Starting Over. Again.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as 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! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6We 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. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Every year, my family and I go to my brother’s house in Northern Virginia for Thanksgiving, and we always joke about what occurs on our drive. Our route takes us on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through the Maryland mountains on Interstate 70, and down a two-lane winding road to Herndon, Va.
On our drive down, the night before Thanksgiving, the valleys and fields and small towns and neighborhoods are dark and quiet. But when we make the drive home a day or two after Thanksgiving, the landscape has been transformed into a veritable riot of blinking lights and inflatable Santas. It seems every farm has a lighted reindeer or two standing quietly in the field.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving was not the first Sunday of Advent this year, but that didn’t delay anyone from putting up their Clark Griswold displays. Just like the stores who begin playing Christmas carols earlier and earlier, people just can’t wait to get to Christmas.
I will confess, I have a history of being really cranky about people rushing the season. Yeah, I am one of annoying ministers who insists upon Advent hymns in Advent, and Christmas hymns no earlier than December 24th.
But this year, I’ve decided to take it easy on folks who just need a little Christmas, right this very minute. I totally get it. After turbulent year in our nation, after tragedies of floods and fires and shootings and wars and rumors of wars,
I can’t blame anyone for wanting to turn off the nightly news, sign off from social media, and retreat into a little early eggnog and a house covered in twinkle lights.
Maybe you’re not as far ahead in your holiday preparations as the farmers in Western Maryland, but I am certain you have experienced the sensory comfort of this time of year.
I thought about that this week when I walked into a pastor’s office and a familiar smell hit me. He was burning a candle and its scent immediately took me back to my mother’s house when I was little girl. She always bought pine scented candles at Christmas time and I will forever associate that smell with December. And I realized how totally our senses are engaged as we prepare for the coming of Jesus.
The needles of our Christmas trees poking our fingers and scratching our arms as we decorate.
The sugary crumble of a cookie baked from an ancient recipe dissolving in our mouths.
The familiar sounds of antique and well-worn carols ringing in our ears.
The lights and the colors and the familiar decorations we dig out of the attic, some of them older than we are.
All of these experiences feeling like a comfortable old sweater we pull on to keep out the cold and darkness.
It’s been a hard year for many people, no matter how you look at it. Everything in our churches, in our culture, and even in our families seem in flux and up for grabs. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the hard way, as I’m sure many of you have, is that heartache that once seemed unthinkable, now happens with startling regularity. Loved ones get sick. Friends die. Families split up. The promise of Christmas can soothe our weary souls as the winter days get darker and shorter.
And yet, I am going to stay a little cranky about skipping over Advent and heading straight to Christmas. I will not back down from my strong conviction that Advent matters for us, as the people of God. Particularly, especially, when we may feel as if we are living in upside down world.
Advent is an opportunity to start over, begin again, re-center our lives, and remember what it is – and who it is — we are receiving when Christmas finally shows up. Advent can bring some balance into a world that might feel as if it is spinning out of control. Advent wants to wake us up to God’s work in the world which is always in-breaking, always happening, despite all appearances to the contrary.
The scriptures we read during Advent are anything but soothing. In Advent, the church reads texts about what happens when humans have reached the end of their rope. In Isaiah’s text, nobody is thinking at all about stringing up Christmas lights or throwing a party. In Isaiah, things are falling apart.
The children of Israel were swept out of their promised land and into exile. For more than 70 years, God’s chosen people were under siege by foreign invaders. Many of them died. Those who survived lost everything. Their temple, their homes, their lives had been destroyed. Some survivors were hauled off to Babylon and some stayed in Judah, and some ended up in the northern kingdom that had been overrun earlier by the Assyrians. And the part of Isaiah we heard today – which is sometimes called Third Isaiah — was probably written after many of the exiles returned to Jerusalem.
Well, to be accurate, 70 years later, the returning exiles in were probably the children and grandchildren of the original exiles. The generation who’d been carted out of Judah and into exile were mostly dead, and it was a new generation who arrived in Jerusalem.
No doubt, the new generation had grown up hearing stories of life in Judah before the conquest. Like the stories we tell our own grandchildren and children of Christmases past, these tales had probably been a little embellished. It seems that whenever we tell old stories, the rougher edges tend to be smoothed out.
These children of Israel standing with Isaiah had heard all these incredible stories: the history of God’s encounter with their ancestors on Mt. Sinai and in the wilderness and at the Red Sea. The stories about a land of milk and honey. The returning people probably expected to find something glorious when they got to Jerusalem.
