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Monday, December 01, 2008

Virtual Advent Retreat, Session 1

Isaiah 40:1-11 - NRSV (as set for Advent 2 in this Year B)

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.

I must have been about five years old when my father first took me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I felt unimaginably grown-up as I filed into the local concert hall, and I’m sure my eyes were out on stalks as I watched my first real orchestra tune up and begin the overture. For a while, all was activity, as the strings chased each other in restless counterpoint. Then the mode changed to one of calm expectancy…and it was into this that a tenor dropped his notes of liquid hope

Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”.

A long time has elapsed since that first experience, but it’s still almost impossible for me to divorce these words from Handel's inspired music. I think I should try, though, because what is going on in this passage is anything but tranquil for much of the time.

A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Of course there is reassurance, that God will surely come along the royal road prepared for him, but before he does so there will need to be something very much like an earthquake.
Nothing will ever be the same again, - this is more than a little gentle landscaping, for roads aren’t built without a dramatic effect on the countryside. Every time a new highway is proposed here, the U.K. press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills levelled, and the natural contours altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident, - perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries. Despite this, we’re reluctant to opt for change, and this passage speaks of some pretty dramatic changes, including that which makes us most uneasy, - our own changed state from earthly life to death.

“All flesh is as grass”
Now the soundtrack in my head has changed, and I’m carried along by Brahms’ German Requiem, the drumbeats heavy with anticipation of the inevitable.
There will have to be many small deaths as we prepare for the coming of God. The levelling of mountains and hills, the smoothing out of rough places in ourselves and in our community, will never be without cost for us, for we are the people who wish not to be disturbed, unless on our own terms.

So often Advent becomes a time of frenzied accumulation, as we hunt the length and breadth of town for the perfect gift for people with no material needs whatsoever. Rather than smoothing out valleys and hills, we make mountains out of molehills as the days fly past, until Christmas shopping becomes a chore, and we are simply desperate to ensure that there is something, anything, to wrap and put under the tree by December 25th. Maybe this year economics will give our Advent a different shape, one more in keeping with Isaiah. The message here reminds us of the transience of all those things which seem, for a while, so supremely important. Even their recipients are here but for a limited span.
So, instead of our seasonal round of accumulation, Isaiah speaks of simplification, stripping away the inessentials, levelling the landscape so that you can see far into the distance…and then, - oh then the glory of the Lord will be revealed!

What’s more, after the images of earthquake and reminders of mortality, the God who comes in might meets us in gentleness. He recognises the scars that our own inner landscapes bear after so much upheaval, and scoops us up tenderly, as a shepherd a young lamb. We have no need to struggle, but can relax safe in those loving, protective arms.

This Advent, many are struggling because their familiar settings have been changed irrevocably, the reliable landmarks by which they defined themselves and their lives swept away by the economic crisis. Just this week, the shape of the British High Street has been changed dramatically as 800 Woolworth’s stores close. They have been part of the fabric of our nation for 99 years but suddenly, overnight, they are gone – and with them 25,000 jobs.
An earthquake indeed.
The things we have taken for granted simply aren’t there any more, and like the people of Israel for whom Isaiah wrote, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land…

So these words are for us, too.
“Do not fear…. Here is your God”
Whatever happens to the ephemera around us, that is something we can rely on.
May we keep God as the focus as we prepare the way for his coming to each of us at Christmas.

For reflection:
You might like to consider where and why you protest about building a highway for God.
Which hills need to become valleys...or which mountains are really molehills?
Listen again to the reassurance "Do not fear...Here is your God."
God is speaking into the situation of your greatest anxiety. Where your fear is most deeply seated, there God is already waiting.

For prayer:
Loving God, in a world whose landscapes are often distorted, help us to clear a pathway for you. Enable us to recognise that your presence with us is all the good news that we need to carry us safely through Advent, and through life, until you welcome us in your loving arms, through Jesus Christ our Saviour.


We hope the reflections on this retreat day will enrich your Advent experience. You may write your thoughts here in the comments, or if you write something on your own blog, leave a comment (with a link if you can) inviting us to visit you. Or, if it suits you better, keep these words in your heart, and we will trust that God works in many ways in all of us.


  1. I have linked to it... will try to drop by and read and actually post.


  2. Kathryn, what a wonderful reflection. I often make mountains out of molehills, and although I yearn for certain ways to be made straight, I fear what will be lost along with the straightening. Along those lines, I'm headed out of town to speak with a denominational person in another state today. Will the way be clear? I carry your words with me.
    Thanks to Kathryn and Juniper who will be leading the retreat today, and I'm sorry that my attendance will be interrupted.

