Pastor Jared Stillions
I’ve always wondered why those paperback New Testaments come with Psalms and Proverbs. Psalms, is understandable; have you ever counted just how many Psalms are quoted in the New Testament? But Proverbs? Sure Proverbs can match Jesus’ style as a Rabbi, and his preaching practically introduces new ones to us. It always seems to me that Isaiah takes the cake, not Proverbs, for Old Testament references and understanding. Even the Ethiopian Eunuch, when seeking to understand the Scriptures, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:35). Jesus quotes Isaiah in his “first sermon” in Luke 4. In John’s Gospel, we read, “Isaiah said this [53:1, 6:10] because he saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke about him” (12:41).”
The first lectionary reading in Year A is Isaiah for each of the four weeks of Advent. This isn’t the case in B or C. The readings are not in sequence but, as always, are picked for their typological (“thematic”) connection to the Gospel reading (to the chagrin of historical-critical pedants). Being out of sequence prevents a historical-narrative preaching of Isaiah, and besides four weeks doesn’t allow enough time to address all 66 chapters. But we shouldn’t give up on Isaiah for preaching.
Our theme at Synod Assembly earlier this year was “Reimagining Spirituality from the Edges.” We heard Rev. Dr. John Nunes and others tell us that where you think the edges and margins are depends on what you think the center is. Increasingly in our society so-called liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics are no longer the center of society’s moral, economic, and political life. As the prophet of exile and homecoming, Isaiah has specific and concrete hope for us who have lost our place at the center. Even Advent itself exists on the fringes of Christmas.
Advent, with its themes of preparation, repentance, and judgment, gives us the perfect opportunity to re-center our lives on Jesus, as we anticipate his return. Yes, if Jesus is truly the center of our lives, then we will rightly exist on the margins.
We could devise an Advent preaching series in the Isaiah texts with this center-margin reality (not duality) in mind. Now you certainly may want to wordsmith for your own locale, but here’s a sketch for a re-centering series. In fact, I’ve titled this series “Centerpieces” with allusions to those inevitable “holiday” centerpieces of wreaths, candles, turkeys and dressing, trees, and the like.
Nov 27, Advent 1, Isaiah 2:1-5, “God’s Mountain”
With the Mountain of God at the center, worship and peace gives us borders
Mountains are archetypal places of worship (cf. Mts. Sinai, Zion); with the worship of God at the center of our lives (v2), our lives are re-formed according to and for God’s purposes (v3). God’s judgment and just ice, which are inseparable from God’s peace (cf. John 14:27), become the new Israel – a borderless commonwealth of God’s people(v4). The revelatory nature of such is light shining the darkness (v5).
Dec 4, Advent 2, Isaiah 11:1-10, “Jesse’s Branch”50
With the New Branch of the Jesse Tree at the center, justice marks our boundaries
Lighted Christmas trees (apocryphally invented by Martin Luther) are symbolic of the season, yet the evergreen tree of which Isaiah speaks is no noble fir encircled with hearth and presents. This tree is a mere single branch, or shoot (cf. Charlie Brown’s tree), erupting from a seemingly dead stump chopped down by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. This strong branch will be as a staff (or mace, stave, or scepter) of divine justice. As archetypal symbol of the “world axis,” this shoot’s divine authority will be innate to him (cf. John 14:9-14). The animals of vv6-7 serve as totems for the nations that through their submission to divine justice will demarcate the coming kingdom.
Dec 11, Advent 3, Isaiah 35:1-10, “God’s Highway”
With God’s Highway at the center, joy identifies our perimeter
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee the traffic is terrific; oh there’s no place like for the holidays,” sings Dino. The Holy Way, God’s highway will bring God’s people into the kingdom, and they cannot stray from it (v8). Of course, ancient highways traversed difficult terrain, could be unmarked for long stretches (think “Oregon Trail”), connected distant points, and were preyed upon by beast and brigand alike. The destination of this highway is a joyful one- God’s kingdom, and that joy changes the countryside and the people from desolate and despairing to flourishing and thriving. (Though it may not make it into your sermon, compare this to the positive socio-economic boom experienced by some when a new highway comes to town – and brings a Buc-ees.)
Dec 18, Advent 4, Isaiah 7:10-16, “The Mother of God”
With God’s Sign at the center, hope sets our limits
The Scriptures – without our contemporary sophistication or nuance – view pregnancy as an innate good and a sign of hope (cf Eve, Sarah, Leah, Hannah, Ps 127:3-5). Though King Ahaz trifles God with his too pious refusal of a sign, God sends one anyway- the young woman is with child. The House of David shall continue beyond the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Lord God is and will be with us. We have God’s word – period. Putting this sign of pregnancy at the center tells us this promise is no metaphor: God [Jesus] has a mother; just as God has come in the flesh to redeem us body and soul, God will come again to bring us. Since God’s home is among mortals (Rev 21:3), this hope extends to all people of all times and places.
If you want, you can even extend this theme of center-margin to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a clear and simple two-part series exploring “Christ at the Center.”
Here’s an angle to get you started:
Christmas Eve, Dec 24, Isaiah 9:2-7 “Earthly Presence
Incarnation puts God at the center of creation and everyday life
Christmas Day, Dec 25, Isaiah 62:6-12, “Real Presence”
Holy Communion at the center of our worship tells us that the one who came to Bethlehem comes now in bread and wine