Seek (Advent 2B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 9, 2020.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Last week, we jumped into the book of Isaiah as we considered what it means to “ask” God for what we need so it will be given to us, as Jesus promises. I encourage you if you missed last week’s devotional to find it on Facebook or YouTube because that’s really where I set the stage for this Advent series. Jesus tells us, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” So this week, we are going to “Seek” so that we might find. And since Kelly Ward teased the theme of peace in his sermon on Sunday, we’re going to start our reflection on seeking after God by thinking about a moment of peace that also illustrates what we mean by “seeking” after God.

This year, those of you who are history-inclined have probably done a bit of thinking about the year 1918. Culturally, the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic has a lot to teach us about our our current struggle against COVID-19. But if you’re thinking in the wider context, the 1918 flu hit the world hard right at the end of World War I. And it is this war, and the censorship of media in everywhere except Spain about its terrible effects, that has given that pandemic the misnomer of being the Spanish Flu.

Anyway, we’re going to be thinking 4 years before, to the year 1914, the first year of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars…” (or so it was said at the time.

On December 7, 1914, almost exactly 106 years ago, Pope Benedict XV, with an eye toward the promises of the Advent season, with the Christian hope of “peace,” suggested a temporary hiatus of the war to celebrate the Christmas season.

It was not that preposterous of a suggestion. This was not, in large part, a war between nations of different religious allegiances. The vast majority of Europe in the early 20th century was Christian. And in large part, in each country that participated in the war, the various Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant) unified behind their national cause.

There were Christians on both sides of the conflict that used their faith in Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even justification for their military engagement.

You would imagine that in such a conflict, both sides might have been able to say publicly and from the highest levels of government: we will pause the war for a Christmas peace. If some temporary peace was possible among competing nations, surely this was it.

And yet, there was no official cease-fire in December 1914.

Of course, no one was going to stop war-weary soldiers, both British and German, from celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.

On Christmas Eve 1914, without any preplanning or communication between sides, troops all across the theater of war began singing Christmas carols in their language. As night fell, you could hear the kingdom of God: men of different nations singing praises to Jesus in their own language, sometimes even accompanied by brass bands.

No one was going to take up their gun on Christmas Eve, no matter how committed they were to the cause of war. For one night, there was Peace.

But this is not where the story ends. The peace of Christmas Eve 1914 came without risk. It was something both sides could practice without leaving their trenches and guns. But, as we’re talking about today, real peace requires risk. It requires seeking after justice and righteousness. Real peace requires us to get off our butts and do something. 

As day broke on Christmas Day 1914, having heard the enemy carols the night before, a few German soldiers took a risk. They actively sought a Christmas peace. They arose from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, across the liminal space called “no-man’s-land” and called out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongues of their enemy. (Take a moment to consider the significance of such an act.)

The Allied soldiers were cautious, fearing a trick. War conditions men to fear such things. But the enemy was unarmed, so they too arose from the trenches and shook their enemy’s hand. On Christmas Day, two men who could have killed each other the day before were exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum puddings.

The words of Isaiah 11 ring in our ears, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

A German Lieutenant recalling the event mused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

“For a Time” is the key phrase in his words. As Christmas Day ended, fighting once again broke out so that by New Year’s, the temporary truce was a distant memory. 

Never again would such a peace take place in war. Military officers made sure of it by threats of discipline. The Powers and Principalities would never make the same mistake of allowing a Christmas peace again. In fact, the Powers would further delay the possibility of true peace. For we know that the “Great War” was not the end of all war. Rather, it was only the embers of an even terrifyingly greater war.

Still, this memory of seeking after peace and justice reverberates in our imaginations at Christmas as we anticipate the coming (again) of the Prince of Peace.⁠1

So now you’re asking yourself, what does this have to do with our reading from Isaiah 40? It turns out, quite a lot. This text, scholars tell us, is the beginning of the second part of the Isaiah text. The Assyrians have destroyed most of Judah and have laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Isaiah too is telling us about the middle of a war. But more than that, there is a temporary peace. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had bigger issues going on at home, and so he recalled his troops to Nineveh.

Isaiah’s “comfort, O comfort my people” comes after this first siege by Assyria and before the later destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 587 BC.  You’ll remember from Kelly’s sermon on Sunday that it is because of Jerusalem’s destruction that Daniel ends up exiled in Babylon.

