A Reflection for Advent on Isaiah 40:3-8
So, believe it or not, we just passed the Second Sunday in Advent. Two down and two to go in what is a very long Advent indeed. It’s as long as Advent can last, giving us plenty of time to prepare. Christmas, our celebration of the Incarnation, is near, but the Church is in no great hurry to get there, especially this year. With the wisdom of the centuries, our tradition tells us that the journey itself is what we need, more than merely reaching that stable in Bethlehem. Advent tells us to pause, to take stock, to lie on some hillside and look at the stars. It tells us to empty our hearts so that there is room in them for the birth of something new and altogether unseen.
Pause now, dear friend, and open your Bible. Read Isaiah 40:3-8, part of the first reading for last Sunday.
“Clear a road for the Lord,” Isaiah says, “prepare a highway across the desert for our God.”
While paving a highway may not be your idea of holy preparation, for a desert nomad it must have seemed like a piece of heaven for all the valleys to be lifted up and the mountains and hills made low. No more hard climbs or knee-wrenching descents, no bandits down in that valley or wolves around that bend. No, according to Isaiah, the way of the Lord is flat and straight and totally revealed. Oh, right, yeah. The problem is: that clear way is only apparent after everything else has passed away, after the grass has withered and the flower has faded and all the glories of the flesh have perished from the face of the earth. Only the Word of God will stand forever, Isaiah says, which is the prophet’s way of telling us that whatever else we get attached to it will finally let us down. Even the Church.
I read Isaiah 40 and ask “That’s supposed to comfort us? That everything we know and love is doomed, and the one reliable object of our devotion is the word of a God so much greater than we are that we know virtually nothing about this deity? Well…it’s only the first reading, from last Sunday. Let’s turn to the other readings.
Ha! Second Peter (3:8-15a) is no better when it comes to comforting: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire and the earth and everything that is done on it will be burned up.” Then, there’s John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8) appearing on the scene. ‘Nuff said.
So what does this mean for us? Most of us are waiting, if not for the day of the Lord then for this day or for something else – for true love…for the return of health…for a job that means something…for thriving congregations…for increased membership…for a house to call our own…for peace in our families, our community, our church, our nation, our world. Most of us are waiting for something and many of us yearn for something better that we cannot name. Like the words from Isaiah’s prophecy, a voice says, “Cry,” and we say, “What shall I cry?”
I have just returned from Washington, D. C., where I was, frankly, lobbying for immigration reform and for a federal budget that does not oppress the poor. “What shall I cry?” The words escape us; all we know is that there must be more and better than this.
That is what makes Isaiah and John and Peter our siblings: they too yearn for something better they cannot name. The revealed glory of the Lord, whatever that high mystery means. The one who will come after, the one who is mightier, whoever that might be; they didn’t know for sure. The day of the Lord, whatever that means, even though I’m pretty sure it’s got nothing to do with that preacher named Kamping who keeps trying to scare us. Peter and John and Isaiah don’t know the details. All they can do is proclaim that the old ways of life are passing away and new life is coming. And that’s all we can do. Proclaim, sometimes with words, sometimes not. Without the luxury of details, with no concession to our need to know what we are getting ready for or what we are getting ourselves into, they call us to prepare the way for that new life, to clear away anything that might get in its way, and wait without knowing when it will come, or what it will look like, or how it will change our lives.
I know these are harsh words. I know. But, see: we have heard and believed the story of a particular birth, which gives us reason to think for a moment about babies and about what goes into preparing the way for that form of new life in our lives. All fortune-telling and amniocentesis aside, most expectant parents do not know exactly what they are expecting. Even if they know the gender of their child, they cannot know the rest: what it will look like, be like, how it will change them. All they know for sure is that nothing will ever be the same again, and the way most of them go about preparing for that is literally to clear a space – a nursery or a corner of their bedroom – a place for this unknown child to become a part of their lives. Whether it is our own baby we are expecting, or the baby Jesus, or the grown-up Lord coming in great power and glory, we are all called to prepare the way for new life in our lives, to make room for it by letting go of our old ways, our old lives, as painful as that may sometimes be.
The title of a book has haunted me lately, a book I ran across many years ago – I think I was in college at the time – which I skimmed through, never really read, but whose title has stuck with me. It was called Wait Without Idols, and whoever the author was, he or she might well have been Isaiah or John or Peter because that title is the theme of our proclamation as the church these days. Wait Without Idols. The grass withers, the flower fades, heaven and earth will pass away. Church buildings and Bibles and hymnals and bishops will all pass away. Which is God’s way of telling us that it is only when we stop believing in all of these and stop looking to everything that is not God to save us, only when we are able to empty our hearts and wait without idols, that there is room for God almighty to come to us, to bring us to God’s very self. That’s what we, the church, are called to say and do in the Name of Jesus Christ.
What is surprising is how deceptive some of our idols are. Anyone can turn and walk away from a golden calf, and I expect most of us could toss our savings out the window if we had any and if we believed our souls depended on it. These are obvious idols.
But what about, say, the idol of independence – the belief that everything will be all right if we can just take care of ourselves and not have to ask anyone else to look after us? Or the idol of – let’s call it – romance – the belief that we can face anything in life if we just have one other person to love us the way we are and to love that person in return? Or how about the idol of family – the belief that if we can just gather close to one another our happiness will be unassailable.
To the idol of independence, we say that we are never alone, never autonomous, especially when it comes to being the church. To the idol of romance, we say that people are meant to live in communion with others, with saints of all times and places. To the idol of family – especially the idol that says “my church is like a family” – we say, simply, one word: “dysfunctional.” There are others: patriotism, health, friendship. The list is long. And I’m just mentioning my own, not even touching yours.
And then there is the most deceptive of all idols, the idol of religion, the belief that if we just go to church and struggle, really struggle, to live a life of faith, then our souls will be safe.
“What?” you say. These are all good and noble things! Of course they are. How else could they become idols? That is the first criterion of an idol, that it gladden our hearts and nourish our souls, because that is how we learn to believe in it and depend on it, and finally to cling to it as the only possible source of life. The only problem is that as long as our hearts and souls are full of what we know will sustain us, we have lost our ability to receive the as-yet-unseen-and-unknown-things God has in store for us. We are full up: there is no room at the inn.
During Advent we are invited to come out, to let go, to open up – not to forsake the things we love and want for our lives, but to forsake them as idols. That means learning how to hold them lightly, without clinging, and to be willing to give them up when it becomes clear that they are taking up too much room. Because during Advent we are invited to prepare the way for something new and unknown in our lives, brought to us in person by the living God.
So what will it be for us? What might new life mean for you? What idols will you wait without? What has to go first? What is taking up too much room? You don’t have to do all the clutter-removal at once, but you do get to do it every day through daily repentance. It’s all right if you don’t know all the answers right now. But this is what Advent is about: preparing a place for something new in our lives, for new life in us, waiting without idols, waiting without knowing, waiting with nothing but faith, hope, and love for company in the stillness that teaches us how completely we live at God’s mercy, a mercy that promises everything, that promises the Advent of God.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo