This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 23, 2020.
Through the first three weeks of our Advent waiting, we have considered the words of Jesus to “ask, seek, and knock” through the lens of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote during Israel’s time in exile. Each week we have seen how Isaiah’s context in exile is similar to our own situation in various levels of isolation due to the Coronavirus. In this time that we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have considered the important spiritual tasks of asking God for what we need, seeking after a new way, and knocking at the door of the future.
We need relief from Coronavirus, both the symptoms of the illness and the loss of life and livelihood it has caused.
We need God to show us a new way, because many in our world have been robbed of true peace and justice.
We need to be willing to stand at the doorway of that new way and actively request entry into it. We need to tell God “yes,” we will follow God’s way.
This is what Advent is all about. This Advent, more than usual, is a time when we await God’s promised deliverance, God’s coming again into our future.
Today’s message from the prophet Isaiah is half Advent message. Isaiah 55:6-9 in particular call us back to the theme of “seeking the Lord,” But let’s start at the beginning with a message that is perfect for these short days before Christmas.
Isaiah says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you thirsty? Come to the water! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway to buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Similar to the Message Paraphrase)
Over the past few weeks, our faithful deacons purchased food boxes from the Food Bank along with Christmas food staples to make sure families in our community who are in need have food to eat at Christmas. The deacons engage in this kind of ministry year round, making sure those who request food or other resources from the church can receive it. But Christmas is a time when this kind of ministry is in full force.
There are all sorts of more “secular” reasons why we engage in acts of charity this time of year. We are more conscious of the blessings that we have. There is social pressure to do something for those who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes are filled with year-end financial appeals from charities.
But there is also a deeply Christian reason why the Advent and Christmas season is a time when we would open our hearts and resources for those who are in need. See, in Advent, we await the future coming of Jesus Christ. Not just in Isaiah, but in the New Testament as well, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is a time when both hearts and bellies will be full, not just with the bare essentials, but with wonderful things. Isaiah 25 tells us that there will be a feast of “rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine [with] the best of meats!” The New Testament likens it to a wedding feast or a king’s banquet.
The promise of Christmas, both now and future, is a great feast! A great banquet! An occasion for celebration with family and friends old and new. A time when when our bellies would be full of foods we cannot afford. A time when our hearts would be full of good news that we do not deserve.
But then the prophet, after giving the promise, asks the hard, discipleship question: “why?”
Isaiah asks, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” I don’t know about you, but even despite the restrictions and tightened belts of the pandemic, I’ve spent money I didn’t need to spend. The things of last month don’t satisfy this month. My priorities aren’t always in the right place, especially this time of year. There are all sorts of great things that God gives me for free and plenty of people who do not have daily bread and what do I do? I spend money on fleeting entertainment. Why do we invest so much time and energy in things that do not satisfy? I don’t know, Isaiah. Because we’re bored? (I think Isaiah might scoff at our honest answer.)
Matthew and Luke’s Gospels ask another question about the way people respond to the Great Feast. “Why do people who are invited to the free water, the free bread, the free feast of blessing not come to get it?”
In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about those who do not come to the free banquet. The host says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you hungry? Come to the feast! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway. I’ve set a place for you.” And what do the guests do? They tell the host that they have better things to do. “Sorry, I can’t come.”
This is, perhaps, primarily a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Those who belong to God’s people and God’s church are often the ones who make excuses about why they can’t make time for God’s blessings.
But also, it’s just a plain fact. You can announce to the world that you have free food to give out, and some people will be too proud to come and receive it. They’re in need, but those blessings are for other people. And on the other side, you have people who say “yeah, I need some food!” who do not actually come to get it.
Why are our priorities so out of whack? Why do we not admit our needs? Why do we not show up for the blessings God gives out so abundantly for free.
The answer is, of course, that we are human. We’ve been turning away from God’s blessings in search of something else since that first day in the garden. God was like, “look at all this stuff I’m giving you for free!” And we said, “Nah, God. I’d rather eat that fruit over there instead.”
And so, the Christmas promise (as it always does) leads us back into the Advent question. The promise of a great feast of FREE (did I mention, FREE) FOOD leads us to wonder why we do not ask, seek, and knock for what we need.
The prophet turns us to this Advent theme in Isaiah 55:6-9 — “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”
We’re right back where we started. Ask God for what we need. Seek God’s way. Knock at the door. Receive the blessings.
Again we ask, what does it mean for us to seek God’s way in the Christmas season during a global Pandemic?
I’m sorry for jumping around so much today, but if you look at Matthew 24:42-44 I think we’ll find the answer.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Keep watch. Stay vigilant.
If you’ve considered this Scripture text before, you may have noticed that the Lord here is likened to an unexpected thief. It’s a shocking comparison, like many in the Advent season. God, like a thief will come at the moment you’re not prepared and ready. The moment you’ve let your guard down.
Right now, there is something far more covert and menacing than a thief going around. Right now, at the moment when Coronavirus vaccines are starting to be distributed, hospitals are running out of space. Many of us are starting to let our guard down.
Over and over, our Scriptures remind us, “seek righteousness, care for your neighbor, keep watch, don’t let your guard down.”
Both blessings and suffering come at an unexpected time.
It is for that reason that Paul admonishes the early church to “not be like the others who are asleep” on the job, lax in their duty to keep watch and stay attentive.
“Let us be awake and sober” because we are children of the light of Christ.
Let us actively ask, seek, and knock in this season. Let’s stay vigilant because the day of our promised deliverance from COVID is coming. God is coming into our future and making a way and a future for us.
But as we remain ready and vigilant, let us also take time to celebrate and thank God for the free blessings God gives us. We have food to eat. We have shelter. We have connection with other people, even if only virtually. God is meeting our needs. God is present with us this Christmas.
Thank you for taking this journey through the message of Isaiah with me this month. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!