Remembering the God Who Is With Us

Advent: A Fourth Meditation

It was in December 1972 at the Class of 1976’s weekly prayer meeting in Fancher Auditorium that I first remember reflecting on Isaiah 40 as part of Advent. I was actively resenting that preparation for Christmas fell precisely in the busiest time of the academic calendar.

(Two things have not changed in the intervening 48 years. I still resent this coinciding of Advent with final papers and exams. And I still read Isaiah as part of Advent preparation.)

It was the final section of chapter 40 that had caught my attention. I already knew the familiar Isaiah 40:31 about “those who wait on the Lord renewing their strength,” “mounting up with wings as eagles,” and “running and not being weary.” But the section just before that jumped out—verses 27-29:

Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?” Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

Those verses called me away from focusing on myself to focusing on God. It’s not about my weariness; it’s about God’s infinite energy. Put in Christmas terms, it’s not about “God with us” but “God with us.”

As we move in this final week of Advent from preparation to celebration, let us shift from focusing on ourselves and our efforts to get ready for God’s coming to focusing on the one whose coming we celebrate.

Merry Christmas from Houghton College

The entire last third of Isaiah is replete with God’s reminders to the children of Israel about who God is—and how different the God of Israel is from the gods surrounding them. They have to carry around the other gods on their animals; the God of Israel carries them (Isaiah 46). The other gods cannot do anything to help them; the God of Israel “takes hold of [their] right hand and says…do not fear; I will help you” (41:13). The gods around them are made of the same material as the inanimate wood with which they bake their bread (44); the God of Israel actively remembers them: “I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” (49:16).

This is only the beginning. As we make our way through the book of Isaiah, we come to chapter 55, where we are invited to “come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat…without money and without cost” (55:1). The God who came to us in Bethlehem, unlike the other gods of our Christmas celebrations, comes to the poor as well as the rich. The ultimate purposes of this God of Israel are accomplished—no matter what it looks like all around us (55:11).

In this strange year of 2020, we need to hear once again the words of the prophet:

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers, the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever. (55:12-13)

The God who comes to us at Christmas is the God who has staked his very reputation on faithfulness to his people—no matter what the circumstances. This is the God who has been celebrated over the centuries not only in the scriptures but by those in each generation who have dared to be part of the Great Exchange (Isaiah 61:3). This is the God about whom John Donne proclaimed in his Christmas Sermon of 1624, “All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.”

As we come into Christmas 2020, may we join with the hosts of those through the centuries and around the globe in celebrating not simply that God has come to be with us but that this God has come to be with us—not just for this season but for every day of the coming year.

May a taste of the “everlasting joy” of Isaiah 61:7 be yours this Christmas.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976