RANTING AND SINGING
By Dorothy Nickel Friesen
Advent, that unusual but powerful season in the Christian liturgical cycle, begins four Sundays before Christmas. From the high octane eating celebration of turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, we make a decided turn from food to spiritual nourishment. It’s a change of pace and a change of focus. Advent begins with expectation and hope. It is a season of patience, quiet reflection, even confession and tears. It is a time of observing, watching, staying awake.
The Isaiah texts, which mark this year’s Hebrew scripture diet, are anything but quiet. Each of the four Sundays requires a response, an action, and attention. The prophet begins with a clarion call: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:1-5). For 21st century Christians, this raises the question of just where we might go. Well, the prophet says, go to the place of judging between the nations, beating swords into plowshares, and learning of war no more. I respond, “That is just what we need!” This call means we must change our warring ways, stop our stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and teach our children ways of peace. Maybe our congregations, on this first Sunday, pound our guns into garden tools.
The second Sunday continues an invitation to unbelievable change. God seems to be putting opposites and potential victims together: wolf and lamb, calf and lion, children as leaders. What? The prophet paints a picture so unreal, so impossible, that anyone in any culture sees this vision as, well, impossible. Yet, we read about a promise of a new voice, “a branch shall grow out of the root of Jesse” (Is 11:1). Maybe this Sunday we gather our families around trees, bushes, and neighborhood vines. Do we see new life or only dead branches? Are we marveling at tiny, green shoots of wheat on prairie ground? Try organizing a friendly “rake your lawn” event for families.
As the Advent light becomes more limited in the Western Hemisphere and nights are longer, we hear the prophet, on the third Sunday (Is 35:1-10), issue another cry. It’s a huge note of wonderful hope (“the desert shall rejoice and blossom”) and then a terrible rant (“God will come with vengeance”). This season is full of contradictions and cosmic events. We know about those contradictions in our lives too. Some of our friends lose spouses to death while other neighbors welcome a new baby. One loses a job and another finishes specialized training. Children make college applications while grandparents decide to retire. Politics divides families; economics rewards some and bankrupts others. Spiritual growth results in baptism and yet, for others, there is a drift away from anything “church”. The prophet Isaiah seems to yell a little louder acknowledging the complicated life we live and yet confirm that God’s Spirit is about joy, new life, safety, singing. Take a plant to someone. Plant a tree.
It’s almost over. We are deep into the Advent season on this fourth Sunday (Is 7:10-16). In this brief text, the prophet seems to know that we are weary, confused, and teetering on hopelessness. Things seem in the shadows. We need something concrete, tangible, and accessible to ignite the fire of hope. The prophet has a solution to our weariness with national divisions and political rantings. The promise? A child. It seems that a tiny infant, an exceptional human being, will be a sign of hope. So we look around and we see an infant toddling into the arms of a loving aunt; we see siblings sing in a choir; we see new faces in worship; we notice students performing musicals; we see caring ministries for those who are suffering pain; we are blessed with worship filled with music, prayers, and inspiration. Attend a concert or enjoy a music recording of seasonal music.
I think a little ranting is not all bad—especially when we notice, as the prophet Isaiah did, that things are not well. War, famine, violence, abuse, and hunger are too common. I also hear singing. I notice notes of welcome, hospitality, service, and witness. Advent moves us from ranting to singing. Thanks be to God.
(Dorothy Nickel Friesen, retired Mennonite Church USA conference minister and pastor, lives in Newton and chairs the board of SPRINGS FORTH! FAITH FORMATION, INC., which publishes multiage curriculum at springsforth.com.)