It’s that time of year when people start asking one another, and especially children, “What do you want for Christmas?” While it is only the first Sunday of Advent, we have already been primed to think of this as “the Christmas season” by merchants who began decorating their stores in red and green twinkle lights the day after Halloween. Catalogues filled with photos of families snuggled in matching PJs and drinking cocoa while soap-flake snow falls outside their photo-set window have been arriving at our doors for weeks already. Commercials filled with snowfall, sleigh bells, and red velvet have been whetting our appetites for the Big Event. The people who seem to like to complain about the “war on Christmas” would be well-advised to realize: if there’s a war on Christmas, Christmas is not only winning, it is the aggressor!
“What do you want for Christmas?” When you ask children this question, they can perhaps recite the sales pitch lines of commercials they have seen over and over again. I remember growing up as a child, thumbing through the toy section of the Sears catalogue and circling the things that looked most promising. When you ask grown-ups, images of jewelry and clothing, gadgets and other denizens of their wish lists flash across their minds. As we get older, we both pine for the feeling of wonder that Christmas inspired in our childhood selves and acknowledge that such wonder was, perhaps, misplaced. We have become wise enough — I hope — to realize that even a Lexus decorated with a giant red bow appearing in our driveways, like in the commercials, cannot and will not fill the gnawing empty feeling that gives rise to such a desire in the first place.
Wiser still is the one who understands that gnawing empty feeling for what it is. The prophet Isaiah is one so wise. Our Old Testament reading relays the word that Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem — and isn’t it interesting that this is not a word that Isaiah heard, but a word that Isaiah saw? Having been inspired by God’s Spirit, Isaiah is relaying not just a message but God’s vision for the future. As we read the prophet’s words at the start of a season filled with cultural messages extolling material fulfillment of spiritual yearning, he proclaims a vision that is more deeply and profoundly true. Christmas commercials — and the whole phenomenon of the commercialization of the holiday — have worked precisely because humanity inherently does long for what it does not have. The difference is that what we most deeply need is diametrically opposed to what Apple, Toyota, or Kay Jewelers convinces us we want.
Isaiah’s vision takes us to the top of a mountain and shows us that for which our hearts are actually yearning. “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,” he declares, “and all nations shall stream to it” (Isa. 2:2). People everywhere will be drawn to God: from every race, every nation, every culture, every religious background. They will come out of a shared desire for divine instruction in what is true, what is beauty, what makes for lasting peace. When we read these words from Isaiah, we’re tempted under our breath; to smirk just a little. This pie-in-the-sky vision of everyone leaving their arguments behind and streaming to the mountain of God to receive the wisdom of God’s will seems simultaneously to be both beautiful and ridiculous. We’ll all turn our tanks into tractors, it says. We’ll use our enriched uranium to heat homes instead of heating rhetoric, it promises. It would be nice, we think, if it weren’t absurd. Better to hope for a Lexus with a big red bow. However unlikely, at least it’s possible.
The promise God makes through Isaiah is that God’s word will make an actual difference in our world. Inequities will be corrected. Chains of oppression will be broken. Injustices will be righted. And it will be so transformative that weapons of violence will be traded for tools of community-building. Nations will no longer even prepare for war.
It’s interesting to note that the only active verbs ascribed to God in this vision are “judge” and “arbitrate.” God will adjudicate the world’s grievances and disputes. I’m fascinated by the fact that Isaiah doesn’t say that God’s gift to the world is peace; he says it is judgment — the kind of justice that makes for peace. What has often been said is true, then: there is no peace without justice. International disputes as well as personal grievances can be settled by God’s instruction. Isaiah uses several different phrases that all indicate the same thing: God’s ways, God’s paths, instruction, and the word of the Lord. If the world would only lay aside their past grievances and seek the common good — that is, if we would only love our neighbor as we love ourselves, doing unto them as we would have them do unto us — then we would be following his way, we would be walking his path, we would be heeding his instruction, and the word of the Lord would change the world.
In every age, humanity has needed to be reminded that the powers of this world — whether the Assyrians of Isaiah’s day, the Romans of Jesus’ time, or those coming into power even now — do not determine the future. Any decision, any action, any statement that causes division, mistrust, and hatred is morally bankrupt and ungodly. The future belongs to a God who is already situated in it, and who has already revealed to us that our story ends with peace — not annihilation, not even victory — but peace.
My Facebook feed was awash, this past weekend, in photos of families gathered around tables. The people smiled; the posters declared their gratitude for many blessings. And I smiled, too, as I looked at them, grateful to God for his blessing the lives of others. It got me thinking: don’t all these photos of happy families gathered around tables to break bread together reflect the promises of God’s peaceable kingdom? Don’t all of the yuletide festivities to which we now look forward point to something infinitely greater than themselves? The “holiday spirit,” as we call it, is not just something to put on for a few weeks before battening down for the bleak midwinter. It is the true expression of our human spirit’s desperate longing for tranquility, for blessed community, for the common good, and for peace at last. Is not our nostalgia for the “Christmas spirit” of our childhoods a desire, as commentator Stacey Simpson Duke puts it, “to believe again in things that seem impossible to us as adults — like peace on earth and goodwill to all?”
We become disillusioned because we experience disappointment; and ordinarily, the older we are, the more disappointment we have experienced. We’ve seen peace treaties fall apart on the international stage; we’ve watched politicians fail to come through; we’ve experienced the pain of broken relationships. Isaiah does not deny that these heartaches and disappointments exist, nor does he lecture us about how our disillusionment is unfounded.
Instead, what Isaiah offers is God’s vision for a transformed world and — just as important — an invitation to participate in that transformation. “O house of Jacob,” he declares, “let us walk in the light of the Lord!” The future surely belongs to God, and God is surely already there, but the first steps toward that future belong to those of us who have glimpsed God’s light in the darkness and are determined to move toward it here and now.
The Apostle Paul uses the image of people awakening from sleep and then getting dressed for the day. The night is past; the light of day has come. It is time to put on the armor of light and live as though the light has already dawned. “Not in reveling and drunkenness,” he says, “not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Not in tackling a neighbor in the aisles of Walmart in order to secure a 60-inch Smart TV at a good price, ostensibly to honor the birth of the Prince of Peace. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ” which is Paul’s way of saying, “follow his ways, walk in his paths, heed his instructions, obey the word of the Lord which has come from Jerusalem. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The clothing that Paul wants us to put on is Jesus Christ: his life, his teachings, his way of being. In so doing, we follow God’s ways, walk God’s paths, heed God’s instructions, and obey the word of the Lord. In the early years of Jesus’ movement, our spiritual forebears lived with a sense of imminent anticipation. The realm of God would be fully realized within their lifetime, they believed. Two thousand years later, our sense of anticipation isn’t what it used to be. Granted, there are branches of the Christian family tree who have put much stock in combing the scriptures for clues about when God’s reign might finally occur; but they miss the point entirely. Christian hope is not about circling a date on the calendar; nor is its content our escape from a doomed world. The content of our hope is to be found in the words of prophets like Isaiah, who assure us that the world will become just, righteous, equitable, and peaceable when we allow God’s way, God’s path, God’s instruction, God’s word to supplant the ways of the world. “O House of Jacob, come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
“I AM the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus assures us. There remains a pending invitation, sent to us from God’s holy mountain, to follow the Way, to accept the Truth, and to live the Life. When will the world finally accept the pending invitation? When will the world finally RSVP?
 Stacey Simpson Duke, “First Sunday of Advent: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 4.