by Rebecca Boardman

December holds the darkest of days. For some, this is fearful. Others wrap every surface with artificial lights to have more light around them. For us, let it be a gentle reminder to slow our rhythm and listen to the quiet of creation around us. God speaks in darkness, too.

In this study, we will reflect on Isaiah’s prophecy and pay special attention to how God is speaking to us through the mountains, tree (stumps) and the desert. These earthly metaphors culminate with a final prophecy about Immanuel, the ultimate creation. After each devotion, I invite you to journal the guiding questions and enjoy an activity based on the theme of the week.

Come, let creation guide us deeper into Advent.

Week 1: December 1-7, 2019
Keep awake. . . or you may miss the Mountain
Isaiah 2:2-3

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us thy ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”

When you visualize mountains, what descriptors come to mind? Strength and majesty are the first words on my lips. The allure of mountain ranges draw millions of visitors to our National Parks and on backpacking expeditions across the globe.

In the Bible, God meets with humankind on a mountain. Could that still happen today?

Years ago, I visited India and Nepal with my sister. Due to clouds and smog, we only saw glimpses of the Himalayas but never Mt. Everest. I remember sharing our disappointment as we boarded our flight leaving Kathmandu. It was highly unlikely we would ever travel to Nepal again! Unlike the rest of our group, I had a rabid fascination with Mt. Everest since childhood and had been more excited to see her than the Taj Mahal. Thus, it felt like an incomplete journey.

Exhausted from three intense weeks of travel, I immediately fell asleep. Twenty minutes later, the man seated next to me poked my shoulder rather insistently and exclaimed, “THE HIMALAYAS! THE HIMALAYAS!” With blurry eyes, I leaned over the window to behold one of the greatest sights of my life. At 29,035 feet, Mt. Everest and her range soared high above the clouds.

Tears burned my eyes. For 20 plus years I had felt closest to God in the mountains but had never been rendered speechless until that day. India was a deeply spiritual journey but also filled with poverty, indifference and socioeconomic divides unlike any I had witnessed before. As my troubled soul was digesting all that we had experienced, Mt. Everest reminded me of God’s omnipresence. Every day. Alas, it took a stranger prodding me out of sleep or I would have missed it completely!

Keep awake, dear ones, for God is ready to surprise you with wonder this week…

Answer these questions in a journal for Advent.

Discussion questions:
1. How have you experienced God “in the mountains,” literally or metaphorically?
2. Which Bible stories come to mind of God’s people and mountains? What significance do they hold?

1. Find some markers or crayons. Draw a mountain. Now draw a path. If you were to meet God on a mountaintop, what questions would you ask?
2. Identify 1 book of the Bible, prayer practice or spiritual discipline you’d like to explore this month to seek insights to your questions.

Week 2: December 8-14
New shoots from an (almost) dead tree
Isaiah 11:1-3

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of these roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

Have you ever felt completely at a dead end? Stuck in a relationship, a conflict or a major that just sucked all the joy out of your soul? Hopelessness is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Israel felt that, too. The successors of King David had failed to lead the people. Destruction was abundant. War had become a way of life. Few knew the story of Yahweh and even fewer actually followed by the laws of Moses. Justice and peace were a distant, faded memory.

When we utterly lose hope–either from the current political climate or our struggling grade in Organic Chemistry–it is vital to draw strength from those who have walked the road before us. Unlike in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, when the stump signals the end of life, in God’s narrative, there are ALWAYS new possibilities!

God never never gave up on Israel even when they forgot Yahweh! This prophecy from Isaiah reminds us sometimes we need to go back to the very beginning (the tree-stump!) to remember our source of strength and meaning.

From the stump of Jesse, we learn about a King of humble origins that would be a signal for the nations after the exile.

Discussion questions:
1. When have you experienced “new shoots” springing out from a “stump”?
2. Whose leadership (local or global) do you admire? Whose leadership is more self-serving than for the common good? What kind of leader does God call you to be and in what capacity?

Head out on a nature walk (leave your earbuds at home). Take note of creation around you. Where is it in the cycle of life? Where do you see signs of new life? Snap pictures of unexpected sightings, like pansies peeking through the snow or a colorful hummingbird searching for food. Offer prayers along your walk, giving thanks for God for the mystery of creation and the hope it provides.

Week 3: December 15-21
(Unexpected) Joy in the desert
Isaiah 35:1

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

I thought I was a decent gardener until I moved to Arizona and encountered “caliche” soil. Our ground is so hard, so parched, they recommend using a jackhammer to dig a simple hole. This seemed preposterous until I watched my partner spend four hours digging only 10 inches to plant a lemon tree!

Desert=Death, right? Asylum seekers travel through an area of Arizona so deadly it’s called “Devil’s Highway.” There’s even an expression, “Cuidado, everything can kill you out there.” This axiom keeps children on the paths, dogs at home and plenty of adults from ever leaving town. However, we rarely encounter God if we stay in our safety bubble, right? God calls us away from comfortability to experience new life.

Across the country, the first crocus beckons forth spring. I’m surprised to learn the same thing happens in the desert. Each spring, there’s a riot of color from wildflowers scattered beside the prickly pears and saguaros. Knowing how difficult the conditions are, isn’t that a defiant, joyful gift of nature? Tender, playful wildflowers determined to flourish despite the arid landscape.

Yes, the road is hard, dear ones. Too often the ground beneath us seems impossibly unfertile. Yet, God sends wonder and delight, hope and grit into our lives if only we were to notice. I found a bumper sticker that asserts, “Desert People are Strong People.” The ground may seem impossibly hard right now…but Scriptures teach us JOY always comes in the morning.

Discussion questions:
1. How have you survived the “hard, unforgiving desert” in your life?
2. When have you experienced unexpected Joy? Where was God in that?

Go to the nursery/hardware store and buy a baby succulent! Here are some examples of simple crafts. Write “Desert People are Strong People” or something similar on the pot.

DIY Succulent Crafts, Hanging Plants & Air Gardens

Week 4: December 22-24
Awaiting Immanuel
Isaiah 7:10-14

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord thyself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

“Ugh. I need a sign!” How many times have you whispered, begged or yelled those words this year? We implore our friends, advisors and Google maps to help us find the right path, but how often do we deeply pray those words?

In Hebrew, Immanuel means “God With Us.” In this single word, we receive overflowing reassurance that we are never alone. In the person of Jesus, we believe God took on human form to experience every step of the human journey. That means there is no fear, no struggle, no emotion you have that God has not also known. To remind us of this, God sends people into our lives to manifest solidarity. Your favorite professor, your roommate, the kind coffeeshop employee–they all bring the hope, peace, love of God right into our daily experience.

Unlike the human kings that ultimately led Israel into strife and exile, Immanuel will be an entirely different brand of king. As we know from our 21st-century vantage point, this King will eclipse all others yet not rule by throne or army. Justice and reconciliation move from ancient dreams to embodied truth in the form of Jesus.

Even in these dark December nights, have you seen the starlight shimmer?

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.
Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!

Discussion questions:
1. How have you experienced Immanuel this year?
2. How has Isaiah’s prophecy given you a new perspective on preparing for Jesus?

Make a Christmas card thanking someone who has embodied Immanuel for you. Better yet, make several!

Rev. Rebecca Boardman was ordained in 2004 and has served the ELCA in Chicago, Colorado, St Louis and currently as the Lutheran Campus Pastor for the University of Arizona in Tucson. She spends her free time experimenting with recipes, traveling to new places and picking cactus pieces out of her dog.