Advent is a time when the church calls us to become more alert to the movement of grace. We not only are called to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but, more especially, to invite God’s love to be born anew in our hearts, to embody Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Each year during Advent, the church selects readings from the prophet Isaiah to guide us on our faith journey. In my Advent reflection, I envision that Isaiah is speaking directly to me and my struggles, challenging my spiritual growth and consoling me on my way.
The Book of Isaiah was written over a span of approximately 150 years by Isaiah and two of his disciples, known to us as Second and Third Isaiah. The book addresses the themes of judgment, hope, and consolation, set against the backdrop of the Assyrian invasions of Israel. Alice Camille, scripture scholar, has called these invaders “beasts, vicious and terrible.”
God sent prophetic messengers to confront the Israelites and their rulers about their failure to accept God’s guidance and protection. Among these prophets was Isaiah, who consulted with several kings. He warned that the Israelites should return to the covenant relationship they once had with God. He prophesizes the word of God when he says of the people of Israel: “I had children and I raised them well, but they turned on me” (Is. 1:2).
Isaiah’s prophetic message is relevant to God’s people of every age as we contemplate our own faithfulness. Advent is a perfect time to reflect on our societal values and the ways we are complicit with injustice, greed, and corruption:
Doom to you . . . who grab all the land for yourselves . . . Doom to those who get up early and start drinking booze before breakfast . . . Doom to you who use lies sell evil, who haul sin to the market by the truckload . . . Doom to you who call evil good and good evil . . . Doom to you who think you’re so smart and then line your pockets with bribes from the guilty while you violate the rights of the innocent (Is. 5:11–23).
In the vision he receives from God, Isaiah speaks of “big heads [and] pretentious egos brought down” (Is. 2:17). In chapter three, he warns the Israelites that “God calls for order in the court, halls the leaders of his people into the dock” (Is. 3:14) and that “your leaders are taking you down a blind alley” (Is. 3:12).
Instead of forming alliances with warring neighbors, Isaiah proposes that Israel commit to a policy of nonaggression. He counsels against harming enemies and asserts that God will provide help and protection. Above all, Isaiah promises hope; God will “settle things fairly between nations. He’ll make things right between many peoples. They’ll turn their swords into shovels, their spears into hoes. No more will nation fight nation; they won’t play war anymore (Is. 2:4). Isaiah goes on to share a vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, in spite of the looming Assyrian menace:
The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent (Is. 11:6–8).
Received wisdom says that if you want to survive, you must prepare to defend yourself in a dog-eat-dog world. Isaiah is overtly opposed to that mentality. He sees a world in which conflicts are resolved nonviolently: “Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide” (Is. 11:9). Can we agree that we need this same peaceful, inclusive view today to co-create a better world?
In a kingdom that was weakening with immorality, faithlessness, and self-serving power plays, Isaiah warned the unfaithful and the wicked by castigating them: “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims—Laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity” (Is. 10:1–2). This was meant to be consolation to the weary, so the poor would be assured that God was close at hand.
Throughout Advent, we hear anew God’s call to prepare ourselves for action. In the first week of Advent, we listen as Isaiah speaks on behalf of the people:
We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves—sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind. No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you because you’ve turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins. Still, God, you are our Father. We’re the clay and you’re our potter: All of us are what you made us (Is. 64:6–8).
As I journey with Isaiah, I confess that I have sometimes allowed myself to be deceived, and have become an accomplice to sin by my inaction. In Advent we refocus: Here we are once again, Lord, to renew our covenant commitment with you and to ask you to use us in accordance with your will. We want only to bring your love and mercy to those most in need of your redeeming embrace.
The second week of Advent arrives with another of Isaiah’s consolations: “Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, hugging them as he carries them, leading the nursing ewes to good pasture” (Is. 40:11). In the third week of Advent, Isaiah turns to God’s tender concern for the most vulnerable. What follows is one of the most beautiful passages in the bible, in which God’s unconditional, non-abandoning love and preferential option for the poor are promised:
The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me because God anointed me. He sent me to preach good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners. God sent me to announce the year of his grace—a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies—and to comfort all who mourn. . . . I will sing for joy in God, explode in praise from deep in my soul! He dressed me up in a suit of salvation, he outfitted me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom who puts on a tuxedo and a bride a jeweled tiara. For as the earth bursts with spring wildflowers, and as a garden cascades with blossoms, So the Master, God, brings righteousness into full bloom and puts praise on display before the nations (Is. 61:1–2, 10–11)
Jesus, following in the footsteps of Isaiah, quotes this same passage in the temple at the beginning of his ministry (Lk. 4:18). He is aware of his similar mission, and then acts on this call by going forth and loving the world.
All of us who follow in the footsteps of Christ receive the gift of the Advent season to reflect on how we can wake up from paralysis to a deeper consciousness: that Christ cares for each and every one of us, without exception. Christ desires that we live and act peacefully as God’s children. The church calls the faithful to prepare to carry on this mission of love without rancor and divisiveness. We are now the chosen people to build the Peaceable Kingdom. In the season of Advent, we listen to Isaiah’s warnings about this history of destruction and, with God’s help, resolve to build peace and pour love into our world.
Dorothy Yeomans, former Director of Religious Education for St. Margaret’s Church, Homer, New York, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She lives with her husband Peter in Andover, Connecticut. All bible translations in this piece are sourced from the Message Bible.