The year has been dark.
As I write this, the headlines announce that someone has driven a truck into a group of pedestrians, killing eight people. Hurricanes, fires, war, refugees, political turmoil—a succession of loss. Haunting photos capture the starvation of children besieged from within and without the walls of Syrian cities. This is all old news, but its tragedy compounds as it is repeated throughout history. For people affected by these disasters, the future feels bleak, hope nonexistent.
In another walled city, not far from Syria, almost a millennium before Jesus’s birth, God sets watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem. Their context is grim: hostile armies approach their city. To these watchers, God gives a specific task: “All the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest.” (Isaiah 62:6-7a)
What are they waiting for? What are they saying as they wait?
This passage is part of a promise God makes through the prophet Isaiah. A time is coming when God will make a home with the people who have been waiting. Keep waiting, Isaiah urges. And in the meantime, pray.
Come, Lord, they say. Come quickly.
Things Fall Apart
Part of the church’s focus during Advent is the second coming of Jesus. Since Jesus returned to God in a resurrected body, his disciples have been waiting for him to come back. When he does, he will fulfill all the promises of Scripture: that our relationships will be healed, that nature will flourish, that violence will be replaced with gardening (Isaiah 2:4). But the world doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction.
In “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats describes a ghastly world waiting in dread for the advent of a mysterious beast. The poem remains popular because Yeats helps us capture the way our world often feels: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Yeats sees the watchmen on the walls looking for the final collapse, while “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I’m sure I won’t be alone in returning to his poem this year.
Often, our world seems chaotic: justice is perverted, people suffer without purpose. The outlook is bleak. But in contrast to Yeats’s vision, Isaiah’s watchmen are waiting and praying for the advent of someone who will restore the world, who will bring not anarchy but a just and peaceable kingdom. It’s hard to imagine. It may seem like a fairy tale. Even Christians can struggle to count on Jesus’s return as a reality.
Praying with Confidence
Despite our difficulty to believe, we are called to be a part of this reality. Isaiah’s words teach us how to pray expectantly. We are instructed to “put the LORD in remembrance,” to keep pestering God to show up in our world. We remind God who God is, and we also remind ourselves. We sing songs that retell the story of Jesus. We read Scripture. The more we talk and think with each other about God’s promises, the more these promises become part of our vocabulary, our perspective on life. As we do so, our expectation in God’s promises grows.
The watchers on Isaiah’s walls know that they are waiting for someone who will deliver them and will love them. During Advent, we reflect on God’s love for us.
I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, The praises of the LORD, According to all that the LORD has granted us, And the great goodness to the house of Israel That he has granted them according to his compassion, According to the abundance of his steadfast love.
The people in Yeats’s poem wait for the dreadful beast, “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born,” who will only increase their misery. We’re waiting for a Savior who suffered with and for us, who comforts us in our pain and gives us peace in the midst of our anxieties.
He became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, And the angel of his presence saved them; In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Jesus’s advent is the opposite of what Yeats described. We know who is coming, and he knows all of our grief and disappointment. Even when we contribute to the pain and suffering of those around us, he loves us and has compassion on us. Yeats’s beast has “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” Jesus’s eyes look at us personally, generously. As we think and talk about Jesus, we’re more eager to pray for his return. The more we read his words and learn his personality, the more we trust him to do what he says.
The First Coming
Throughout the centuries and throughout the world, Christians have returned to a simple prayer during these weeks before Christmas: Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord! We follow in that tradition. Now, we watch and wait (and work), praying that Jesus will come back to us to make all things new. When he comes, the people who have fled injustice and been wounded by poverty stream back to the city to rebuild its walls under God’s good government. (Isaiah 61:4)
But the season of Advent isn’t only about Jesus’s second coming. There was a first coming. Jesus has already made himself available for us—he can be a part of our lives now. Isaiah constantly reminds God’s people that God is with them.
Have you grasped that promise for yourself? Maybe this year has held griefs and disappointments for you. Maybe you haven’t gone through war—and hopefully lost a home or loved one—but you feel a pinched and painful absence. The Savior promised in Isaiah has come and feels your suffering. Wait for him. Pray while you wait.
I know I feel the power of Yeats’s diagnosis. I can feel like I’m in the desert he describes, without hope. But even in the desert, God comes to us, and we can come to God. The closing words of the Bible invite us: Come. Let the one who is thirsty come (Revelation 22:17). This Advent, repeat those words back to the one who can satisfy our thirst: Come, Lord Jesus! And watch for his response: “I am coming soon.”
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