The Scriptures these Advent Sundays, particularly the first readings, all from Isaiah, offer us powerful images to touch our imagination with hope and give us a vision of what will come to pass when our God comes. Isaiah's prophetic poetry fills the hearts of a modern people with hope, just as it did for those Israelites in slavery and exile from their homeland. Isaiah says to them and us, that where there has been war, God comes to bring peace... One is coming who will restore the lineage of David, give the people a faithful shepherd to lead them. On that day, "a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom."
The message that runs all through the Readings for this Sunday in Advent is one of being prepared - of staying awake - of keeping our eyes and hearts open to the coming of the Lord. For the unprepared, the proud, the indifferent and the evil-doers, the news is not good and catches them completely off guard. But for the long suffering and the hope-filled, the news seems too good to be true. God has noticed them after all and is coming to save them. There will be rest for the weary and safety for the vulnerable in the hands of God.
Modern man is not one to enjoy the process of waiting. In terms of our relationship with God, the waiting of the faithful is so often filled with disappointment. The fulfillment of God's promise of peace and justice so often seems delayed and improbable. In every age, but especially in our own times, believers seem to be besieged by evil, swamped by misfortune and almost overcome by catastrophe. As we look around we see what seems to be insurmountable evil: unrelenting wars and civil strife, unjust economic polices and the growth of poverty, nuclear proliferation, massive trading in arms around the world, an AIDS pandemic, slavery, starvation, high childhood mortality rates, environmental degradation and on and on. It can be easy for us lose heart, to become impatient.
The voice of God echoes in the words of His Son: "Be strong! Don't be afraid. Stay awake - you must be prepared." It is this spirit of hope and reassurance that must fill our Advent journey. We must look beyond the sufferings and trials of the now to see the good things that are happening because of Jesus and of His message of Hope.
But Jesus didn't respond to people simply with words of hope. In fact, the blind were now able to see, cripples could walk, lepers were cured, the dead were raised to life. These were signs that His message of hope was visible and indeed possible. Our presence in this chaotic world must be the same kind of sign. Our lives must proclaim the same miracles of love, of healing, of reconciliation. Our goodness and compassion must touch those who are blind and deaf to the Lord. Our mercy and acts of service must free those who are crippled by pride and hate.
Unlike Lent, Advent is not primarily a season that stresses sin and contrition. But Advent does require a change in our lives. We must change our hearts in a way that will more faithfully attune us to God’s word. John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that religious observance isn't an automatic e-zpass on the spiritual journey. Nor can they claim a privileged place before God merely because they are descendants of Abraham. God wants a fresh hearing and open ears from us. He asks us to open our eyes as well as our hearts.
As we prepare to be touched again by the mystery of Christmas, we should try to be more fully aware of the many ways that God continues to visit us, to touch us, to announce good news to us. But He comes in unexpected disguises, in strange circumstances, using unusual people and places.
We should learn again to recognize the presence of God in the ordinary people and things around us... in the innocence of our infants, in the questioning of our seven-year olds, in the energy and restlessness of our teenagers, in the rapture of lovers, in the courage and generosity of the young-married, in the freedom and dedication of the single adults, in the wisdom and patience of parents, in the virtuosity of artists, in the industrious creativity of the business person, in the gifted hands, hearts and minds of those in the medical professions, in the fascinating agility of legal minds, in the peaceful strength of the aging, and in the quiet resignation of the suffering.
In all of these circumstances, the presence of God is very real. We need to be "awake" to His presence. We need to prepare our hearts to recognize His presence with the eyes of faith. We need to understand that our God continues to come to us, to announce good news to us in unexpected ways. We want to be able to rejoice because we know that He is near us, within us. Finally, we need to trust that His promises to us will be fulfilled.
The Scripture readings from the prophets are selected to bring out the ancient Christian theme that Jesus is the "fulfillment" of the biblical message of hope and promise, the inauguration of the days to come described by Isaiah. It is our task to proclaim this promise and to work to prepare the world for the full flowering of God's reign, which is present among us, but is "not yet".
The scriptural images from all of the Advent readings will help us stay engaged in our daily struggles to bring their promise to completion; they will steer our course and enter our daily lives. We will be ready to welcome the God who comes to deliver us. God will come, because God has come before; because God always comes, and becuase He told He would do so.
And our confidence in the faithfulness of God fills us with the hope for new possibilities.