Does the idea of prophecy weird you out? Does it seem hokey? People able to predict the future. Really wild visions of angels and dragons. The Bible is loaded with prophecy, and while it is definitely interesting to read, it is confusing and hard to understand. Prophecy is so weird that I usually avoid it. But this year, Advent threw me for a prophecy loop.
For as long as I have been at Faith Church, we’ve observed the Season Advent.
What is Advent? Do you know what definition of the word “Advent” is?
How about a one-word synonym? “Coming”
It refers to the coming of Jesus into the world, which, of course, we celebrate on Christmas Day, the day we remember his birth. Ancient Christian believers wanted to have a time of fasting and preparation before one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, Christmas. Advent is observed, then, the four Sundays prior to Christmas day, and on those Sundays we reflect on the first coming of Jesus, so that we might ready ourselves for his second coming.
Not all churches observe Advent. There is no biblical mandate to do so. In fact, Advent was created after the events of the early church that we read about in the New Testament. Faith Church, along with many others around the world, simply chooses to give ourselves to this spiritual discipline.
An important question for preachers is: What could we talk about on these four Sundays of Advent to help us reflect on Jesus’ first coming so that we might be better prepared for the second coming?
I decided to look at the Lectionary for help. A lectionary is basically a system for studying through Scripture. There are daily plans as well as weekly plans. Some are two years long, some are three years. Each day there is an OT reading, a NT reading, usually a couple Psalms, and a Gospel reading. If you follow the Lectionary for the whole 2-3 years, you would cover much of the Bible (depending on which Lectionary you use), and some parts like the Gospels and Psalms you read numerous times.
As I opened it, I wondered what the Lectionary readings are for Advent 2016? Of course there are the stories of the birth of Christ in the Gospel readings. Those are always great. But it was the Old Testament readings that jumped out at me. They are all prophecies from the book of Isaiah. I will admit to you that I have shied away from prophetic books in my preaching because interpreting prophecy tends to be very complicated, and I’m not sure I want to do that hard work.
Gail Godwin, in her novel Evensong, says through the lips of her character Reverend Bonner, “Handing the Book of Revelation to a literal-minded person without any guidance [i]s like presenting a child with a box of matches and telling him to go out and play.” Same goes for Isaiah and the many other prophetic books of the Bible. Prophecy is an intimidating genre for the preacher, and yet it holds great fascination for the reader. We offer month-long elective classes every April and October on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and at the end of the month we ask participants to complete an evaluation of their class. The evaluation also asks them to suggest topics or books of the Bible they’d like to study in the future. Every single session at least one person lists the book of Revelation. Though we may not understand it, prophecy holds our attention, like watching a horror film, or the newsreels of war zones and natural disasters.
But prophecy is not valuable because it titillates us. Prophecy, understood well, carries a message, sometimes a warning we need to heed, often a vision of God’s beautiful kingdom. Godwin’s point is well-taken. Literalist approaches that suggest prophecy is basically just another newspaper, telling us about the events of world in our day, are severely misguided, leading people astray. And yet, that literalist approach is what so many have banked on when picking up the Isaiahs and Revelations of the Bible. Instead, we need to spend time doing the hard work to discover the message of the prophecy. When we do that research, we find that we need prophecy, that we can learn something very important from it.
So it is time for some Old Testament prophecy from a guy named Isaiah. The Lectionary has hand-picked a number of passages in Isaiah specifically applicable for Advent, all of the passages giving us an astounding vision of the Messiah and his mission. First up is Isaiah 2:1-5, a vision of the future that has interesting implications for the here and now. In this prophecy, Isaiah takes to an amazing future mountain of God.
Do you want to learn more about prophecy? About the prophet Isaiah? And about the mission of the Messiah? And most of all, do you want to learn what it matters to us living in 2016? We welcome you to join us for the first Sunday of Advent 2016 at Faith Church, November 27.