Isaiah 40, then, comes in this liminal space between violent attacks. It is a message of peace that arrives both in the aftermath and anticipation of conflict, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Isaiah, as he did when he received his divine commission in chapter 6, has entered God’s divine council. Isaiah has entered the heavenly court where there is discussion about these earthly conflicts.

God speaks for his divine messengers (we might call them angels) to “comfort, O comfort my people.” A messenger (angel) chimes in, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” And finally another messenger instructs Isaiah to cry out to people on earth this message: all people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever.”

As we consider our imperative to “seek” so that we might find, it is this imperative in verse 3 that is most crucial: prepare. It is not enough for us to ask God for what we need. We must also prepare the way for the arrival of the answer to our prayers.

The divine messenger is instructing us to go out from where we are to blaze a new trail through an overgrown land. We’re instructed to seek a new way that is different from the old way. We are to seek this new way in order to prepare that path for the arrival of the one for whom we are waiting.

If you’ve ever gone hiking, you can visualize this pretty clearly. Normally, to respect the land we are on, we stay on the marked trails. Someone has already blazed those for us by clearing the vegetation and putting up markers. The path may not be level, but it is clear of debris.

But if we want to get somewhere new, we cannot take the old trails. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we must chart a new course, veer off the path to clear a way through the vegetation, through the mountains and their valleys. The old trail can only take us to the same places it always had. A new trail can lead us to find what we have been asking for and seeking.

Like the route of the Corps of Discovery, the path being charted in Isaiah’s time is not an ideal route. Lewis and Clark never found a water route to the Pacific. Likewise, Isaiah’s route for God’s people is a wilderness route. It is dangerous. Most would avoid traveling it. Yet, this wilderness route is the difficult, painful way through which God’s people will one day return from their suffering in Babylon.

When this text appears again in the mouth of John the Baptist in the New Testament, the way of the Lord being prepared is similarly challenging. Not many want to openly air out their sins. Those who take this road only because they see others doing so or because it is politically expedient are called a “brood of vipers⁠2” by the harsh prophet.

This risky wilderness road in Isaiah, figured more completely for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was once again figured in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Two sides of men were entrenched in the old ways of war and bloodshed. In between them lay a no-man’s-land, a wilderness, they had not before dared to travel. But by doing so, by blazing a new path between the trenches, soldiers of opposing sides found temporary peace.

As Kelly preached on Sunday, our Advent faith requires us to be active, not passive consumers. Charting a new course takes risk, it takes guts, and it takes us rising out of our trenches. 

Here is what I think is perhaps the most important lesson of this Pandemic. You and I were long stuck in a groove, in a trench. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, we have gone around and around so long that we began skipping beats. The longer we did things the old way, the more and more we dug a trench of safety, protection, and stagnation. A soldier who never leaves the trenches is one who has died in the trench.

The Pandemic has revealed the “groove” of life in the BC (Before COVID) time to be a rut, a trench. And right now, all of us cry out in one voice, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we need to be freed from this trench, this rut, this groove. We ask God to come through the uncharted territory because we know the old ways were not working.

We did not love God with our whole heart.

We as a church were not obedient to God’s way.

We have not done God’s will. In fact, in our old ways we actively broke God’s law.

We have rebelled against God’s free offer of grace.

We have not loved our neighbors nor headed the cry of those in need.

It is because of this, because the old ways were not working for us, that we now daily cry out for  God to come and make a new way.

Last week’s Advent reflection could be summed up in a paraphrase of the first 3 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: I can’t. God can. So let him.

Together, we must admit that we were powerless over the Powers and Principalities. We were powerless over Sin. Our lives had become unmanageable. The virus had so fully infected us that we were blind to its effects. We were in the trenches, expecting to die there. But God can deliver us. No. God will deliver us.

That deliverance begins when we start seeking a new way. It comes when we see the trench for what it is and take those first few risky steps through the wilderness road, the land where few men and women would dare to go.

Let us seek a new way together, that we would find a future of peace and justice. A future that some would say is impossible. But through God, all things are possible––even a peace that lasts.

In the name of the God who can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, we pray. Amen.


1 Prince of Peace 2: Electric Boogaloo

2 Many who came to John to be baptized were like those “crowds” who line up in front of a store only to ask others in line what they’re all waiting for.

Ask (Advent 1B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 2, 2020.

