Alive in the adventure of Jesus
In Part 1, we explored what it means to be alive in the story of creation... a story that includes crisis, calling, captivity, conquest and conversation. Into that conversation comes a man named Jesus, a man whose character, words and example changed history. In Part 2, we will explore what it means to be alive in the adventure of Jesus.
We begin with the story of his birth (during the traditional seasons of Advent and Christmas), and then we follow him through childhood to adulthood, as the light of God shines brightly through him (during the season of Epiphany). Our exploration will lead to this life-changing choice: will we identify ourselves as honest and sincere followers of Jesus today?
At the end of each of the first five chapters, you’ll be invited to light a candle. Whether you do so alone or maybe along with your DNA group friends, use that simple tradition as an invitation to joyful, hopeful, reverent contemplation.
Promised Land, Promised Time
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
To be alive is to desire, to hope and to dream, and the Bible is a book about desires, hopes and dreams. The story begins with God’s desire for a good and beautiful world, of which we are a part. Soon, some of us desire the power to kill, enslave or oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites or dominated by stronger nations nearby.
Desires, hopes and dreams inspire action, and that’s what makes them so different from a wish. Wishing is a substitute for action. Wishing creates a kind of passive optimism that can paralyse people in a happy fog of complacency: ‘Everything will turn out fine. Why work, struggle, sacrifice or plan?’ Guess what happens to people who never work, struggle, sacrifice or plan? Things don’t normally turn out the way they wish!
In contrast, our desires, hopes and dreams for the future guide us in how to act now. If a girl hopes to be a doctor one day, she’ll study hard and prepare for medical school. If a boy dreams of being a marine biologist one day, he’ll spend time around the sea and learn to snorkel and scuba-dive. Their hope for the future guides them in how to act now. They align their lives by their hope, and in that way their lives are shaped by hope. Without action, they would be wishing, not hoping.
Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behaviour will lead.
One of the most important prophetic compositions was the book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally been attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonised by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behaviour would lead to decline and defeat.
That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40 – 55, often called ‘Second Isaiah’, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would one day return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for ‘Third Isaiah’, chapters 56 – 66.
For readers in later generations, ingredients from these three different settings blend into one rich recipe for hope, full of imagery that still energises our imagination today.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (2:4)
A shoot shall come out from the stock of [David’s father] Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him . . .
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them . . .
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (11:1–2, 6, 9)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (42:1–3)
Isaiah’s descriptions of that better day were so inspiring that Jesus and his early followers quoted Isaiah more than any other writer. But many other prophets added their own colours to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beast-like empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.
In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled either. Yes, conditions for the Jews improved under the Persians, but things still weren’t as good as the prophets promised. Next the Greek and Seleucid empires took control of the region, and for a time the Jews threw off their oppressors. But their independence was brief, and the full dream of the prophets remained unfulfilled. Next the Romans seized power, subjugating and humiliating the Jews and testing their hope as never before. Yet their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.
To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future. It is to translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.
So let us begin this Advent season by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing strong in our hearts, even now.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you kept hope or lost hope.
3. How do you respond to the imagery of Isaiah, and how would you translate some of that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world?
4. For children: What do you hope to be or do when you grow up?
5. Activate: This week, look for discouragement or cynicism in your own thinking. Challenge yourself to become cynical about your cynicism, and challenge yourself towards prophetic hope.
6. Meditate: Light a candle and choose one image from the prophets mentioned in this chapter. Simply hold that image in your heart, in God’s presence. Let it inspire a simple prayer that you may wish to speak aloud.