Waiting and Promise | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 5/5)

Part 5/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 10:20-27a 

20 On that day, what’s left of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no longer depend on the one who beat them. Instead, they will faithfully depend on the Lord, the holy one of Israel. 21 A few will return, what’s left of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22 Although your people, Israel, were like the sand of the sea, only a few survivors will return. The end is announced, overflowing with justice. 23 Yes, destruction has been announced; the Lord God of heavenly forces will carry it out against the entire land.

24 Therefore, the Lord God of heavenly forces says: My people who live in Zion, don’t fear Assyria, which strikes you with the rod and raises its staff against you as Egypt did. 25 In a very short time my fury will end, and my anger at the world will be finished.[a

26 Therefore, the Lord of heavenly forces will crack a whip against Assyria,
    as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb.
    He will raise a rod over the sea,
        as he did in Egypt.
27 On that day, God will remove the burden from your shoulder
    and destroy the yoke on your neck.[b


Reflection

Today’s text encompasses why we read Isaiah during Advent in the first place. This season acknowledges that there is pain and heartache in the world. There are breaking points where we break, and where even God breaks. There are idols to be examined and priorities to set. But ultimately, Advent is a season where we acknowledge and repent of all these things, and again turn our faces towards the promise that there will be peace.

There will be destruction and judgement, but there is also promise and renewal. Isaiah talks about this is 6:13, where God promises that those destroyed will leave a “stump” which will be holy. As Christians, we connect much of our story to that of the Ancient Israelites through Isaiah. Christ is the one who came to fulfill this promise of a child being born, and salvation being obtained.

Yet, we’re still waiting for that second coming, when there will be no more pain and grief. We’re still waiting in a world that often doesn’t feel saved, or even redeemable. Christ has come, but Christ is coming again—each year, we wait for the promise of peace to be fulfilled in this in-between time. I’m not sure I have much more to end with other than what God’s word through Isaiah tells us. Keep watching. Keep waiting. Keep your eyes fixed on the one who saves, and “on that day, God will remove the burden from your shoulder and destroy the yoke on your neck”.

Idolatry of Power | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 4)

Part 4/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 10:5-19 

Doom to Assyria, rod of my anger,
    in whose hand is the staff of my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him;
    against an infuriating people
    I direct him to seize spoil, to steal plunder,
    and to trample them like mud in the streets.
But he has other plans;
    he schemes in secret;
    destruction is on his mind,
    extermination of nation after nation.
He says: Aren’t my commanders all kings?
    Isn’t Calno like Carchemish?
    Isn’t Hamath like Arpad?
    Isn’t Samaria like Damascus?
10 Just as I took control of idolatrous kingdoms
    with more images than Jerusalem and Samaria,
11     just as I did to Samaria and her false gods,
    won’t I also do this to Jerusalem and her idols?

12 But when the Lord has finished all this work on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will punish the Assyrian king’s arrogant actions and the boasting of his haughty eyes.

13 He said, “By my own strength I have achieved it,
    and by my wisdom, since I’m so clever.
    I disregarded national boundaries; I raided their treasures;
    I knocked down their rulers like a bull.
14     My hand found the wealth of the peoples
    as if it were in a nest.
Just as one gathers abandoned eggs,
    I have gathered the entire earth;
    no creature fluttered a wing or opened a mouth to chirp.”

15 Will the ax glorify itself over the one who chops with it?
    Or will the saw magnify itself over its user?
As if a rod could wave the one who lifts it!
    As if a staff could lift up the one not made of wood!
16 Therefore, the Lord God of heavenly forces
    will make the well-fed people waste away;
    and among his officials,
    a blaze will burn like scorching fire.
17 The light of Israel will become a fire,
    its holy one a flame,
    which will burn and devour
    its thorns and thistles
    in a single day.
18 Its abundant forest and farmland
    will be finished completely,[b
    as when a sick person wastes away;
19     its forest’s remaining trees will be no more than a child can count.


Reflection

“Everything happens for a reason” is one of those phrases that gets trotted out again and again as some sort of solace whenever something bad happens. The wider implication, of course, is that God causes or plans things to happen in our lives—even the negative things. I won’t try to write a dissertation on this theology, but I do think that reading Isaiah forces us to confront God’s power over the rise and fall of nations, and thus God’s power over events in our lives.

Today’s reading in particular, with its focus on Assyria as the tool through which God punishes Israel, forces us to think about what it means to be a chosen people or nation. At first, it seems like Assyria is favored by God through their military prowess over Israel. But Isaiah’s prophecy makes it clear that Assyria, like Israel, must also undergo defeat for “arrogant actions”. The problem here is that both nations placed their national identity and trust in military power over God.

