Preaching the Prophets in Advent

Two themes arch across the Old Testament texts for the four weeks of Advent.

The brokenness of creation and the judgment of God lurk in the background of these texts; God reverses God’s own judgment in order to restore, renew and recreate.

In Series A, the selections are drawn from the book of Isaiah. The specific dates for the composition of the four selections are not certain and it is more productive to explore the textual reverberations between the texts than to attempt to fix their historic context. Walking in the way of the Lord is both earnestly sought and boldly promised in these texts. The way of the Lord is light, glorious, joy and gladness, and a wellspring of confidence and courage.

The alternative to the way of the Lord is not attractive. Isaiah 2 knows a world in which the swords and spears of nations produce war. We know and experience their effects relentlessly. We join the “many peoples” seeking lessons in the ways of God in order to walk differently, to walk in light rather than fear. The broad promise in the text even leads the community of faith, here named the “house of Jacob,” to the injunction to “walk in the light of the Lord.” Before we jump too quickly to a specific policy on war, we need to remember that this text starts with the action of God. If God does not “judge between nations,” the visions of peace are a delusion. The key instruction sought in Zion is instruction in what God is doing and promising to do. “Walking in the light of the Lord” is walking in a world where God is judging between nations and arbitrating between peoples. God has work to do; we are counting on God to do as promised.

The promises in the Isaianic texts for the remaining three weeks stand in opposition to threats and hardships depicted in diverse figures of speech. In Isaiah 11 the wolf, leopard, bear, lion, asp, and adder symbolize the forces that hurt and destroy. The promised “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse” will end the hurt and destruction produced by a broken and wicked creation. The restored creation is nearly beyond imagination and thus the multiplication of images of harmony and thriving life–a veritable flood of the knowledge of the Lord. In view of Isaiah 6:11-13, we should consider a collective reading of the “he/him” in the text. The restored community is both agent (“signal to the peoples,” later, “a light to nations” [Isaiah 49:6]) and recipient.

Isaiah 35 again depicts the restrictions and threats we experience: weak hands,
feeble knees, fearful hearts, the blind, the lame, the tongue of the speechlessness, wilderness, desert, burning sand, thirsty ground, haunt of jackals, lion, the unclean, ravenous beast, and finally sorrow and sighing. The collage of images is an invitation to assemble the cultural expressions we have of depleted life and then, in those contexts, shout forth the promised transformation of God. From these we are ransomed.

In view of Isaiah 2, 11, and 35, we can see why Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is rebuked in Isaiah 7. His refusal to “put the Lord to the test” is not only a false humility; it is a refusal to embed himself in the boldly stated promises of God. It is hard to put God to a test when God has in fact promised more than any test we can imagine. The threat of two kings is real, as are all the images of a broken creation and covenant in the texts from the prior weeks. But they will not thwart God’s work of restoration and recreation, even restoration from God’s own judgment.

The texts in Series B reverberate with similar themes. There is a movement from
judgment to safety in God’s restoration. In the midst of judgment the speakers in Isaiah 64 raise questions about the continuity of God’s covenantal commitment and plea that God would decisively act for Israel as in the past. Isaiah 40 announces comfort to those enduring God’s judgment. They are not far from the speakers in Isaiah 64. The speakers in Isaiah 64 and the sufferers in Isaiah 40 are the most immediate oppressed, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners in Isaiah 61. Such are the ones who will be the planting of the Lord and a people blessed by God. 2 Sam 7 also articulates God’s commitment to bring Israel to a safe place, undisturbed by evildoers (our evildoing selves included).  “Do not fear” ultimately cuts across these texts.

Series C echoes the “Do no fear” message and links it to promises of a safe place.  Living in safety or securely is the end result of God intervention in Jeremiah 33 and Micah 5.  Christians view these texts through Christ, but the movement of God toward restoration is present in more than a predictive manner.  The refiner’s fire was deeply experienced in the judgment of Exile.  Both Malachi 3 and Zephaniah 3 are promises of restoration in the midst of and in reaction to judgment.  All these texts articulate God’s work of restoration and renewal in the here-and-now of the Old Testament.  They do so with an abundance that is not yet exhausted and will carry us to eternity.