  3. Thank you Kathryn for a lovely beginning to this retreat.

    I pondered the "the straight roads at my place

  4. I wonder - does God need the starkness after chaos in which to speak? Or is it that we hear God best then? Three thoughts came to mind as I read this wonderful first reflection (Thank you, Kathryn).

    I immediately thought of Elijah and God's still, small voice. No voice in the expected earthquake, wind, and fire -- all of those events had to settle into stillness.

    I have spent time in prayer this week with the phrase, "Be still and know that I am God." How striking that in order to know God we are called to something -- stillness -- against which every human instinct militates from the moment of birth onward.

    Sometime during the first week of my own terrble upheaval, the thought did pass through my mind that the ultimate outcome of discovery might go either way - no God, or a God of unsurpassable imagination. (It turns out that the first week, as in Genesis, is considerably longer than a chronological week.)

  5. Gannet, you are so right. At my internship church we wanted to portray the chaos of the world and so we asked the pianst to pound, literally pound dissonant and discordant music for about a minute.

    When she quit...the silence in the sanctuary was palpable...many people noticed the quality of the silence was somehow different...and I believe God spoke in that silence.

    Be still...and know.

  6. Thanks, Kathryn. I posted a reflection here..


  7. Molehills and mountains. Yes, I've been there. Just last night, we had two activities planned for the youth group. The first was making small Chrismon trees to take to four of our elderly members. We went down to the church and looked at our big tree, talked about symbols for Jesus and looked at a Chrismon book. Then the kids set to work and it took about 45 minutes to have those trees completely decorated.
    Meanwhile, three of us adults were editing the radio play the kids are going to do the first Sunday of Epiphany - the second activity of the night - and also planning the rest of this year. It turns out there is no time to practice the play so we stopped the editing. And there are only two more Sundays left to meet in December so planning didn't take all that long, either!
    And now we had time on our hands. All you who work with youth know that is not what you want to have happen. Little molehills began popping up throughout the group and I felt like the advisors were playing whack-a-mole. Chaos ensued and we couldn't even *see* the highway.
    So we took all the kids back down to church, turned on the tree lights, dimmed the sanctuary ones and gave each kid a prayer book. We showed them the section of additional prayers in the back of the book and asked them to find one they liked and share it with the group. For twenty minutes, they were in the zone. No mountains, not even a molehill in sight. Just a straight path between these great kids and the Lord. The silence was real silence, the prayers were real prayers and we were comforted.

  8. I posted my first reflection here. It was lovely to work from your writing, Kathryn! Thank you.

    My other two responses will come later.

    Songbird, blessings on your journey.

    Everyone, blessings on your virtual retreat!

  9. "God is speaking into the situation of your greatest anxiety. Where your fear is most deeply seated, there God is already waiting."

    I needed to hear this today, Kathryn--thank you. It speaks to both my job search and my husband's and my work with a very challenging tween.

    Heading out for physical therapy, then spiritual direction--hope to have more time to read, reflect, and maybe write when I return. Prayers for all participating and for Songbird's trip and meeting.


  10. I have posted my reflection on my blog:

    Thank you, thank you SO much for this virtual Advent Retreat.

  11. My recently-neglected blog will certainly get a boost today by this virtual Advent retreat. Thanks for ministering to us ministers ladies. Great idea, Juniper, and so far the execution is phenomenal ladies. I appreciate it, especially, for me, as I am using it to look at my spiritual life, the status of my relationship with God. As I talk about in my reflection it's something I've been neglecting even longer than my blog - more like 6-9 years if I can even admit them. I was convinced of the communal nature of spiritual life in seminary, but I think now that I treated it as an either/or instead of a both/and. I've got some re-balancing to do, and Advent seems to be the start of that process for me. Thanks for being the start of that!

  12. Margaret - I love the reminder that when all else fails, you might try prayer. I DO seem to forget that !

    Looking forward to reading more reflections and thoughts and really appreciating so much thought and care on what must be a really very busy Monday for many.

  13. Thank you Kathryn. I needed this today.

  14. I'm so glad to be home and catching up with all of you. Thank you for your prayers. It was a full day! I came home to a phone interview this evening. I am clear that something is moving, just don't know where yet. I posted some thoughts for Session One here, and I will be around to read others' thoughts tonight and tomorrow.


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