost on the ground. It’s why I venture out on October mornings with that ratty brown sweatshirt, KNOWING in my heart of hearts that it will be 105 degrees come afternoon.
And it’s why, year after year after year, we let those first strains of Xmas music seep into our car, home and office, a full month before Advent begins. It’s why marketing folks have learned to put out the first shiny snowflake product sometime around the first day of school. It’s why the Hallmark channel has enough feel-good- made-for-tv-holiday-tear-jerkers to run a year-long Christmas countdown. We are all reaching for the inner holy that we glimpse in turning seasons; and we’re afraid that if we don’t turn quickly, it will be gone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about rushing a season. If you live in the south, it might be a crime against FASHION to wear white shoes before Easter (or after Labor Day, of course). But the fashion police have no authority in your spiritual life. Neither do the liturgical police, as it turns out. There’s nobody to stop you if you want to begin the breathless holiday sprint in August.
But is there, perhaps, good reason to stop ourselves, especially in this particular season? It seems that, the earlier we start clinging to that Christmas-y feeling, the more empty we feel by the time we reach the holy day. The more seasonal stuff we try to cram in—whether it’s more Christmas neck ties, more holly-adorned place settings, or more events and activities–the more we feel that we missed something important. The more we feel that it went by in a blur without our having been fully present for a single moment of it.
This is the same kind of emptiness that Isaiah addresses in chapter 58. He says that outward rites of faith, however well intended, ultimately make for hollow worship. Those rituals may even work to shield one from a real encounter with the holy. Elaborate demonstrations of faith, like animal sacrifice or woeful fasting, are consuming ordeals. They take up the whole self (time, energy, resources) and the worshipping community is literally too busy to meet God in the midst of it.
I don’t mean to equate ancient Israel’s pagan worship with the holiday rush of our day…but seriously, we are all about Pagan worship these days. We know at our very core that consumer worship takes the place of seeking the real holy. Our running, doing and spending can deplete us, leaving a void that no amount of reindeer swag can fill.
While our cultish rituals might not look like those of the restoration period Hebrews’, they still make for a similar cultural effect; a place in which we would not know a real holy moment if it knocked us down and sat on us. We’d be too busy gathering festive snowflake throw pillows to cushion our fall.
The impulse to lean into the changing air, the shifting light—it’s not wrong! There is something coming; a transformation that encompasses the local and the global, self and neighbor, main street and world. But it can’t be bought and paid for, and it can’t be captured in a snow globe. You won’t even find it in the Pottery Barn catalogue, try as they may to capture that Christmas “feeling” on the page. More on that later…but first, before we engage in this journey, we have to know: what are we waiting for?
Isaiah returns, time and again, to the running theme of Mis-pat; the radical notion of compassionate justice. God ordered the world for it, and the wholeness of the world depends upon it. And yet, it appears to him that the most devout religious observers are the ones who oppress their workers, the ones who hurry around on Sabbath days, fast for their own inward purposes, and practice a hollow sort of symbolic worship. It adds up to nothing, the prophet says. You lose in the end; and so does the rest of the world.
This is why we talk about Isaiah during Advent. It’s not just that his poetic discourse sounds great against a Handel backdrop. He brings to life a kingdom, a concept, a coming order, that will right all the wrongs of the human world. A true ‘just’ world that is not just about convicting criminals. His vision of true hope reminds us that the little insular Christmases we buy, craft, wrap and bake for each other sometimes omit the holy.
That’s not to say that people of faith should move through this season numb to the senses, with a bah humbug on our lips and a clamp on all of our credit cards. Play the music. Buy some gifts. Eat all those cookies made with real butter. And by all means—have epic parties! But the call of Isaiah for our time and place, is the same as it was in his own. Do it all for the glory of God. Do it all with purpose, with intention. Pay attention to what gives you life, and what takes it away. Pay attention to which of your holiday errands will put some good into the world; and which ones might be enslaving someone. Oppressing the workers, and all that. Did a child laborer in Indonesia make that Santa necktie? Did a minimum wage employee have to come in on Thanksgiving day so that you could save 25% on this year’s must-have gadget?
We are also mindful of simpler matters; do we overbook the season until we have no time for worship or prayer? Do we over-spend on our own families, leaving nothing to share with others (except maybe a handful of change for the Salvation Army Santa)? Are we too busy/hurried/exhausted/spent to be truly present with our loved ones? Too burdened to notice that our elderly neighbor is alone?
What are we waiting for? A lot, as it turns out. Isaiah’s call to us, this first week of advent, is to make the waiting matter. You know those magazine articles that tell you how to make the most of your time? They say you can send work emails while in the waiting room at the dentist. Or get in some leg lifts while you’re talking on the phone or brushing your teeth… All seemingly mundane tasks that make room for a little life.
This Advent season, we can make room for a great deal of life by making the wait-time matter. We may ultimately find that a little life—a baby-sized one, to be exact—is all that we need. By active waiting, we can help bring about the kind of transformation that prophets called for, and that prophets of our day still envision.
What that active waiting looks like is entirely up to you. You might be able to wait while listening to Christmas tunes. You might be able to live in hopeful anticipation while hanging lights outside, a la Clark Griswold. You might be able to move joyfully through the season, from party to party, while still serving the poor and welcoming the stranger.
However…well, once we start this journey of active waiting, we might find that not only is there less time for shopping, but that we don’t really enjoy it all that much. We may find that the shopping, running and doing—basically, all the things that we do to create little Christmassy environments for ourselves—are only keeping us at a distance from the real inner holy that is trying to get out into the world.
We can only pursue mis-pat when we are longing for something the world can’t give. Deep down, we harbor an enduring hope that Jesus will SHOW UP this time for real; deep down, we’d all rather see our neighbors whole and happy than see them coming with a gift. Deep down, we all want to see the hungry fed, more than we want to eat another Christmas cookie. Deep down, we all long for peace on earth, and not just peace around our own hearth. But somewhere along the way, we usually decide that we can’t control those kingdom kinds of outcomes… and so we settle for the little snow-globe versions of peace and plenty that we can recreate, courtesy Pottery Barn and Target.
Again, this is not to say that we should utterly abandon all celebration. A thousand sensory reminders tell us that something is coming; something worth getting excited about! But moving through it all with a deeper awareness of why we spend where we spend, and run where we run, might make us a little more mindful of what it is that we really seek—and might make us more apt to find it. We might even find that we, our very own selves, have the power to put it out into the world. Ultimately, we are waiting for something life-giving and worthwhile. Let the nature of our waiting reflect the essence of that for which we wait. Together, we will wait with active hope that serves the world. Then, as Isaiah says, “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
Water and light…neglected holiday images, against the backdrop of Santas, Snowmen, and even shiny Baby Jesuses, (but he’s our favorite Baby Jesus! Right, Ricky Bobby?). And yet, these are the very things that give us life, in every season. A dark and thirsty world is waiting for us. What are we waiting for?
Questions for Reflection:
–Think through your calendar/planner/schedule for the coming month. What events, gatherings or commitments are you most looking forward to? Which ones are you dreading or stressing about?
–What is one obligation that you might sacrifice this season, allowing more time to worship or enjoy fellowship? What is one purchase you might sacrifice, allowing you to share more with others?
–Recall a favorite Christmas memory: (share with the group, if you are in a group setting). What truth of hopeful waiting did you learn in that time and place?
 Hanson, Paul D. Interpretation: Isaiah 40-66… pg 204