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Sunday: What God Sees

Today’s Reading: Exodus 1:1–3:10

Israel’s exodus from Egypt has fueled the imaginations of countless generations. At its heart, it is a story of hope . The Israelites couldn’t see that at first. They were a despised minority enslaved by an ambitious and greedy pharaoh who continually sought to extract more profit at less cost. In spite of his dependence on their labor, Pharaoh saw the Israelites—especially the men—as a potential threat. Not only did he work them to the bone, but he sought to kill their sons.

The writer of Exodus begins by focusing on the women in the story: midwives, a mother, her daughter, a servant, and the daughter of Pharaoh. Each one acts within her sphere of influence to resist Pharaoh’s cruel policies. Working together, they save the infant Moses. They act with hope, refusing to let the regime force them into submission. The writer describes their bold actions with the same words he will later use to describe God’s saving of the Israelite nation.

Consider these examples: Moses’ mother saw he was good, reminding us that God values every human made in his image. She placed him in an ark in the reeds. The ark (or “basket”) reminds us of God’s rescue of Noah’s family from watery death. Moses’ rescue anticipates Israel’s future escape through the Sea of Reeds (or “Red” Sea). Pharaoh’s daughter saw the ark, saw the baby crying, and took pity on him. Suddenly there is hope for this condemned child. Then we learn that God saw his people’s suffering, heard their cries, and was concerned. God’s concern moved him to action when he commissioned Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

Christian hope is rooted in God’s seeing. Nothing escapes his notice. The heart of Advent is knowing that God sees a world gone wrong and that he will do something to make it right. He may at times seem distant in our suffering, but he consistently acts to uphold the covenant he made with Abraham (Gen. 17). This same covenant is why God sent Jesus into the world.

The exodus story invites us to participate in God’s audacious work of redemption. The women of the story heard no clarion call from the heavens prompting them to act. They simply lived as though God could see and acted accordingly. They knew the right thing to do, and they did it.

—Carmen Joy Imes

Monday: Peace in the Storm

Today’s Reading: Psalms 46 and 112

Psalm 46 declares with confidence, “We will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (v. 2). Our world, like the psalmist’s world, is in collapse: a pandemic, a recession, racial injustice, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and a tense election season. Our earth is giving way and the mountains are falling into the sea.

What strikes me about this psalm is its call for stillness: “Be still, and know that I am God” (v. 10). This stillness is not the byproduct of resolved troubles. The psalmist remains surrounded by the uproar of nations and natural disasters. Even there, in the tumult, God commands stillness. It brings to mind Jesus sleeping in the boat during a storm (Mark 8:23–27). His trust was so great that he could rest amid the crashing waves. Such supernatural peace is available to any of us who knows who God is.

In verse 10, God explains why we can be still: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” God knows how this story unfolds. He wins in the end. That sure knowledge shapes how we respond to life’s challenges. This God—the one who will come out on top—is with us (vv. 7, 11). He is our fortress in the storm.

Our hope arises from the very center of trouble—unflustered and unafraid—not because we have confidence in ourselves, but because the one who knows all and sees all is with us.

This is the hope of Advent. Jesus took on flesh, entering the messy stage of human history. He was born crying into a world of hurt, where Rome exacted unfair taxes and kept its thumb on Israel’s worship. And when Jesus returns for our final redemption, he’ll reenter a world still plagued with its share of troubles.

As Psalm 112 puts it, “Even in darkness light dawns for the upright . . . they will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord” (vv. 4, 7). Steadfast hearts know how the story ends, so they can weather the storms with confidence. This is our hope.

—Carmen Joy Imes

Tuesday: An Astonishing Transformation

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 2:1–5

Isaiah 2 relays a vision of the Lord’s house on its mountain, which is indeed where the temple was located. But in the vision, the mountain has become the highest mountain in the world, and it’s therefore become a worldwide tourist attraction with “all nations” streaming to it. The reason people are coming is that they want to learn from the Lord. From there the Lord’s teaching will go out, and from there he will make the decisions between peoples that will bring their conflicts to an end.

It’s a crazy picture, for more than one reason. The practical one is that Zion, the mountain on which the Lord’s house sat, was only an insignificant little promontory in the midst of more impressive heights (even the Mount of Olives is higher). But I assume the vision isn’t talking about a literal change in physical geography.