But what they discovered was nothing like the stories they had heard. What they discovered was a bombed-out mess. Going home was not nearly what is what cracked up to be.
Their exile was over, but their problems were not. Although they had finally made it home, they faced the prospect of starting all over again. Again.
And what Isaiah tells us they felt most deeply was the absence of the YHWH of their fathers, even in this place – their promised land – a place where they clearly expected to find God. The worst possible thing had happened – worse than losing everything. Worse than death, even. God had hidden himself. The people of God were on their own.
On behalf of this group of scared and disappointed people, an aging prophet Isaiah cries out. For God to show up, already. To come down, to protect them from their enemies, to make things right, to forgive and forget. To wipe the slate clean. After 70 years of exile, hadn’t God’s people suffered enough?
Have you ever felt like this? You reach a point in your life in which God seems so distant, so out of reach, that you feel like screaming like Isaiah? “Tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” “We need a little help here, God!”
You know this feeling, right?
When you’re sick of waiting for something good to happen.
Anger builds up.
Grief grips us at the throat.
We give up the pretense of calm and restraint. We no longer keep quiet, wanting to maintain the peace. Fury replaces faith. We give up on polite, respectfully restrained prayers. And as desperate people we cry out, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” We want God to do that. We want God to act, and act now. To make the pain stop.
The people of Israel have become cynical and mean. That’s what Isaiah says. Their attempts at righteousness are phony baloney. They have become full of themselves, thinking they can solve every problem, forgetting the God who brought them out of bondage and into freedom.
The less the people of Israel remember who they are and to whom they belong, the less space they allow for God to show up.
The less we remember who we are and to whom we belong, the less space we allow for God to reshape us for the long work ahead of us.
God is the potter who is ready to take this clump of ornery people and make them into something new. To take everything that’s been broken and restore creation.
Isaiah knows God has every right to be furious with these people. And yet, Isaiah still trusts God to act with mercy and forgiveness. And in Advent, the question is asked again – do we trust God to act with mercy towards us? Are we ready to be reshaped as Advent people to receive God who has come to us, and is with us, and will come to us again?
Isaiah’s problem and ours is that God’s people are terrible at waiting. We really are terrible at waiting upon the Lord.
You see that fact throughout scripture and in the facts of our life in the church. We lose patience. We betray our words of hope by our anxiety-fueled actions. And even though we proclaim our belief that God will show up, with the power of earthquakes and floods and fire, we don’t much like that fact that God works in God’s own time.
And yet, how many times have you experienced God showing up for you, in an unexpected way, in an unexpected time, with mercy and grace and healing in a way you’ve could have never predicted?
Because that’s the flip side we also see in Scripture. All the time. When a father is holding a knife to his son’s throat and a ram shows up instead. When a reluctant prophet is spit out of the darkness of a whale’s belly onto the shore of Nineveh and the people repent. When manna drops down on a group of starving people in the middle of the desert, and water gushes out of a rock. When a blind man sees. When a bleeding woman is healed. When a guy who has made a living hunting down Christians becomes a prolific church planter and letter writer.
When an ordinary girl says ok to an angel, knowing that an unplanned pregnancy could threaten her life. The flip side is that Mary’s dangerous “yes” will change the world.
Advent reminds people of faith is that it will get darker before it will get light. That is what our church calendar teaches us, beginning when it does as the winter begins to creep upon us. The baby is not yet born, we have days and weeks to go. Yet he is already part of us, within us, kicking us, keeping us up at night and inviting us to imagine what sort of Savior he will be for us this year.
So, let us sit a bit with this promise, dear brothers and sisters. Let us embrace all the pregnant possibilities of God coming in flesh to us.
Week by week, we will keep lighting new candles, but even as we light them, the darkness will increase.
Our job is to wait without losing hope. In fact, that is the name of the first candle we lit this morning when we gathered to worship – the candle of hope.
We live in a world of ambiguity, sin, and brokenness. But we also live between this darkness and the hope of God’s light. That is why we observe Advent—to recognize our need for God’s coming into our lives. Faith in the promise of God’s coming enables us to live the contradictions and ambiguities of life. Because we believe that God has the audacity to act in ways both infuriating and life-saving.
This day, we are back at the beginning. Like the survivors of exile, we survey the desolation and realize in all things, God is God. And God is good. If we are to see the fragile light that dawns among us in Christ, we must sit awhile in the darkness, and find the meaning and beauty in it. If we are to hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Bonus Advent music…which is the BEST kind of Christmas music.
People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.