This is my third year of the Narrative Lectionary. In the past two years, the weeks of Advent have been filled with the words of some of minor prophets. The stirring cries of Malachi and Hosea have shaped the season’s preaching by heightening the anticipation of and longing for Jesus. This year’s reading from Isaiah brings a different ethos to the last reading from the Hebrew Scriptures from this cycle.
In Isaiah 55, the people of Israel have been exiled a little over two generations. Since the prophecies Second Isaiah are generally considered to be contemporaneous with Ezekiel, these words are likely coming after the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of many who believed God no longer favored God’s first people.
In 538 b.c.e., the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed those who had been conquered to the Babylonians to return to their homelands, such as they were. So what we have are generations of Israelites who may have only vague memories of Jerusalem and the temple, if any. There are also many Israelites, born in captivity, whose images have come through hearing the stories of their parents and grandparents. There is no way to know what to expect.
Furthermore, it is hard to know what to expect of God. If one has been hearing, in many and various ways, that one was/is complicit in one’s suffering… that the idolatry of Israel contributed to their capture and exile… what does one expect of God now? Can we trust Cyrus- a foreigner- as an agent of God’s will? Do we heed the words of the prophet- saying that God is enlarging the covenant beyond David to all of God’s people?
This is an Advent passage, a passage poised in hope and possibility. Relationships with God, with the land, with one another, and with non-Israelites are all poised to change for the better (or worse, depending). How to embrace that change? How to let go of fear and truly believe that the season of hope can become more than a season- that it can be transformed into a way of fruitful and faithful living?
These are not a people of water. Water, when compared with other stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a destructive force. It represents chaos and it brings death. However, here God’s prophet is urging people to come to the waters. The waters become a source of life and promise. Furthermore, it is not what the people can bring (not experience with water, not money for food, not historical knowledge). The Israel they will re-enter will be very different than the one they left. There will be chaos. There will be signs of death. For some, there will be painful stories. For others, Babylon is their only familiar scenery.
Yet, God is inviting them. Not only are the Israelites admonished not to worry, but also to let go of that which will not (and cannot) bring them life. A land untended will have gone wild- thorns cover fields, briers invade home gardens, rocks lie where the temple stood. All of these things stand as potential idols… there is the danger of embracing fear, frustration, resignation, grief, or even Cyrus as god.
Thus, the Israelites are urged to seek God when God can be found, before they are distracted. Poised in this liminal and hopeful state, between exile and homecoming, God is clear. The people are in a safe space to perceive the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. Leaning into God’s faithfulness will help them to step out in trust, to return to their land, but to that their strength is in the Lord.
Initially, I was not thrilled with Isaiah as an Advent text. Without touching the minor prophets, we imply (if only slightly) that either God’s narrative is not revealed through them or that it is done in such an insignificant way that we can skip them. They are utilized in other years, so let me not make an idol of that hobbyhorse.
Instead, I have come to appreciate this text as manger for our Advent waiting. We too are poised between exile and homecoming. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters tend to make light of this life as less significant than what was and what will be. When we look at Isaiah 55, we see so clearly the mistake in that thinking.
The space that is here and now, the life we have, is the arena in which we learn, truly, that God’s ways are not ours. God’s words and deeds bring life, light, and love. Advent is the season, the time, when we are prepared (before being distracted) to re-focus our minds and hearts on God, especial God in Christ.
There is great stuff here. The rejoicing of creation, the union of nations in peace, the revelation that God’s work continues even beyond our understanding and expectation… If the message of Ezekiel 37 was that nothing is too dead for God, surely the message of Isaiah 55 is that when God brings life, it will be (is) beyond anything for which we would dare to hope, much less ask.
What direction are you pondering at this Advent crossroads?