Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

Advent 3: Isaiah 61

Isaiah 61:1-2a

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;       

  he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

         to proclaim liberty to the captives,

            and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …

My uncle is a prison chaplain, ministering to inmates and staff in a high-security facility.  Many of the inmates where he works suffer from severe mental illness.  I wonder if anyone ever reads this text there — I’ve been meaning to ask him.

He tells me that although the idea of having a religion is pretty popular within the prison walls, Christianity is about the least popular choice.  Why?  Because many of the inmates see the weakness of the cross and reject it.  They would rather express their spiritual side in a way that celebrates power.

It’s a complicated place, the prison.   Some inmates do profess faith in Christ, often at a heavy cost within the closed society of inmates.  As I mentioned, many would prefer a more macho savior.  Yet they still hold Christmas parties, hosted by churches that are willing to come in and provide the refreshments.  I have met some of the inmates, and they are complicated people.

I wonder what it would mean for them to experience release, liberty, and good news.   How does the year of the Lord’s favor impact someone who is hardened against it?

For that matter, how do God’s promises impact us?  Do we like what we hear when God speaks?

Advent 2: Cry Out!

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.   (Isaiah 40:6)

Yesterday, the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 40:1-11.  My friend Christopher Edmonston (@pastoronpoint) got me thinking about this passage in an entirely new way this Advent season.  He began his online Advent reflections by asking a question:  what would happen if no one told the Advent and Christmas stories anymore?  What if we all decided that those stories are too old and worn out?   What would happen then?

His question led me to another:  what would happen if no one cried out, in the way that Isaiah is inspired to do?

What would we have lost if no one in the world had ever spoken up, dissented, protested, or revolted?

I used to think it would be easy to cry out about whatever I deemed wrong with the world.  If you don’t like something, start an argument or a protest about it, I reasoned.  What I didn’t realize was that I knew nothing about actual resistance; I was simply a determined argumentative kid.  (Just ask my mom and dad.)

As an adult, I have discovered that standing up for what you believe in is tough and complicated.  You think you’re signing a simple petition, but that one stroke of the pen commits you to arduous behind-the-scenes work.  You take a stand on something, and you lose some friends over it.  Or, you may be mad in general, but unable to articulate the changes you want to see in the world.

And so sometimes you just cry out.  Isaiah felt the call to cry, and yelled out, “What?  I’ll do it, but what will I say?  It’s almost no use.”

Years ago, as I prepared for ordination as a pastor, I thought and prayed about this passage.  At the time, being a seminary student or a pastor was a ridiculous thing to do, at least in my circle.  My senior year in college, some people even asked me why I would waste my time in seminary.  Yet I felt that God was doing something in my life and in the world that required me to talk about it.  So I used this passage at my ordination service.

Now, things are still not crystal clear, but I have felt encouraged and determined by the conversations about spirituality and personal ethics that have been swirling around in recent years.  I get the sense that we still don’t completely understand what we’re talking about, but all our words and cries are headed in the right direction.

As we prepare to receive Christ anew, may we cry out to the world about how much we need Him … even if we have trouble finding the words.

Advent 1: Isaiah 64:1-9

We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)

If I were writing for seminary students, I would have started this blog a week ago.  In that environment, I’d be writing for people who were preparing to preach:  looking at the Scripture passages for the Sunday ahead.

But I hope that some non-seminarians, and non-preachers, are reading.  If you’re not preparing the sermon or the worship service, then you will think about it after the service is over.

After worship, snippets of hymns cruise through our ears, and bits and piece of prayer and sermon and Scripture rattle around in our minds.  Some Sundays we manage to grab a morsel of something rich and powerful that feeds us throughout the week.  Other Sundays the luster seems to vanish as soon as we leave the building, and we are left to face the week feeling unprepared… or even disappointed.

That’s where Isaiah begins his painful love song.  For him and the people, it’s over.  The relationship with God was a mixture of good and bad, but the worst part is that it feels like it’s in the past.   He’s left with a failed relationship, and nothing but tatters to hold onto.

Isaiah actually holds both God and people to account on this.  He writes, “because you (God) hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5) and that no human “attempts to take hold of you” (v. 7).  In Isaiah’s mind, things fell apart because no one bothered to take care of the relationship.  People ought to be holding on to God for dear life, in Isaiah’s vision.  But they didn’t, and God got out of town.  Isaiah begs God to start paying attention and participating in the relationship again.

