Advent can be one of the most stressful times of year.
Perhaps it all comes down to the expectations we put on ourselves and others, as April suggests. I’ll admit that a lot of the stress I feel in the weeks leading up to Christmas rise out of unrealistic expectations I put on myself to be a perfect pastor, parent, husband, student or son.
The stress can nearly be overwhelming.
It’s a shame, really, that this time of eager anticipation is also one of the most stressful. I would like to say that I am able to celebrate my eager anticipation of the birth of Christ but really this week I have been much more focused on berating myself for not getting to the swimming pool as often as I should, for not getting as much work done on my sermons as I wanted, or for worrying too much about finances around the holidays. I wish I could say that I spent my time in quiet reflection, meditating on the birth of our Savior, but instead I found any number of other tasks to keep myself busy. I would like to say that this Advent season has been full of the awe-inspiring encounter with the hope, peace, love, and joy of Advent that I have been preaching and writing about, but really I just found myself swearing under my breath when the Christmas lights in the garland didn’t work.
The reality is that Advent can be one of the most stressful times of the year.
A season that should be full of eager anticipation and joyful meditation quickly becomes a period of frantic accomplishment, meeting the legalistic demands of my own expectations and the expectations of others.
So what do we do?
Isaiah 11 is one of the better-known passages from Isaiah. It seems that we hear this promise of a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse every year at Advent. Then it leads into this beautiful promise of the lion lying down with the lamb and this picture of the created world that simply feels too good to be true. I can’t help but think of the artwork of Joel Schoon-Tanis, an artist who graduated from my high school and whose work was prominently featured at our school. His paintings capture a childlike awe and wonder at a world that defies our expectations.
It strikes me, though, that whenever we read passages like Isaiah 11, we tend to split it: we read verses 1-3a (the parts about the shoot from the stump of Jesse) in the past tense (what Jesus did) and verses 3b-9 (the judging the nations and the lion and lamb stuff – we don’t really read beyond verse 10, of course) in the future tense (what Jesus will do when he returns. What we miss is the very real promise that this is what Jesus is doing here and now in our lives.
Of course, we only experience a foretaste of this promised peaceable kingdom. The promise of Isaiah 11, however, is that, by setting to right the order of the world and caring for the poor and needy, ruling with justice and faithfulness (verses 3-5), this Shoot begins the re-creation of all things, setting to right even the imbalances within the created world, even human conflict (this is why we have to read beyond verse 10), clearing a path for his remnant to return from exile.
What is perhaps most striking about the end of Isaiah 11 is that the people of Israel do very little. God clears the path, the Anointed One invites his people around him, and God’s people simply answer his call.
The star that guided the wise men in Matthew beckons to us now. The voice that called the shepherds sings to us today. The King has come, his Kingdom has begun. This doesn’t mean that the stress of the holidays magically disappears or that I can wave a wand to make my unrealistic self-expectations go away forever. As we begin to walk the path toward the manger, though, we find that God has cleared a highway for us as the King invites us to enter in to the peace of his Kingdom.