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Second Sunday of Advent — December 10, 2023

In a world of doubts, Teri McDowell Ott writes, there are eternal truths that we can cling to.

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Year B

“Comfort, o comfort my people.”

We hear these much-needed words from Isaiah on this Second Sunday of Advent during war raging in the Holy Land, increasing antisemitism, political extremism, and dark moods made darker by long winter days. We certainly could use some comfort, and a healthy dose of hope.

Isaiah’s words are directed to the Israelites living in exile from Jerusalem, from their homes, their way of life, their Temple. Lamentations 1 describes this time: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! [Jerusalem] weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her.”

But this situation turns in Isaiah 40. The term of Israel’s exile is over, the people may return home, and a herald of this good news tells them to prepare for the journey: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v.3).

Advent is a special time of year. We sing hymns reminding us of God’s story: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear” (Glory to God, #88). We recall the fiery words of John the Baptist in the first chapter of Mark preaching “Repent and prepare!” We decorate our homes, string up our twinkle lights, buy gifts for loved ones and blow the kid’s favorite Santa inflatable up for the front yard. All to prepare for the birth of Christ, God’s promise fulfilled in the flesh and blood of a newborn baby.

But even as we prepare this Advent, we have our doubts. The world feels bleak, the violence so unstoppable, the hill to climb toward hope so steep. How can we live in hope when we face a future of more greed, more loss, more corruption, more hypocrisy?

Even Isaiah wonders how to preach God’s message of hope when the reality is that people are “like grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” People are unfaithful, and all that is good and beautiful withers and fades in a life of exile, violence and sin. How can we keep our faith from withering and fading in the face of daily dire news? The prophet Isaiah speaks for all of us when, in response to the voice who calls upon him to cry out, proclaiming the good news, he moans, “But what shall I cry?”

Fortunately, “the voice” in this text is not put off by doubt or despair. Instead, he responds to Isaiah, saying in verse 8, “Yes, the grass withers, and the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” In other words, there are eternal truths, given to us by God, embodied by Jesus Christ, that will never fade, wither, or die. Even in the heart and heat of despair, we can light each Advent candle, bearing witness to the hope, peace, joy, and love of God’s promises.

Years ago, in 2006, I read an article in the Christian Century about a small group of Presbyterian Christians in Beirut, Lebanon, faithfully lighting the candles of their Advent wreath despite the dangerous, political chaos in their lives. With disillusionment and desperation growing all around them, the Christian Century article quoted Pastor Joseph Kassab: “We have no choice here but to hope in a better future …  As people of faith, we don’t rely on hope in the situation around us … It is very politicized, and there is no hope in that. Our hope comes from believing that history is firmly in the hands of God.”

Today, the Middle East could still serve as a stark metaphor for Advent: God’s people are waiting in the wilderness of exile, looking for concrete signs of God’s promised future, desperate for peace. But relying on God for hope doesn’t mean denying how bad things really are. Rather, relying on God for hope helps you through the struggle because you have a vision of the future God desires for you — and a promise that God is working towards that vision.

We can take comfort this Second Sunday of Advent in the Word of God, the idea that a kin-dom is being built, not by fallible, human hands but upon eternal truths. As the pastor in Lebanon led his people in lighting their Advent candles, as we light our Advent candles, we are reminded by each bright flame that God is imagining our deliverance, our redemption, our return to God’s peaceable kin-dom — even when we are too exhausted, too depleted to imagine it for ourselves. This Advent, with Christians around the world, let us proclaim the Good News and bear witness to the unfailing, unfading hope, peace, joy and love of God’s promises.

Questions for reflection

  1. Have you heard this passage read before during Advent? How did it resonate with you then? How does it resonate now?
  2. When despair for our world threatens to overcome you, where do you find hope?
  3. What world does God imagine for us? Can you describe what you think it will look or feel like?

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