Really, this is a bold move on Isaiah’s part.  How dare he accuse God of not being caring, active, and loving?  Yet I think Isaiah has touched on something raw and hungry in the human soul.  We want — we need — vibrant, flourishing relationships.  Sometimes we don’t put the effort we should into our relationships, and sometimes we retaliate when we feel hurt by giving others the silent treatment.   Yet we can’t live without those relationships.  Isaiah, our lonely “ex”, remembers what it was like to hold on to God, and he wants God back.

So Isaiah closes with offering a deal of sorts.  Let’s try again.  Let’s go back to the unformed clay, and make something new.

Can we make something new at work or home or school this week?  Do we care enough to try?

Advent Week 1: “Tear Open the Heavens”

Last year, I set out on an ambitious project to post something about spiritual disciplines every day during Advent.  I did it, but whew!  What a task.  Those posts are still on this blog if you’d like to read them.

That project turned into an ongoing theme in our campus ministry program.  Several times a semester, if not several times a year, our group talks in a very direct way about spiritual growth and discipline.  Listening to young adults talk about prayer, meditation, and their spiritual experiences has truly changed my life.

This year my thoughts are still with young adults, but in a different way.   I’ve noticed over the years that here in Greenville, people in their late teens to early thirties actually show up for worship on Sunday mornings.  Crazy, I know!

However, we don’t talk much during the week about the worship experience was like.  It seems that we just go back to the same old routine every Monday morning:  our work, classes, clubs, and Thursday night campus ministry program.  So this year I will write during Advent about the Scriptures we read on Sunday mornings during church, the hymns we sing, the sermon, and anything else we do during worship.

I have no idea what seeds might be planted this Advent.  For me, if blogging about Sunday worship gets me to carry the Sunday message throughout the week, I’ll be more than satisfied.

All that being said, here’s Week 1.  You’ll see some thoughts from today’s worship service, and some further reflections throughout the week.

“Tear Open the Heavens”

I could have sat for an hour this morning and meditated on Isaiah 64:1 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence …”)

Don’t we wish that God would just get down here and fix some stuff?  That God would slay evil, abolish suffering, and … well, take away our pain with a sweep of his mighty hand?

In this morning’s sermon, Bill stated the case:  we miss God.  We have come to know and love our Creator, and it hurts to be separated from God.

Yet we also know that God has plans and promises.  That’s why we miss God so much when the promises don’t appear to be working out.

During the worship service on the first Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian, we try to witness to those plans and promises in a tangible way.  The service combines the stark prophetic texts with the joyful “Greening of the Church “, which is a procession through the sanctuary with the elements of the season, such as light, greenery, and banners.  It feels sort of like a pilgrimage, in which we “travel” to our place of worship, singing along the way about who God is and who we are because of Him.  Too bad we don’t parade around the city as well!

I always get the sense from this service that God has truly arrived.  God is in residence, keeping office hours, and ready to get to work.  We, in turn, set out our pretty decorations as a way of saying that we’re here too.  We are ready to sojourn with this Immanuel, the Word made flesh.  We just might even be ready, should Immanuel tear open the heavens this very minute.

More this week on the texts and worship from the first Sunday in Advent.

Advent Day 24: In Your Own Words

Advent Day 24

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  (Luke 1:38)

Today’s spiritual practice is another way of reading and studying Scripture:  rewrite a passage in your own words.

Earlier I gave you a study method that works better with narrative passages (like the story of the birth of Jesus), and this re-writing exercise works better with poetry and songs.

Try today’s reading from Isaiah, or Isaiah 9:2-7 (a traditional Christmas Eve reading.)

I love doing this exercise with two types of people:  those who excel at poetry and song-writing, and those who absolutely believe they don’t have that gift.  (I think everyone can use their imagination, and everyone enjoys beauty.)  It’s great to hear what the poets come up with; they can come up with something I’d like to frame and put on the wall.  It’s also beautiful to watch when the scientific, technical people begin to let their imagination out.   Technical folks write beautiful poetry!  They make sure it has rhyme and rhythm, they search for the perfect words, and in general they work really hard to make it right. 

Keep your re-written passage in your pocket or on your computer somewhere in a place where you can look at it from time to time.  Use it as a prayer.

Today’s daily Scripture reading from the PC(USA):