We have been studying Isaiah. Talk about scanning the height and breadth of the heavens. Into that expanse creeps an Advent message:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (1)
There is some aspect of levelling that occurs in getting ready for Jesus. In Luke 3, as John the Baptist goes about preaching a baptism of repentance and forgiveness, this prophecy is quoted as ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
Last time I checked, I was still part of ‘all flesh;’ woefully, the part that is STILL in need of repentance and forgiveness and salvation. Levelled. Having been a Christian for over three quarters of my life, I feel like I should have it figured out by now: plumb, level, straight. Some piece of my soul plummets when I trip over the uneven, gnarly roots of sin STILL in my life. It is winter: cold, dark, and lonely. No party here.
Into this melancholic place, though, shines a light. One of the recurrent themes of Isaiah has been God’s undeterred mission for justice and righteousness; the lifting of oppressions. We see Jesus answering the religious establishment, when he is asked why he hangs out with sinners:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (2)
Jesus seems to draw a line between sickness and sin, suggesting that all that which oppresses is not external. (Please do no hear me say that sickness is always indicative of sin. John Cpt 9 clearly indicates otherwise.) Oppression is a deep word – one that most of us can sit with for a moment. It presupposes injustice, but does not rush to sling blame so much as sees the one oppressed. It is at risk of becoming commonplace, however, and I think we sometimes miss that oppression can come in a vast number of forms. Anything that sits on our chests so that we cannot freely breathe. No wonder we can relate. A light dawns, that perhaps this message of a savior of the sick, is for me. Perhaps Jesus would rather meet with the sinner in me, than the sanctimonious. He’d rather dine with my brokenness than any saintliness: that which oppresses, in me, or through me. Maybe he endures my hustling to clean myself up before I’ll approach him; flattering myself to somehow earn his favor or expecting others to do the same; but would much prefer the raw and broken Jenny, instead of so many layers of stiff white, but no less dirty, bandages. Perhaps he’s not all that squeamish about my wounds; whether self-inflicted or otherwise. Perhaps he’d like to bring a little mercy…HERE.
Various translations of this God statement read differently. In Hosea, God speaks judgement on the unrepentant, concluding: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (3) Is it possible, that God does not want me to keep throwing away pieces of myself, untended by him, because I cannot scrub them clean enough; but rather asks me to enter into his way of steadfast love. Steadfast love… HERE? You mean…you and me…the sinner in me? Is that even possible? And is that way level? Enough so that I might stop throwing away pieces of others as well?
Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (4) This is my winter ponder. Who is the object of this mercy? Could Jesus be talking about a multi-dimensional culture of mercy, rather than one direction? Could we abide in that kind of space, fill it out and breathe there?
The winter night sky of Isaiah makes it clear that, mercy-allowed, God still does not dispense with righteousness; but it is a righteousness of his making, not our own. He is hungry for righteousness to be fleshed-out in us. This Advent season, perhaps God would like to dine with the sinner in each of us; our offering the unworked, rough places to his levelling, that we might remember from what place salvation comes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. This is me, God, perpetually unable to make myself right or plumb, or gracious. Unable to level my heart to kindness, or remove the roots of anxiety and selfishness. Yet you came, undaunted by our culture of woe, bringing the kingdom of heaven with you. Come again, Lord Jesus, into these rough places in my soul, into the poorness of my spirit. Lift, miraculously, the power of sin’s oppression, and establish your culture of mercy, in me and through me. Amen
Scripture references are typically sourced from Blue Letter Bible, for ease of reader access. (1)
- “Isaiah 40:1 (NIV) – Comfort comfort my people says.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 18 Dec, 2018. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/niv/isa/40/1/p1/s_719001>.
- “Matthew 9:13 (NIV) – But go and learn what.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 18 Dec, 2018. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/niv/mat/9/13/s_938013>.
- “Hosea 6:6 (ESV) – For I desire steadfast love.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 18 Dec, 2018. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/esv/hos/6/6/s_868006>.
- “Matthew 9:13 (NLT) – Then he added Now go.” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 18 Dec, 2018. <https://www.blueletterbible.org/nlt/mat/9/13/s_938013>.