Advent is a season of four weeks preparing for the feast of Christmas welcoming Jesus Christ, God with us. During the four weeks four figures prepare us for the coming of our Lord: the Prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary of Nazareth and Joseph of Nazareth.
This first week in our Advent liturgy the Prophet Isaiah is the strong voice to listen to. The Book of Isaiah, some say, is our 5th Gospel.
Isaiah served as a priest in the temple of Jerusalem in the eighth century before Christ.While engaged in the daily worship in the temple Isaiah was also deeply engaged in what was happening in the world of his day. He was concerned with every move the Jewish leaders were making, from the king on down. He scolded them, encouraged them, and warned them. He was never afraid to speak what was on his mind, and what was on his mind was often far from theirs.
He lived in difficult times. Assyria, the great kingdom to the north was expanding its empire, and they were intent on absorbing Israel.
But Israel wanted independence and from the king on down they were intent on resisting the Assyrians. The king at this time was Ahaz, a consumate realist who was ready to take whatever political or military steps he could take to stop the Assyrians. That meant reinforcing the defenses of the city, establishing alliances with allies, like the Egyptians, assembling and training the best army to fight them. Ahaz was a realist who thought only of political, or military, or economic realities.
The reality was a large Assyrian army was coming down from the north, destroying everything in its path.
And so Isaiah speaks words we often hear this season:
In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction,and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
How foolish those words must have sounded to Ahaz and those like him. How impractical. More swords and spears were needed, more armies, more alliances had to be marshaled. Isaiah’s words were an impossible dream.
Yet, Isaiah was not unaware of the real world. He wanted the king and those like him to hold on to the vision of God, a vision beyond politics and military and economic means. God’s vision is for a world that’s one, where all nations stream towards the Lord’s mountain. God’s vision is for a peaceable world, where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. God’s vision is for a just world where all are fed, especially the poor and the weak. God’s vision is for a world like a rock where all, even the natural world itself, is secure.
Impractical, the realists like Ahaz–and maybe us– say. But Isaiah’s message came, not from the “real” world– but from God, Emmanuel, God with us. Your kingdom come.
In times like ours, we need to listen to prophets like Isaiah speaking of God’s vision, lest we get trapped in the thinking of the “real” world. God’s vision is real, more real than we can imagine, greater than we can hope for. We need to rely on more than what we see. In Advent, we need to keep company with prophets like Isaiah, asking to see what they saw. Emmanuel. God is with us.