“What’s new for Christmas?” That’s not a question you ask very often. We don’t want what is new in this season. We want the familiar, we want the traditional, we want the comfortable. We want the rituals we've performed for year after year, almost forgetting why we do them the way that we do, except that this is how we've always done it. And this time of year, that seems good enough. Not just good enough, it is the very reason for doing what we do.
In any other part of our lives, at any other time of year we would be bored. We crave innovation, we want the new, the improved, the latest upgrade, the bells and whistles. Yesterday’s news isn’t worth paper it is printed on, or the bandwidth is it occupying. If it sits at the back of the closet and hasn’t been worn for a while, throw it out. If it doesn’t match the new decor, toss it away. If it doesn’t fit with the new you, get rid of it. And go find something new.
Except at this time of year. Now the back of the closet is a treasure trove of memories and history. The corners of the attic hold the magic of time travel, back to a simpler age, back to wonder and amazement, back to when families were peopled with giants and wisdom, back when security was a strong arm holding you up, and comfort and joy were found in laughter around a dinner table. These dusty old objects that take you back across miles and years, to first Christmases and last ones, to family reconfigured and relocated, to houses occupied and then emptied. All these memories come tumbling back every time a box is opened and the childish scrawl is read again, or the date recognized. “That was the year that ...” You have to tell the story, if only in your own mind as you unpack, or to whoever will listen. “Remember when we ...” we ask to everyone and no one in particular. Some of the memories make us smile, some bring a tear to the eye, but they are all precious in their own way.
We want to go home at this time of year. Or we want to be home. Or we long for a taste of home. We’ve been too long away, too unsettled, too distant and we want to make our way back. This season calls forth from us a desire to return, to the way it was, at least as we imagined it. Or to the place where we were most at home, most content, most at peace with ourselves and the world. That’s why every holiday season we talk about making the journey. About hitting the road, the trip to Bethlehem, the path to the manger, let us go over and see this thing that the angels have made known to us. And so they went.
I love that image and have used it many an Advent season. This year however, it seems to me that Isaiah is asking us to think differently about that journey. That maybe it isn’t about packing up and getting on the road. Maybe we aren’t the travelers in this story, at least this time. Maybe we serve a different function, maybe we are to take a different role in the drama of Advent this year.
Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
I know what you are thinking. There is that heading out image again. Let us go, it says. So, come on, lets go! First of all, I’m not arguing for status quo. For sitting still like righteous bumps on a log. No, there is motion, there is activity, there is work to be done in Advent. Even though the keywords are watch and wait, there is plenty to keep us occupied. Stay with me here. But I’m asking us to rethink our direction. Well, Isaiah is, anyway.
Notice the passive tense? We have trouble with that. Especially in busy times. We want to be doing, to be moving, to be deciding. But all this is not our work. This mountain raising and nation calling work isn’t ours. It is God’s It’s going to happen, we can count on that. In fact that is our job, counting on it. Holding on to the hope, to the conviction that God is in control. And if you don’t think that takes effort then you haven’t really tried it. When a world around you has given up on hope, to hold fast is to take a contrary stand. To say that you believe that there can be such a thing as peace is to make a radical declaration. To live confidently, that despite all evidence seen with the eyes and heard with the ears, you will trust with your whole life that healing and wholeness is around the corner.
So, why is it so important to hold on to hope? Why not just be surprised with the rest of the world? Well, we could say that living in hope is a better way to live. We could say that a life filled with confidence and joy is much more rewarding and satisfying than one shaped by cynicism and distrust.
But that isn’t Isaiah’s argument. Isaiah simply announces that there will come a time when the nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord. There will come a time when people will want to learn God’s ways and will want to walk in God’s path. And he says that this will happen because there is teaching happening, there is the Word being proclaimed. This will happen because there are those who will welcome. This will happen because there are hosts on the mountain of the Lord.
That’s us. Company’s coming. That’s what Isaiah is telling us. Yes, in part we know that it is the Word made flesh that comes to dwell among us. We know that the king is coming and we make ready by preparing him room so that this time he isn’t turned away at the inns of our lives and left to sleep in a feed trough out back where no one but some smelly shepherds and wacko wise guys from out of town drop in on him. We know that this is a part of our task this Advent season.
But Isaiah isn’t satisfied with just that, as important as it is. There is a world out there hungry to learn, and they just might be beating a path to our door. There is a world out there dying for justice, and they might be huddled under our portico right now. There are wanderers who has strayed down so many paths that their feet are sore and their hearts are broken, and they sometimes stumble their way into our hallways and aisles.
Company’s coming, are we ready? Are we ready to host, to teach about the ways of the Lord, to guide them into paths of right living? Are we ready to welcome them into the presence of the Lord of life, the Prince of Peace? Are we ready to love them like he loves them, to embrace them, to connect them, to claim them as brothers and sisters? This hosting thing isn’t easy. And there are days when we want to be left alone, when we want everyone to find their own way, follow their own paths. Yet, holding on to hope means that we have signed up for this duty, for this joy. Joy? Well, of course. Throwing parties is all about joy. About making others feel welcome, feel wanted. It is about setting aside our own comforts for the joy of another. The joy of including. The joy of growing the family with the one we’ve been waiting for, without even knowing who it was who was coming up the path to our door.
So, how do we do that? How do we sweep the paths and light the lights so that those who wander near might know that they will find a welcome here? Isaiah seems to think it is simple. He switches from the passive to the active at the end of the passage. He switches from God’s task to our task in one verse. Come, he says, O house of Jacob, come you who inhabit the family of God, you who serve as hosts on the highest mountain, you who let the teaching flow out and the welcome be all inclusive, come. Let us walk in the light of the Lord! In other words, we live our welcome. We must be the light that we set in the window so that the path to the door can be found!