More to the point is the fact that Isaiah has just been describing Jerusalem as a city that’s like a prostitute—a place where there’s no faithfulness, no truthfulness, no proper government, and no care for the vulnerable (1:21–23). But he has followed that assessment with a promise about the city being cleaned up and being called “Faithful City” again, “City of Righteousness” once more (v. 26). And that’s when Isaiah adds this vision of an astonishing second transformation (2:1–5). Given the first transformation, maybe this vision of the world being drawn to Jerusalem could be fulfilled.

I was in a prayer meeting last week in which one of my colleagues commented that we live in the context of a fourfold crisis: a health care crisis, a racial crisis, a governmental crisis, and an economic crisis. It isn’t a context in which people are turning to those who belong to Jesus as if we know how to approach these crises; it doesn’t seem that they are turning to the people of God in the way Isaiah’s vision pictures people being drawn to Jerusalem. But that is still God’s promise.

When Jesus came, he came as God’s “Yes” to all his promises (2 Cor. 1:20). He didn’t fulfill all of them there and then, but he did guarantee that they will find fulfillment. May we respond to this vision and promise just as Isaiah urged his own people: “Come . . . Let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

—John Goldingay

Wednesday: On Building a Highway

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 40:1–11

Over the past two or three decades, the Israeli National Roads Authority has built an impressive network of highways through the country. One current project is an urban artery with tunnels and bridges that will take people straight into the center of Jerusalem from the point where the Tel Aviv highway reaches the edge of the city. The trouble is that the construction involves disturbing some Roman graves from 1,900 years ago, which has sparked protests. But people want to get to Jerusalem, fast, and they feel the need for a highway that overcomes the obstacles—a bit like the one God commissions in Isaiah 40. “In the wilderness clear Yahweh’s way, make straight in the steppe a causeway for our God” (v. 3, FT).

In the summer of 587 B.C., God essentially walked out on Jerusalem. He’d had it with his people’s unfaithfulness. His glory left, as Ezekiel 10 puts it. And when God walked out, Nebuchadnezzar was free to walk in. Nebuchadnezzar set about devastating the city so thoroughly that he rendered it more or less uninhabitable and had to locate his provincial headquarters elsewhere, in Mizpah.

Nothing happened for half a century. Then, in Isaiah 40, God told one of his aides to commission supernatural contractors to lay out a superhighway with flyovers and underpasses for him to return to the city, bringing his scattered people with him. And God did return. Some of those in exile came too, and they did their best to make the city habitable again. The Book of Ezra relates how they rebuilt the temple and God returned to live there and meet with them there once again.

On the whole, things were better between God and his people for the next 500 years, though for most of that time they remained under the authority of a series of imperial powers. They still longed for their independence.

In A.D. 30, along came John the Baptizer, picking up Isaiah 40 and proclaiming that people needed to turn to God and be washed clean. And again, God was saying, Build me a highway, I’m coming back, and I’m going to sort out your destiny (see Matt. 3:3). This time the highway was a moral and religious one, and John was commissioned to build it.

In effect, each Advent God is again saying to us, as he says in Isaiah 40, Build me a highway. You want to see Jesus? He’s coming.

—John Goldingay

Thursday: A Bold, Dangerous Prayer

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 64:1–9

We wish you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that at your presence mountains would shake! This is the prayer of Isaiah 64. The order of chapters in Isaiah suggests that this prayer belongs in a time after the Persians have terminated Babylonian control of the Middle East. The trouble is that Judah has found that this power transition is not much of an improvement. Prophets have told Judah that God would put all the superpowers down, but that time never seemed to come. Persia taking over from Babylon underlines the point. Everything changes, but everything stays the same. So tear the sky apart and come and sort things out, Lord!

But in the next chapter, Isaiah 65, God blows a fuse and essentially says, You’ve got some nerve! God seems to be responding with anger to the effrontery of what the Judahites say in Isaiah 64.

When Jesus came, God did tear the sky apart and come to sort things out. The Gospels don’t use that language in connection with the Incarnation, though they do use similar language in connection with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:10), with Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and with his prayer when he is about to be executed (John 12:28–29).

Then, a few decades later, some people who believe in Jesus are asking a similar question as the Judahites: Why does everything still stay the same? (2 Peter 3:4). In effect, they too are praying, We wish you would tear the heavens and come down! Peter responds to them in a confrontational way, too. He reminds his recipients that the world has been shaken before, by water, and it will be again, but by fire (vv. 5–7).

