Hearing Isaiah Amidst the Din

christmas-tree-1443992-1279x1705This post by Melanie Zuercher was originally published on December 15, 2014. Melanie lives in Newton, Kansas. She is a member of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton and works at Bethel College in North Newton.

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Confession: Christmas is not my favorite time of the year.

Was it ever? Maybe when I was still a seminary student and got three weeks off, including enough time to visit to my brother and sister-in-law in Phoenix, which is a great place to be in December. But probably not much since then.

Christmas is a dark time. The days are short and the nights correspondingly long. It’s cold (see comment about Phoenix, above). It doesn’t help right now that my corner of Kansas, which is supposed to be sunny, has been locked in fog, drizzle and general gloom for most of the past week.

But then I have to stop and recognize: We’re not at Christmas yet, we’re in Advent. The time of waiting for what is to come. Not that you would know this from the deafening din of so-called holiday music screeching at you from seemingly all corners of creation. Or the unrelenting pressure to Buy Now, Buy More, Don’t You Dare Delay.

The problem is not Advent, and it’s not even Christmas. It’s “cultural Christmas.” That’s what I hate. Yes, I said it, “hate” and “Christmas” in one thought. So Grinch me.

And then I think of what I do like about this season, that is unique to it or special about it.

One is the solstice, which in my congregation, Shalom Mennonite Church, we celebrate with a “Longest Night” service. Some folks call this “Blue Christmas.” It recognizes that right here in the middle of our culture’s relentless insistence on “the most wonderful time of the year” are many who are grieving, lonely and sunk in sorrow. It’s a reminder that light can’t shine without darkness. It’s reassurance that the light will always come back and, after Dec. 21, it starts to.

Another is Isaiah and the prophetic passages that show up particularly at this time in the church year. Like this one from Isaiah 61, that starts with “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That one kicks butt. Good news to the poor! Liberty to the captives! The day of vengeance of our God! Fist-pumping time!

Well, maybe. This is the passage Jesus picked out of the scroll to read in the synagogue in Nazareth as he was beginning his Galilean ministry (Luke 4). Yeah, that one – the one that nearly got him tossed off a cliff. Although maybe it wasn’t so much the words he read as what he said afterward about Elijah coming to Gentile widows and lepers instead of “God’s chosen” ones.

Isaiah’s words in Chapter 61 are poetic and powerful, but they carry heavy implications. We’re not Jesus, but God still expects us to answer that call. When God’s spirit is upon us – and don’t we who worship the One God claim that it is? – then we’re anointed, too. We are expected to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up broken hearts, see to it that prisoners are released, comfort those who mourn, repair ruined cities.

It’s daunting. Yet these words have so much more life in them than one more electronically enhanced version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” oozing out over my head as I pump some frighteningly low-priced gas into my car. Isaiah’s “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display [God’s] glory” carry so much more hope for justice, peace and a thriving planet than the most lavishly decorated and brilliantly lit Christmas tree ever could.

So I’ll try to remember, in the foggy dimness of this time, that the water in the atmosphere will help “the earth bring forth its shoots” in due season. The rest of Isaiah 61:11 goes on to say: “… as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

And the solstice is less than a week away.

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