Isaiah 64:1-9

We as human beings tell time in a variety of ways. But no matter how you count, this Coronavirus pandemic, and the associated changes in our routines, has been going on for a long time. We began this journey of necessity in mid-March with what was presented as a “two week shutdown to slow the spread.” Now, eight months later, the spread is greater than at any point this year. Public health officials worry how Thanksgiving gathering may affect case numbers and hospital bed availability. The rest of us are wondering when a vaccine will be widely available to begin a new, post-Pandemic normalcy. We’re wondering if the government will pass another relief bill. We’re wondering if we will become infected and how much suffering that would entail.

But let’s think in a different frame for our time together this morning. Let’s think not in the secular, day to day, timeline of pandemic life. Let’s enter into the sacred timeline of where God has been, is, and will be with us.

At the beginning of the Pandemic in mid-March, we were in the third week of the season of Lent. As we all turned to the Bible as a companion to our journey, we found insight in the desert wanderings of the Israelites and in Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness. In some manner our time in that place has continued—as it did for the Israelites who stayed in the desert for far longer than intended because they didn’t learn their lesson and follow God completely (sound familiar?). Over the past months of this Pandemic, we have ventured in our Christian journey through our at-home testimonies to the resurrection at Easter, into the hope and promise of Pentecost from our locked-in Upper Room, and through the weeks that we wondered—like a child on a long car ride—are we there yet?

Now we are in the season the church calls “Advent.” But, I would suggest that we are not just in that season now because the calendar says it. No, we are truly in the season of already/not yet anticipation. The season that is at the turning point of all history. 

We are in the season of knowing that there are reliable vaccines on the horizon to unlock the doors of our seclusion.  We just are not entirely sure when they will be available. Now we count the days, waiting as best we can in confident hope and faithful diligence.

We are, in the Biblical narrative, in the middle part of the library. We are living, no longer in the days of Moses leading God’s people through the wilderness, but in the days of prophets who spoke hope into trying circumstances.

And so, in parallel to our journey of self-examination in our Sunday worship, we are going to be considering our place in this story and journey of God’s people in these Wednesday devotions.

Hopefully, this will serve to put even more context on what we have been thinking about in our Sunday services. We have been digging under the surface of ourselves in order to receive our salvation, but all the while, all of us are also on a journey together as the church and along with the prophets of old.

It is for this communal journey from desperate hope to realized joy that we turn to the prophet Isaiah this morning.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, 

so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 

as when fire kindles brushwood 

and the fire causes water to boil— 

to make your name known to your adversaries, 

so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, 

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Isaiah 64:1–3 (NRSV)

The prophet is living in a time of unrealized expectations, not unlike our living in the 8th month of a two week quarantine. Year after year, the prophet has called people to return to God in the hopes of the promise that God will restore them and their land. See, they’ve had all the promises of God before—they just didn’t recognize it until it was gone. In the past, God had appeared on Mount Sinai to Moses. God had demonstrated power against the prophets of false idols by divinely igniting the bonfire of Elijah. God had even answered their yearnings for a King like the other nations! But as the people of God became more like the people around them, they forgot to turn to God. They turned elsewhere. And as a result, they lost everything

And now, 50 years since their exile, since the hostile takeover by a foreign power, there is hope on the horizon. They are now under the rule of a more agreeable empire and king, one who is willing to restore their freedom to worship the God of Israel. And yet, it doesn’t feel like it did before the captivity. God seems more distant than they remember him.

We could imagine all kinds of situations that would have been like those of Israel in the 530s BC. Perhaps it would be like if we in the United States had lost the Cold War so spectacularly that the USSR had invaded our shores and made us into the United States of Soviet Russia. And 50 years into that foreign rule, the Soviet Union had been conquered by a more powerful nation whose leader was willing to restore a degree of autonomy to our shores. Yeah, it would be like that.

But also, we don’t have to imagine such a situation because we’re in a crisis of our own. We want to gather to praise God in one voice—but also, we are prevented from that for good reason. And the ways that we are able to gather don’t feel like the days we remember, when God spoke to us in all the feel-good ways. 

And so we, right now where we are, can take the message of Isaiah 64 to heart. Spend some time personally with this text. Here’s the meat of what he is saying to us.

