The First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29th 2020
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! Isaiah 64: 1-4
Today is the start of Advent, a new year…a year full of promise, yet born in darkness. As Advent begins, we are far, far from the tiny baby in a manger….that imagery must wait for now.
Today Isaiah speaks to us not of a little child, but of the almighty, all-powerful God. He is calling upon God to rip open the heavens and come down: Make the mountains quake, kindle the fire so the water will boil, cause the nations to tremble!
Here is the language of theophany—the coming of the divine creator to mankind. This passage is a desperate prayer to God. God’s people are in exile, under the oppression of a foreign leader, and far from home. They feel helpless, everything seems out of their control. God feels so far away…and they are conscious of their own sin.
“We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
God’s people are at their wit’s end. Like leaves, they say, we are fading. Like the wind, our faults blow us away, apart from you, God. The people are worn thin; they are tired and tired of being tired.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, after this year we’ve been through we share with the Hebrew people in Isaiah’s day, many of these wearied feelings… feelings of remorse, despair, bitterness, and grief…all of these could be on the giant billboard for 2020.
I read an article on “Good Faith Media” the other day, a Christian website created by our Baptist brother and sisters. An author wrote that he thought THE one word to describe 2020, if we’re honest with ourselves, is selfish. Just think toilet paper and lack of mask wearing and closing our ears to the daily death count, particularly that of healthcare workers…you’ll see he has a point. Yes, I suppose we must put that word –selfish– up there on our billboard too.
Like God’s people in Isaiah’s day, we try self-improvement, but mostly just end up making plans for when things are better; we try blaming others for what’s failed, but find it often just turns into self-reproach. So, when we read in Isaiah today that God’s people finally get it, we wonder how we can have that same ah-ha moment?
You see, after all they’ve been through in exile and all the directions they’d turned to, to find answers, only to find desolation, it is as if they were hit upside the head. God’s people finally realize all of their maneuvering was in vain. They finally understand that they cannot find peace alone. They need God. So, they cry out: “God, come, be with us,” because apart from you, we are lost. ‘Tear Open the Heavens and come down.’
Isaiah’s words on behalf of the people are bold, you have to admit! It’s brave, what they ask God to do. We are in similar circumstances, knowing we too need saving, yet we seem to just want the baby in the manger. This will not do. As one brilliant commentator I read reminds us, “Redemption makes little sense to such a needful world if it comes without power.”
Here at the beginning of the year, we read the prophet Isaiah because he recalls for us the awakening of God’s people. We should pay attention. Without God, without God’s powerful love and power to change, we too are adrift.
I suppose we could call the Hebrews’ realization the original WOKE experience…of long ago. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression being WOKE—it’s a word that describes being socially aware. Simply put, being WOKE, means working to comprehend that as real as our own experiences are, others have a different reality. Other persons, because of the color of their skin, or their economic status, or because of where they live or what language they speak…other persons experience life very differently than we do; their experiences are harder than we’ll ever know and very real. Opening our eyes to see this reality is waking up to all that needs changing in our world. Being awake to others’ experiences grows our capacity for compassion and helps us keep our baptismal promises to strive for the justice and dignity of all people.
Advent begins today when we hear Jesus tell his followers—pay attention, keep awake! Jesus is calling our attention to the power and glory of God. We are awakened by its frightful and fantastic imagery:
“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
Jesus is signaling a coming undone. A holy fracturing and we realize, how else can something new be born in us and among us, a new heaven and a new earth? This is where our HOPE begins.
The Hebrews ah-ha moment was their breath of HOPE.
Isaiah says, We have forgotten you, we have strayed, we have sinned…
YET, You are our Father,
We are clay and You are our potter
We are all the work of your hands.
Theirs is such a wonderfully faithful moment of recognition A giving of themselves to God, who already claims them as his own. This is the moment that carries them forward in life.
May we who’ve been through such a year as this, even though we have a way to go yet, may we begin our new year with this same HOPE.
We know we are yours, God, we are putty in your hands.
Make us, shape us into a treasured possession
We want to be changed, by your hands.
We are willing to be reformed.
We put ourselves into your hands, willingly,
form in us new life to your honor and glory.