Advent Lifts and Levels

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Our prayer during this Christmas season is that it would be the most meaningful one that Solid Rock has ever had as a church community. Experiencing the fullness of this season involves slowing down long enough to attend to both the despair and the joy of the story of God’s coming in the flesh.

Waiting during Advent reminds us that darkness envelopes the season before the light penetrates it, but the morning does dawn. Fear and hope coexist, but hope eventually holds sway.

In a piece called “Advent Begins with Trouble,” Edwin Searcy calls Advent “the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.”

This characterization of Advent parallels the scriptural witness. According to Searcy, the practice of “telling the truth about the trouble” that precedes Christ’s coming involves attending to “the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a saviour.” 

One such “odd text” is found in Psalm 137. Here the psalmist gives voice to the deep ache of homesickness brought about by the Babylonian exile. In response to taunting from Babylonian captors to “sing us one of the songs of Zion,” the psalmist laments, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Then, in a particularly grisly passage, the psalmist pronounces a benediction upon those who commit acts of violence against Israel’s oppressors.

There, into the midst of Israel’s decades-long exile from Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah announces the word of the Lord:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
    double for all her sins.

What follows is an announcement that a highway will be constructed in the wilderness upon which God will travel to visit his people and deliver them from their despair. Isaiah’s oracle reverberates in the ears of God’s people, so much so that hundreds of years later, John the Baptist picks up the same prophecy to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Here are Isaiah’s words that John later echoes in Luke 3:

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Instead of the accompanying “Comfort, comfort” that we hear in Isaiah, John the Baptist follows up Isaiah’s words by addressing his audience as both a “brood of vipers” and as fruitless trees that need to be cleared away and tossed into the fire.

What’s striking (and perhaps easy to miss) about John the Baptist’s use of Isaiah in the gospel of Luke is that John the Baptist conscripts Isaiah’s poetic oracle in service of a point that is completely the opposite of the one Isaiah originally makes. Whereas Isaiah writes to comfort an audience who has experienced the depths of despair in exile from their homeland, John the Baptist re-purposes Isaiah’s words to admonish those who have apparently become too comfortable with their perceived standing before God based solely on the fact that they were born into a certain family. 

How can the same word from God be spoken both to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Ben Witherington III posits an answer in his book Isaiah Old and New:

“Precisely because of their figurative and metaphorical character, [poetic prophecies] are intentionally multivalent, or at least can function in various ways depending on the receptivity, or lack thereof, of the audience.”

The prophetic word given to Isaiah is indeed “multivalent” in that it applies to audiences as varied as those in the darkness of exile and those who are blinded by their own self-righteousness.

Like the prophetic word that bears witness to his coming, Christ himself—the Word of God—visits those who are desperate for relief and those who have not yet realized the extent of their need. The light will dawn, but in order for it to be visible, the valleys that keep us isolated from one another will need to be lifted up, and the mountains that obscure our need for a savior must be leveled.

If, as Searcy suggests, Advent is the deep blue of the morning before the dawn, what shade of darkness characterizes our current situations? Are we, like Isaiah’s audience, in need of comfort, deliverance, and restored relationships? Or, like John’s audience, are we in need of having our assumptions leveled to make way for the one who is to come?

When the light hits our situation, as we commit ourselves to believing it will, what joy might this Christmas season make visible to us that we were previously unable to see? When the Word is delivered, will we be open to receiving him?