The people of God pleaded, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” They complained before their Lord, “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They drew near to God and all they wanted was for God to notice them. They felt that God was blind to all of their petitions; that God was ignoring their cries for help and their requests for righteous judgments. The problem, however, was not that God was blind, but that God saw all too well. It wasn’t that God didn’t see anything. It was that God saw everything. God saw that all of their fasting was tarnished by their own interests. The Lord noticed that their pious worship was stained by quarreling and fighting. So, God sent Isaiah to set the record straight and to call his people to be more faithful followers, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion.” Isaiah did not hold back.
“Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share the bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own family?” It turns out that God’s people had misunderstood what it meant to be God’s people. They thought they could show up for worship, put on a good show for God, and then go on to live their lives how they saw fit. They thought that as long as they went through the motions of worship that God wouldn’t notice the quarreling in meetings or the greed in the marketplace. Isaiah came to tell them that they had it backwards. As long as God saw quarreling and greed he would not notice their worship. Isaiah wouldn’t be the only one.
The Old Testament is the story of God’s people being confused about the difference between true and false worship. God’s people would continue to think that worship was reading the Bible and singing songs of praise and lifting up long prayers. God would continue to send prophets to remind them that true worship was about relationships; about giving food to the hungry, about finding housing for the homeless and clothing for the naked, about reconciling with brothers and sisters. Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, Amos, Micah and all of the prophets were sent by God to God’s people to remind them what true worship looked like. Ultimately, God sent his one and only son to do the same. That is, after all, what Advent is all about. At least, that’s how Mary understood it.
Mary’s song is the first Christmas carol, so to speak. It is the first song that’s celebrating the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very much like the Christmas hymns that we’re so used to singing. So many of our favorite Christmas songs remember the quiet stable, the peaceful night, the sweet baby that lay in the manger. “All is calm, all is bright we sing.” Mary’s song was certainly bright with hope, but it was far from calm. “The Mighty One has done great things for me…he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Scattering the proud. Bringing down the powerful. Sending away the rich. This is Christmas? Why would we wait for that?
In sending his son into the world in such lowly state, through such a humble servant, to a woman no less, God was saying to his people, “It’s not pride or power or wealth that is valuable in my sight but humble service that I seek.” When too many of God’s people were hoping that God would serve their needs, a young woman named Mary gave her heart, mind, and body to serve God’s needs. Mary’s song echoes loudly the words of Isaiah’s prophecy. She rejoiced at the birth of Jesus Christ, not because there would be good music to sing or quaint children’s pageants to watch, but because justice would be done and God’s people would again be shown what true worship looks like. This is not the Christmas that God’s people have become accustomed to today.
The good news is that God helps, not who help themselves, but who help others. In a nation that claims to be Christian, many people don’t know what Advent and Christmas are and don’t worship at all. Many others have it all mixed up with consumerism and worship in the hallowed halls of a mall. Still others would rather worship quietly with their favorite Christmas stories and favorite Christmas hymns. However, Isaiah and Mary tell us that the real hope of Advent is that God has set apart a people in Jesus Christ to show the world what true worship looks like. We have been called to help others. Listen to Isaiah again, “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, cover them…you remove the yoke…you offer your food.” God is calling to you. God continues to call for humble servants like Mary. God continues to call for those who will let Jesus be born within them, who will help others; who will widen the welcome and break down barriers.
No doubt widening the welcome and breaking down barriers means something different today than it used to. Many people who are divorced find a welcome in many churches today, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who don’t. There is still little welcome for those who struggle with their identity or sexuality. And, many more women have found their way into many more Reformed pulpits to preach, but there are many others who don’t. There are still barriers between Reformed pulpits and people of color. Many people still need hope today and wonder if Hope Church will still lead the way. No doubt continuing to widen the welcome and break down barriers is hard work. It’s disruptive work. But it’s the kind of work that Isaiah prophesied about and Mary sang about when they considered the coming of the Messiah. So, there is great promise in that work. That promise, like the calling we heard, is for you.
Because when God sees that disruptive kind of work happening here, your light shall break forth like the dawn, your healing shall spring up quickly, the Lord will go before you and be your rear guard as well. You will call and the Lord will answer. When God sees you waiting for Jesus by widening the welcome and breaking down barriers, the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. You shall sing the song with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.” Amen.