I’ve been intrigued by the promotion of Advent calendars, online and in large retail stores this year. Looking into it, I find it is becoming a pre-Christmas accompaniment, advertising wine, coffee pods and chocolate, lego (for Advent) and, of course the calendars themselves.
Back in November 2016, Ysenda Maxtone Graham drew attention in The Spectator UK to the season of Advent. She spoke of Advent as ‘a season of death, judgment, heaven and hell’ (November 26, 2016).
‘I relish the frisson of gloom,’ she wrote, the ‘foreboding and fear of judgment you get at Advent, alongside the hope. The Holly and the Ivy is all very well, but it’s the minor chord at the end of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel that I crave.’
‘More goose-pimples erupt in the naves and transepts of our cathedrals during the Advent service, than at any other in the liturgical year’, she comments. ‘It’s the mixture of bitterness and sweetness that does it,…’
It was Isaiah the prophet, writing in the 8th century BC, who was amongst the first of the prophets to speak, not only of the first coming of God’s King (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7), but also of his second coming (Isaiah 11:1-9).
It’s important we think about this. Often we’re not aware of elements of the Christian heritage that touch people in our wider society. Christmas retains an ongoing point of connection; now we’re seeing an interest that extends back into Advent.
Given this interest let me consider one of the readings set for this Advent season – for this Sunday, December 12.
The Book of Isaiah, chapter 35, verses 1 and 2 read: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
A brooding theme in Isaiah chapters 1 through 39 is God’s impending judgment of his people. In 586BC the Babylonian forces would destroy the city of Jerusalem and take its people into exile. But Isaiah chapter 35 shines a light in the darkness, bringing news of God’s promise of a new day.
Isaiah’s poetry is powerful as he likens the experience of joy and singing at the coming of the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God, to our response when flowers burst into bloom in parched lands after refreshing rain.
It is a vision that inspires courage and fearlessness: Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God..’ (35:3-4a).
But Isaiah 35 also sounds a warning note. Because God is holy, his very nature means that he must judge what is unholy.
In chapter 35, verse 4b we read: ‘…He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense…’ We would be happier to overlook this aspect of God’s character. We’d much prefer to listen to and pass on a message of blessing – of justice without judgment, of salvation without a cross.
However, the wonderful news is that the nature of the God of the Bible is always to have mercy. Isaiah continues: ‘…He will come and save you’ (35:4c).
We all know that despite the incredible advances in science and technology, humanity continues to make a mess of relationships – between the nations and amongst families. It is self-evident we have no power of ourselves to save ourselves: spiritually we are blind and deaf, lame and mute (Isaiah 35:5-6).
The wonderful news is that God himself promises a future for us. He will build a highway for his people into his very presence! He will bring us to our true and lasting home where there will be joy and gladness… Sorrow and sighing shall flee far away (35:8, 10).
Isaiah uses the language of redeemed and ransomed of the Lord (35:9-10) to speak of everyone who is brought into God’s presence. These words look back to the rescue from Egypt; they also look forward to the saving work of Jesus Christ.
There is also something here that we miss. The highway to God is called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it… (35:8). Having been rescued we are now called upon to work at the quality of life that reflects the holiness of God. Paul the Apostle puts it this way: we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, will be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Isaiah, chapter 35 is a great reading for Advent. We see in it another facet of Isaiah’s vision of the glory of the Lord as he points us to the glorious day of the final coming of the Lord. We can drink it in and take new courage as it speaks to us of the everlasting joy and gladness we will then know.
Surely this is news we will want family and friends to know – so they too will see glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
The interest in Advent reveals the deceit of a secular progressivism insisting that life now is all there is. This is cruel, denying the reality of a day when perfect justice will be done. It also rejects what, deep down in our hearts we know: eternity exists (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
As I write, I am praying that we will all have a renewed commitment to shape our priorities, decisions, and relationships in the light of Jesus’ return. Yes, he will return – perhaps when we least expect it.
So, will you join me in praying for five people who don’t yet know Jesus? You may want to take the opportunity to invite them to church, as well as to coffee to explore the first eighteen sentences of John’s Gospel using TheWord121 (www.theword121.com). If others don’t hear, how can they be prepared to meet God’s King?
A prayer. Almighty God, we pray that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered through your guidance that your people may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.