By David Ayres, the Associate Preaching Minister at the Golf Course Road Church of Christ
The Spirituality of Advent #2
The God of Possibility
Advent is what happens in the gap between Isaiah 39:8 and Isaiah 40:1.
There is a chronological chasm between the end of Isaiah 39 and the beginning of Isaiah 40. In Isaiah 39, the king of Israel, Hezekiah, gives a tour of the palace and all the storehouses to some Babylonian envoys.
“Here’s the all the gold and the silver.”
“Here’s the oil and spices.”
“Oh! And here’s all our swords and spears.”
After this ancient-near Easter version of MTV Cribs, Isaiah delivers some bad news to King Hezekiah: “Everything you just showed them will belong to Babylon one day.” And that’s exactly what happened. Between the end of Isaiah 39 and the beginning of Isaiah 40, Israel’s entire society has been dismantled. All of the structures and institutions that made life in Israel possible and meaningful were gone.
In 2014, Mosul, Iraq fell under ISIS control. For three years, the people there languished under the oppressive regime. But now, after being liberated this past summer, stories of what life was like in Mosul under ISIS are beginning to pour out.
One striking story is that of two sisters: Farah and Ruffle Khaled. Farah is 22 and Ruffle is 19 – both of them are first year students in the university that just reopened.
For three years their lives were put on pause. ISIS closed the university and banned music, books, phones, TV. The girls hid these things and would use them in secret.
They said that there were moments of terror, but it was mostly intense boredom. Life had become an empty waiting game. Nothing to look forward to, nothing to work towards. Life in Mosul became an empty shell of human existence.
That’s close to the situation Isaiah in speaking into when he begins chapter 40:
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 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.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Isaiah’s first word to Israel is “comfort.” But this is not a simple pat on the back, “there, there,” or an empty promise about how everything will turn out ok in the end. It’s more than that.In order to appreciate the words of comfort that Isaiah speaks, it’s important to understand Israel’s conception of what occurred during the exile. Every step of the way, it has been God’s presence which was the decisive factor for Israel’s fate.
From their rescue in Egypt, to the conquest of Canaan; from Samson’s flowing locks to David’s mighty men – God’s presence sealed Israel’s fate. God’s presence was the oxygen of Israel’s existence.
So, it’s no wonder why the Temple became the center of Israel’s existence. The Temple was where God was. As long as God resided there, Israel’s future was secure.
And that’s why the destruction of the temple was an existential crisis for Israel – they could not exist without it. When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, Israel did not just lose their most precious national symbol. What happened between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40 was the loss of God himself. God had left building. And without God, Israel was ruined.
But Isaiah has a word of comfort, because he hears a voice calling: “Prepare a way for the Lord!” He looks out from the ruins of Jerusalem, into the wilderness, and there is the glimmer of something on the horizon: God is coming back to be with them.
And God is with them again, then this changes everything. The entire world is about to get flipped upside down.
For Isaiah, the return of God would mean an overhaul of the socio-political environment that was currently oppressing Israel.
It would mean a revolution in the international politics where multiple superpowers were vying for control of the region.
It would mean drastic changes in foreign policy in favor of a people who had no influence or leverage.
It would mean powerful people forfeiting the economic and political advantages that they had come to enjoy and depend on.
It would mean the reallocation of wealth and resources to help a conquered people rebuild their infrastructure.
It would mean a colossal empire would lose their place at the top of the food chain.
In short, it would mean the impossible. And yet, it is the impossible that Isaiah imagines for Israel, and for us.
In fact, the arrival of God is such a profound event, that Isaiah imagines that the geography of the land itself must be re-arranged to accommodate the arrival of God. Every hill will be made low, and every valley will be filled in. When God shows up, the earth itself adjusts accordingly. The mass of God’s glory is so profound that it shifts the gravitational fields of creation.
The gospel according to Isaiah is a direct challenge to the lie that the world cannot change. The world is not confined to the same old predictable patterns of death and sin and injustice, as long as the God of possibility is in our midst.
And for those of us waiting somewhere between Isaiah 39 and 40, that is gloriously good news.