Our CEO, Scott Sanders introduces our "Being Present" Advent series with a reflection from Isaiah on what it means to pursue peace during this season.
The first Saturday in December is 'Christmas Tree Day' in our family. There's a local farm run by a family in our community who patiently grow and groom the most fragrant fir trees all year in preparation for the four Saturdays in December. Come December 1st, they open their gates (imagine Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and slowly and steadily the cars stream in. Families joyfully select a tree that is then netted up and secured to roof racks or crammed into cars that are already crowded with children. The sausage sizzle man wipes sweat from his brow as he manages the hungry hordes. And we - the Langton family - find themselves amongst it all!
There's something special about the tradition and the expectation of the day. This year preparations to get ourselves out the door, though, caused me to reflect differently on Advent. Tom is our youngest son - he is 11. This year, at the mere mention of heading out to meet our extended family and collect the tree, Tom quickly sorted himself out then went to wait in the car. He waited there passively, not thinking about anyone but himself, well before it was time to leave. The rest of us wrote lists of all that needed to happen, washed the dishes, gave the house a quick tidy, gathered all the things we would need to help bring the tree home, as we waited for the appointed time to draw near. There was much activity - labor, if you will - in expectation of the wait being over and the time coming.
This time of year brings such mixed responses from people. For many of us though, it's a season filled with much activity as we await and prepare for the family, the tree, the meal, in the hope that our romantic expectations of Hollywood movie style Christmas don't give way to the reality of family tensions, awkward interactions, overcooked turkey and coloured plastic decorations.
But of course there's the deeper reality to awaiting and preparing for Christmas for Christians, as we take our place in an ancient faith community that is characterised by awaiting and preparing for something that both is and yet isn't, at the same time. At this time of year, we are reminded of Israel's own waiting in hope and expectation that "YHWH would rescue them and take them into an age of wine and perfection". This is outlined incredibly and poetically in Isaiah 42.1-9:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens,
who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
“I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.””
As I've reflected on this passage of scripture personally, one beautiful thing has struck me that I just haven't been able to shake. In this passage the people of God are trying to give voice and expression to the magnitude of YHWH's redemptive plan. That the author, in the midst of awaiting what they hope for, yet attempts to give expression to what is to come. Scholars consider verses 1-4 of this passage to be best described as a song, with verses 5-9 considered to be some type of dramatic or artistic expression. So profound are the thoughts that the author is attempting to communicate about this magnificent redemptive plan, that the author needs more than just words to express their ideas.
As the Creative Pastor at Hillsong Church, I do life in a community that constantly wrestles with the same thing, overseeing many creatives who see the beauty of Jesus Christ, and try to give expression to his redemptive plan. They wrestle to communicate their joy at forgiveness from sin alongside their personal experience of the glaring reality that all with the world is not as it should be. We are a community that is very much aware that, whilst Jesus has proclaimed "it is finished", we are caught in the tension of still awaiting our future hope, and grappling with what that context means for us as people commissioned to bring light into the darkness.
And I have seen this creative community labor intently to bring the Church a song to sing in the season of waiting. To bring songs that provide a way of passing on our common faith, that mobilise believers towards executing justice and extending God's mercy, and that glorify Him so that others see the One to whom all our worship is directed.
Ian Cron says that "the arts help others to see clearly what we all feel vaguely". Maybe in Israel's waiting, like in my own creative community, there was more activity, more music, more singing, more feeling than we might imagine. Maybe the author understood that to help Israel navigate their 'now and not yet' reality - to cultivate the hope required to endure - it would take songs and poetry, art and imagination. That their vision for the future of the servant king needed to be deeply rooted in their hearts and in their song.
It's not clear who Israel thought fulfilled the expectations of "The Servant of the Lord". Yet in our Christmas reflections, we see that this passage seems to point forward to Jesus, the Christ child who's birth we anticipate during Advent, who grew in favour with God and man, shaping his ministry around Israel's Old Testament expectation, and then fulfilling it as the embodiment of their hope and the true and faithful servant that Israel had never succeeded in been.
During Advent, we, the Church, take our direction from the Christmas child, and pause to wonder if there could ever be a time when humanity was more longing for Jesus, the One whom Israel so eagerly awaited and whose song they sung. We make time to ask if the world has ever been more in need of a Church that has Jesus at its head and that reflects his nature and character as our Just King. To hope for a Church that is truly present in a waiting world - embodying his justice by extending compassion to the bruised and light to those in darkness - to the marginalised, broken, affluent and famous alike - whether they are found in Aleppo or in refugee camps, in detention centres, or homes caught in the horror of domestic violence.
As Shane Claiborne writes in his Common Prayer, "this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As any expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise, nutrition, care, prayer, work; and birth involves pain, blood, tears, joy, release, community. It is called labor for a reason. Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry, pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world."
Therefore, if we are to be the midwives of another world that we await and hope for, may this season find us not merely consumed by consumerism, or passively waiting in the car to get a Christmas tree whilst others labour and prepare. Instead, may we be found this Advent, to be truly present in our world - consumed by compassion, actively waiting, prayerful, and generous. And might we be found to be singing songs of redemption that bring light into the darkness, declaring that this is Christmas and Hope has come.
Daily Reading Isaiah 42:1-9
42 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”