Both the Judahites and the early Christians were essentially little people under the control of a big empire. Most of us are not. In many ways, we are the empire. When we pray, like Isaiah 64, “We wish you would tear open the heavens and come down, come and sort out the imperial powers, come deal with injustice,” God’s response may be frightening. We’ll find God doing some sorting out in our own lives. When we pray Come down, Lord!, we invite God to confront us and convict us.

—John Goldingay

Friday: Light and Life

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 9:2; John 1:4–5, 9

Some of us have grown up in cities, so we don’t really know what darkness is. In cities, there’s always a light on somewhere, and you can see by that light. But others of us grew up in the country, well beyond city lights—where darkness is darkness indeed. Where it can get so dark that you cannot even see your hand in front of your face.

This is the image in Isaiah 9:2—that the darkness of sin is so deep and complete, it incapacitates and immobilizes. You can’t walk in it with any certainty. You don’t know where you’re going. You’re lost. The darkness here symbolizes the blindness and death that come from sin.

But God solves this problem of sin and death with Christmas. The very people who walked in darkness “have seen a great light.” They didn’t turn the light on; rather, on them light has shone. God breaks into the darkness of sin with new hope, new vision, and with a new life of righteousness.

We shouldn’t be surprised that almost every Gospel comes back to this prophecy from Isaiah in describing how Jesus came into the world. For example, when John tells us about Jesus’ birth—the Incarnation—he reaches for this symbol of light. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:4–5, 9).

Jesus is that true light. This season is about God sending this light into the world to give salvation to all who would believe in him. Christmas is not about the lights on the tree or the lights decorating the house. At their very best, these are merely weak symbols for a much more powerful light that gives life to the world.

Isaiah saw it 700 years before Jesus’ birth. Two thousand years ago, the apostles laid eyes on that very light in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. And today, he’s given us that light in the message of the gospel. Everyone who is in darkness must repent of sin and believe in this light in order to come into the kingdom of God. This is how the Lord changes us. This is the message of light bringing life.

—Thabiti Anyabwile

This article is adapted from a sermon Thabiti Anyabwile preached on December 17, 2017. Used by permission.

Saturday: A Son Is Given

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 7:14; 9:6–7

Isaiah 9:6–7 is a glorious, prophetic biography of Jesus. The son Isaiah describes is the “Wonderful Counselor.” The word wonderful is the same word often used in the Old Testament to describe miracles—the “wonders” God did in the world. And counselor brings to mind the wisdom of God. This is Jesus, our wonderful, miraculous counselor who speaks to us and guides us that we might walk in the paths of righteousness.

This son is the “Mighty God.” This is the unique child Isaiah 7:14 said would be born of a virgin and named “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Mighty and strong, there is no weakness in God at all. Even as a babe in a manger, Jesus was upholding the universe by the word of his power.

This son is the “Everlasting Father.” This doesn’t mean he’s the same as God the Father; the Father and Son are different persons of the Trinity. Rather, this could be translated to say he is the father of the ages, outside of time; and in his attitude toward his people, he is always fatherly. Psalm 103:13 puts it this way: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” Over and over in the Gospels, we’re told that Jesus saw people and had compassion. He is a savior with the tenderness of a dad toward his children.

And this son is the “Prince of Peace.” Matthew Henry of Jesus, “As the Prince of Peace, he reconciles us to God. He is the Giver of peace in the heart and conscience; and when his kingdom is fully established, men shall learn war no more.”

Jesus is a wonder. His counsel never fails. He is the almighty God. He has a father’s heart. He brings a royal peace to all who believe in him. He’s so much more than just another baby. He is God come into the world. And don’t miss the most important phrase: He is given to us.

He is ours, if we will accept him. In all of his wisdom, all of his power, and all of his fatherly love, this same Jesus comes into the hearts of those who trust in him. This is the Son the world was waiting for. And he has come into the world to give himself to us.

—Thabiti Anyabwile

This article is adapted from a sermon Thabiti Anyabwile preached on December 17, 2017. Used by permission.

Contributors:
Image: Photos courtesy of contributors.

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor at Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC. He is the author of several books, including Exalting Jesus in Luke.

John Goldingay is senior professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. His translation of the entire Old Testament is The First Testament.

Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Prairie College and the author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters.

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