I’m blogging through the lectionary this year, with an emphasis on the prophets this Advent season, and today’s* reading comes from Isaiah 64:1-9:
“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. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
There is no poetry like the poetry of the prophets.
“Let justice roll down like waters,” cries Amos, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace,” sings Isaiah, “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
“They refused to heed,” laments Zechariah, “shrugged their shoulders and stopped their ears so they could not hear. They made their hearts like flint.”
“You have covered yourself with a cloud,” repines the author of Lamentations, “so that no prayer can get through.”
Clapping trees, quaking mountains, hearts of stone exchanged for hearts of flesh, swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks—this is the colorful language of prophecy, which simultaneously comforts and disturbs, frightens and frees. It is a language of lament, of longing, of runaway imagination. It makes demands and begs forgiveness, issues critique and offers praise.
Perhaps more than any other biblical genre, prophecy wakes us up. It grabs us by the shoulders, shakes us from our reverie, and orders us to pay attention to the realities of good and evil, injustice and hope that permeate our world. It sings of light from the gloomiest dark, of justice from the smoldering ruins of oppression, and of a new Kingdom from the shadows of Empire.
The prophets believe—stubbornly, relentlessly—that God is in the business of making all things new, of setting all things right. And so they sing that song loud and long into the night. For some it rings as a warning, for others, a freedom song. For all, it is a call to action, an appeal to align our hopes, ambitions, choices, and plans with the hopes, ambitions, choices, and plans of God. Prophecy is where the dreams of God and the dreams of God’s people meet, and the resulting poetry has shaped the rhetoric and lives of the faithful for generations, from John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr.
The language of the prophets was on the minds and lips of Mary, Zecharia, Simeon, and John the Baptist as they prepared for the arrival of Jesus.
“Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low,” announces John the Baptist, preaching from Isaiah. “The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth and all people will see God’s salvation.’”
“God has raised up a mighty savior,” sings Zechariah when he had recovered his voice, “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from old.”
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” declares Mary in a song that teems with prophetic references, “and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
They were ready for God because they longed for God.
They prepared for God because they expected God.
And they recognized God because they knew God.
From the prophets they knew that God favors the marginalized over the powerful, the weak over the strong, the poor over the rich. They knew that God hears the cries of the oppressed and humiliates the oppressors. They knew that God never gives up, always surprises, and always shows up.
Because this ragamuffin crew of peasants and priests dreamed the dreams of the prophets, they knew what to look for, what to bet on. They recognized Emmanuel, God with us, in the pregnancy of a Palestinian teenager, among a persecuted minority suffering under an oppressive empire, amidst the darkness of a call for infanticide, in the company of shepherds and strangers, and in the vulnerable fragility of a baby’s cries. Even when the most powerful and religious among them missed it, they saw. They knew. They recognized that Jesus embodied all of God’s best dreams for the world.
To pay attention to the prophets is to align our dreams with God’s dreams for the world and to live accordingly. It is to go all in, to bet everything that God’s justice will prevail and love will win. In We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren puts it this way:
“Desires, hopes, and dreams inspire action, and that’s what makes them so different from a wish. Wishing is a substitute for action. Wishing creates a kind of passive optimism that can paralyze people in a happy fog of complacency…In contrast, our desires, hopes, and dreams for the future guide us in how to act now. If a girl wants to be a doctor someday, she’ll study hard and prepare for medical school. If a boy dreams of being a marine biologist someday, he’ll spend time around the sea and learn how to snorkel and scuba dive. Their hope for the future guides them in how to act now. They align their lives by their hope, and in that way, their lives are shaped by hope. Without action, they would be wishing, not hoping….Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They keep good hopes, desires, and dreams alive and challenge people to act in ways that are consistent with them. When they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by painting a picture of the future toward which their current behavior will lead.”
I used to think of the prophets as fortune-tellers who predicted Jesus’ birth the way a meteorologist might forecast the weather. I appealed to Isaiah and Ezekiel to prove that Jesus was the Messiah because the details of his arrival (in Bethlehem, to a virgin) lined up. But “while the prophets are in a way future-tellers,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “they are concerned with the future as it impinges on the present.” Prophecy illuminates the past, present, and future by employing story and poetry to bring into sharp contrast the way things are with the way things should be with, the ways of power-hungry people with the ways of a loving God, the path of cruelty and injustice with the path of righteousness, the kingdoms of this world with the coming Kingdom of God.
The prophets of the Hebrew Scripture were concerned with understanding the fate that had befallen exiled Israel and their identity as God’s people in the midst of so much hope and despair. Today we look to them to lend us the words and images to describe our own exile as Kingdom people whose allegiance often falters. And so Isaiah reminds us on this first day of Advent that God "comes down," that God works in awesome ways we do not expect, that God meets those who wait, who remember, and who do what is right. The prophet also tells us that our sins, inequities, and misguided allegiances can obscure God from our sight and keep us from seeing. Isaiah 64 gives us the language to cry out for God’s forgiveness and beckon God’s presence—in our homes, in our churches, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the midst of the violence, materialism, injustice, and complacency that characterizes our present Empire.
And in today’s gospel reading, Mark’s prophetic charge rings as true as ever: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
So keep awake.
Resist the temptation to make this Advent all about peaceful tranquility when it is really about longing, repentance, active anticipation, facing down the darkness and crying for the light. Resist the urge to keep the fire contained to tiny, harmless candle flames when it is meant to kindle brushwood, boil water, and instigate change.
Listen to the prophets of old and connect their ancient poetry to the hopes and fears, injustice and grace of the present day.
Align your dreams with the dreams of God and act accordingly.
So what does it mean - in our lives, in our culture, in our churches - to align our dreams with God's? What are some creative ways to use the poetry and imagery of the prophets to illuminate the present and respond to the sins and injustices, hopes and miracles that surround us?
*Future posts in the series will appear on Thursdays.
© 2014 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.