I may have mentioned this before, but as a fresh-out-of-seminary pastor, I was anticipating an Advent season full of sermons and stories about a sweet baby in a manger. Apparently, my preaching class didn’t include anything about the Lectionary, in which the scriptures focus as much, if not more so, on the second coming of glorified Christ as it does the incarnation. Even more so, I would never have considered the topic of “belts”, one of the stranger objects in this devotional series, as a topic for this season of preparation. The terms we translate as “belt” in our scripture passages refer to a variety of garments a man would wear around his waist, serving purposes of protection, modesty, and/or utility. But upon a deeper reflection, perhaps this image can help us to recognize and embrace our vulnerability and our need to trust in God and even in each other. We are not as strong as we like to think we are. As odd as the topic may be, the different translations of the term can help us with our understanding of God in this Advent season.
Isaiah 11:5 speaks of the Messiah who will usher in the “peaceable kingdom”, who will wear righteousness as a belt around his waist and faithfulness as a belt around his loins just as we wear belts that are not only utilitarian but also observable and distinctive. As devotional author Jill Duffield comments, “The savior for whom we wait and prepare is wrapped – enveloped – in a belt of righteousness, he is clothed in faithfulness. He traffics in miracles, not data; relationships, not transactions. He upends the mathematics of efficiency. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes to find the one. He takes time to welcome little children and makes enemies of the most powerful. He eats with tax collectors, touches those deemed untouchable and allows society’s outcasts to touch him. This belt of righteousness upholds justice for the poor and extends care for the weak. Isaiah’s vision encourages us to emulate God’s wrap around- righteousness, to enfold ourselves God’s own belt of righteousness and gird our loins with a faithfulness prepared to participate in the holy possibilities. Imagine if we could do that!
Next, the verses in our gospel lesson are taken from the larger context of Jesus sending out the disciples on their missionary journey. As they are about to embark, he gives them directions for their journey. “Take nothing…except a staff”. While they secure their garments with a belt, the items that would usually be attached (like our coin purses or cell phones for those of us without pockets), are empty or missing. Neither are they to take bread, trusting that their physical needs will be met. No purse, which most beggars had in order to put alms. They can’t even take a spare tunic, like those who are well off. The only thing that a disciple needs for the journey is whatever is indispensable to walk, a staff and sandals. They will be entirely dependent on the hospitality of those they encounter.
And why these specific directions? Because Jesus is inviting his disciples to set out devoid of all types of security, so that they may place their trust in God alone. Jesus encouraged them to “travel light”, so that they would learn how to trust in God. We too must open ourselves up to God and learn to trust, just as Jesus’ disciples did when he sent them out without money or other supplies in their belts. It is a reminder to us also not be weighed down by our “excess baggage”, by the overwhelming dependence on our possessions and our investments in worldly security. While we are taught to be prudent, we also must learn to trust more in God than in the things of the world. As Jesus reminded us in Matthew 6:19-20:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The belts in our gospel lesson remind us to place our trust in God.
Finally, we discover a third meaning of “belts” in our passage from Jeremiah. Here the Hebrew is translated as “loincloth”. This was an intimate garment, worn closest to the body. In a word: “underwear”; the item of clothing that is hidden from almost everyone else. This symbol reminds us that God desires intimacy with us, to be as close to us as our undergarments (or whatever we wear closest to our skin!) and to help us recognize our dependence on God.
Yet intimacy, even with God does not come easily, to us or to the people to whom Jeremiah spoke this prophetic word. How often do we reject the opportunity to know and be known fully – not just by the people around us, but even by God? How often do we hide behind layers of clothing that hide our flaws and only present our best features to the world – both literally and figuratively? How often have we opened ourselves up to others only to have them belittle or exploit our vulnerabilities? Many of us find ourselves keeping parts of ourselves off limits to even God, refusing to listen to God’s commandments and promises because we do not want to give up the control of our own lives. While God wants to be a close as a belt wrapped around our waist, but how many of us fear it will be constricting rather than comforting? As the author tells us, “If we take off that inner garment, nothing else feels or fits right”. Only when we allow God to envelope not just our biblical loins, but our entire bodies, do we feel whole and complete.
When we let go of the things of the world that control us – status, wealth, our worries and fears, our outward appearances and inward insecurities – and let ourselves be wrapped in the goodness and love of God; then we will know all will be well. We will be able to discover all that God has meant us to be. When we hold fast to God, we can and will prevail until the time that Christ comes again, and God’s kingdom comes on earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Let us pray:
God of intimacy and relationship, you invite us to cling to you as we navigate even our most chaotic and frightening days. You offer to be as close to us as the cloth around our waist, present with us wherever we go. Forgive us when we ignore you, your guidance, and your call. Send you spirit to help us listen to your word so that our lives are rightly ordered, and our relationships are reflective of your will. Amen.