As we continue towards Christmastide, Isaiah forces us to reckon with this idolatry. Nation and power can only exist in perspective with our relationship with God. Jesus shows us where these things belong through his identity as human baby born in poverty, and as a political criminal who died on the cross. Salvation comes through our focus on God, and our discarding the “just in case” idols of power and might. Isaiah blatantly forces us to ask this question: what are the idols that we must discard or reprioritize during this time of waiting?

Digging and Building | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 3/5)

Part 3/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:18-10:4 

18 Wickedness burned like fire,
    devouring thorn and thistle.
It kindled the thickets of the forest;
    they swirled in rising smoke.
19 The land was scorched by the rage of the Lord of heavenly forces;
    the people were like fuel for the fire.
Not one person pitied another:
20     they consumed on the right, but remained hungry;
    devoured on the left, and weren’t satisfied.
    They devoured the flesh of their own children.[a]
21 Manasseh devoured Ephraim and Ephraim Manasseh;
    together they turned against Judah.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.

10 Doom to those who pronounce wicked decrees,
    and keep writing harmful laws
    to deprive the needy of their rights
    and to rob the poor among my people of justice;
    to make widows their loot;
    to steal from orphans!
What will you do on the day of punishment
    when disaster comes from far away?
To whom will you flee for help;
    where will you stash your wealth?
How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners
    and falling among the slain?
Even so, God’s anger hasn’t turned away;
    God’s hand is still extended.


Reflection

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Home Alone, which is a slapstick comedy about burglars who try to rob a home that is inhabited by a young boy accidentally left at home. What makes it so ridiculous is that the villains never learn to stop while they’re ahead—they keep plowing through an increasingly booby-trapped house. If there’s a mistake to make, they make it. They never quite get the message.

This is a light-hearted example of what I see in today’s reading from Isaiah. When trouble comes, “not one person pitied another” and the wicked keep writing “harmful laws to deprive the needy of their rights”. Israel just doesn’t get it. They don’t know how to respond in a way that doesn’t just compound the mistakes that they were originally making. They dig themselves deeper into the hole.

It’s easy for us to look at this passage and realize what was going wrong in Israel. But I wonder if we’d be so quick to point it out in our own day. After all, there are so many conflicting messages about truth and fact (let alone right and wrong) that it’s hard to know if we’re building a ramp or deepening the hole.

This passage, however, gives us a place to think about where we can amend wrongs like writing laws that deprive the needy of their rights, robbing the poor of justice, and stealing from the vulnerable. As we await the celebration of the birth of ourSavior, let’s use this time to discern where we’re digging, and where we’re building a ladder.

Breaking Points | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 2/5)

Part 2/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:8-17

The Lord sent a word against Jacob;
    it fell upon Israel;
    the people all knew it—
    Ephraim and the one who rules in Samaria.
But with a proud and arrogant heart they said,
10     “Bricks have fallen,
        but let’s rebuild with stones.
    Sycamores were cut down,
        but let’s replace them with cedars.”
11 So the Lord raised up their foes against them,[d]
    and stirred up their enemies—
12     Aram from the east and the Philistines from the west—
    and they devoured Israel with an open mouth.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.

13 But the people didn’t turn to the one who struck them.
    They didn’t seek the Lord of heavenly forces.
14 So the Lord cut off head and tail,
    palm branch and reed from Israel in one day.
15     (Elders and celebrities are the head;
    prophets who teach lies are the tail.)
16 But this people’s leaders were misleading,
    and those being led were confused.
17 So the Lord showed their youth no pity,
    and showed their orphans and widows no mercy;
    for everyone was godless and evil;
        every mouth spoke nonsense.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.


Reflection

Everyone has a breaking point. You know what that’s like, right? I certainly do. It’s that moment when you feel like you can’t take anything more—if someone says one more thing, or something else happens, you might snap.

When I read a passage like this, it reminds me that God, too, has a breaking point. After all, this is one of the few moments in theBible when even God doesn’t have mercy on orphans and widows, or punish the rulers and those in power rather than the common person. Instead, Isaiah prophesies the exile and the destruction of the tribes of Israel, and most of the tribes of Judah.

So what do we do with this God, who is unnervingly human? I can’t speak for God, but my own experience of breaking points is this. First of all, they happen. For whatever reason, relationships don’t work out, things flare up and get out of control. Sometimes I feel the need to say and do things that let someone else know how I really feel in that moment of frustration. And sometimes that frustration takes a while to go away, or I need to take sometime away from that person or situation. I picture God reaching this breaking point and staying there for a while. It’s hard to be in relationship with a people who won’t listen to you.

It’s particularly poignant during this season of waiting that we read about God reaching a breaking point. As much as we sit and wait onGod, and complain about why God isn’t listening to us, perhaps it’s helpful to imagine that God can and has done the same thing about us. God is waiting on us. God got so tired of waiting on us that Jesus came to redeem us. And God is still waiting on us today.