Point 1 (vv. 1–4) — Things in this world are not as they should be. There should be enough hospital beds and affordable healthcare for everyone who is sick. There isn’t. The world shouldn’t be diseased at all. The very existence of biological viruses is a defect in the created order caused by the virus of Sin.

The thing is, we as the people of God know that there have been times when God has acted decisively to free and heal his people. God freed Israel from Egypt, God gave them a land of their own, and God sent Jesus Christ in this world to free us from our sins. And yet God seems far removed from us.

We all have, at one point or another, prayed a prayer of desperation to God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down…” “If only you would heal me or one I love.” 

The reality we begin with is––we are experiencing a Pandemic that has taken too many lives and will take more. The reality is, people suffer and die far too young. And we cry out to God.

Point 2 (vv. 5–7): We Cannot Save Ourselves!

We as human beings are limited. More than that, we are afflicted with the virus of sin. If anything has proven that to us, it’s the past eight months. For all the good in the world that we have seen persevere through this Pandemic, there is at least as much selfishness and evil.

Right now we all look for a cure. But, a vaccine is not a permanent cure for all that ails us. We thank God for the means to create, research, and manufacture one. But we need a savior beyond ourselves. Because God knows that even our means of curing these bodily afflictions are just as fallible as everything else we do. And beyond that, a vaccine won’t fix the sin of racism, of poverty, of hatred, of the brokenness of our communities.

In fact, we’re going to be tempted, when this is all over, to pretend that all is right with the world. Newsflash: it’s not. The world is broken. The world is sick. And this pandemic and its effects are only a symptom of this larger reality that we need salvation. 

Point 3 (v. 8, v. 1): Healing Comes Decisively from Outside Ourselves

If we cannot save ourselves, than we have to rely on someone else to save us. There’s a lot of candidates in this world. Everyone is selling something that will supposedly cure what ails us. But the only one who can really fix the problem is the one who is the master engineer who built the thing in the first place, the loving father who has watched us go astray. We need God to decisively act––as God did in the past through Moses and all the prophets, and then through Jesus. 

We need God to literally tear the heavens open and come down. The good thing is, that’s the very thing God promises to do. We are told to cling tightly to Jesus because Jesus will come to free us in a decisive moment of power. Jesus will come to free us like the allies freed the Nazi concentration camps. Jesus will come to heal us like a vaccine that inoculates us against the virus of Sin. Jesus will come like a test that shows the cancer has disappeared. Jesus will come like a presidential pardon, freeing us from the prison to which we’ve become enslaved.

Jesus will tear the fabric of our brokenness and enter into the core of our being.

This is the hope and promise of Advent; The invigorating hope and promise of God acting decisively in Jesus Christ. It is not a hope to be rested in passively––it is a hope that wakes us up to how things are and leads us to prepare our hearts and minds.

It is a hope that raises a loud cry in our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Make haste to help us.

This desperate cry to God, this asking and begging, is part of our faithful waiting. It’s faithful because it reminds us about who God is and always has been. It reminds us that Jesus is the cure to our affliction.

But, as we close this morning, we’re likely to ask, “how long must we wait?”

Well, the answer as it relates to COVID is probably 6 months. If all goes according to schedule, and the vaccine is accepted and trusted, we might be able to put COVID-19 behind us by early Summer. That means we’re over halfway through our waiting. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still waiting to do. There is faithful waiting to do. The waiting that means we take every precaution for the good of our neighbors.

The question, “how long must we wait for God’s deliverance?” Is a tricker one to answer. We do not know when God, in Jesus Christ, will once again rend the curtain of heaven and come down. What we do know, for each of us, is that God has torn open the curtain separating us from God in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come and is here for all who ask, seek, knock, and receive. Today could be the day of your salvation from the Spiritual virus that afflicts you.

But as it relates to the salvation of the whole world, we wait as those who have hope. We wait with loud cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Just be prepared. That cry will go on for longer than six months more. But it will also come at an unexpected time.

We might be able to understand how God unexpectedly works in time through the character of Gandalf.

God is a bit like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Or rather, Gandalf embodies some of God’s characteristics. In the LOTR movies, Gandalf is noted for saying… A wizard is never late. Nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.”

And thus it will be that when God saves us, it will be at the precise moment and in the precise way that he intends for his glory and our good. 

God is never late. Nor is he early. God arrives at the precise moment he intends.  

In the name of the God who holds the past, present, and future we pray. Amen.