(a sermon for November 29, 2020, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 64:1-9)
Let me just say this up front: I get it. That piece of scripture we just shared, the one from Isaiah? I understand; given it’s the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the holiday season, it’s just about the least festive and, well, Christmassy text I could have chosen for this morning!
I mean, I do understand that it’s not Christmas yet; but ordinarily we think of the season of Advent as “a time of patient, hopeful waiting for the joyous event of Christmas.” In the words of Diane Jacobson of Luther Northwestern Seminary, at Christmas, our thoughts this time of year are that “God comes to us as a little child. Now we wait. Then God comes. All is right with the world.” But in our text for this morning, what we’ve got are the lamentations of God’s people Israel quite literally standing in the rubble of their lost hope – their temple destroyed, their city in ruins, their lives as they knew them gone forever – all crying out in utter and unrestrained anguish to their God, asking how long they must wait for their salvation and begging the Almighty “that [he] would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at [his] presence!” (The Message) There was once a time when God wielded his “glorious arm of power” (Isaiah 63:12) on their behalf but now all Israel can do is wonder where God’s “zeal and [God’s] might has gone” (63:15) in the face of their faithlessness and sin. To put this another way, what we have here in this text is an utterly imperfect world, a time and place where things are not going at all well, and a people who are sad, deeply disillusioned and wondering aloud where God is in the midst of it all.
In other words, a time very much like our own.
Perhaps like me, you’ve found it very interesting that even though the holiday season has barely begun we’ve already heard time and time again, much in the same manner we heard about the Thanksgiving Day that has just past, that this particular Christmas “simply isn’t going to be the same.” And, sadly, that’s a pretty good assumption at this point: between the effects of this on-going pandemic likely keeping family and friends from celebrating together this month and congregations like our own being unable to gather at church for in-person services of worship in this sacred season, our shared journey to the manger is shaping up to be a very different kind of experience this year (and let’s not even talk about the lingering anger and fatigue that we’ve been left with in a very divisive election year!). There’s just so many things that traditionally happen this time of year that we know probably won’t happen in 2020, so there’s admittedly a bit of… melancholy that’s already crept into this Advent and Christmas season.
I don’t know about you, but I’m even hearing Christmas music a little differently this year! For instance, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, let your heart be light, next year all our troubles will be out of sight…” “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” – both of which sound much more bittersweet than usual (!) – and then there’s this song from one of the “Grinch” movies, “Where Are You, Christmas?” which pretty much does me in every time I hear it, especially the version that Cindy-Lou Who sings in the movie: “Where are you, Christmas/Why can’t I find you/Why have you gone away… my world is changing/I’m rearranging/Does that mean Christmas changes, too?” (I know (!)… I’ve pretty much put that song in the same category as the one about the Christmas Shoes!)
Now, granted, a year without the regular traditions and a slight over-abundance of sad songs is not the same as God’s people standing over the rubble of a fallen nation; but I would suggest to you that in these days when life remains imperfect and the problems of the world persist, a good many of us – even you or me at times – have questioned where God is in the midst of it all. And we’re not alone: Dan Clendenin has written that in times such as these, “if you open your eyes and your heart you see your friends, colleagues and neighbors struggling to detect some glimmer of hope in times of confusion, pain, and darkness… can we discern even the faintest signal that God is not entirely absent and silent?” Clendenin asks. “Might we legitimately hope for even a modicum of health, wholeness and healing for ourselves and for those we love?”
Where are you, Christmas?
Where are you, God?
Now, lest you think that your pastor has become all hopeless and despairing as this advent season begins, let me just say this: I believe and know with all my heart that Christmas is about the unspeakable joy that comes in the gift of a child born in the manger; it’s about no less than God being born into the world and into our hearts… that is a truth at the very center of our Christian faith and more than enough reason for unbridled celebration even in this woe-begotten year of 2020! But, if I might quote C. S. Lewis here, our Christian faith “does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.” So if we’re truly to celebrate God’s being born into the world, it begins with the lament of a desperate people who are fearful that life as they’ve known it is completely over, that all hope is gone, and that somehow God has been left out of all the proceedings. Because ultimately, it’s not only the lamentations of God’s people centuries past… it’s our lament as well.
In our text this morning, we hear the the cries of those from every generation – most especially this generation – who feel so beaten down they have nothing left, and yet who cry out all the more for what they’ve always known to be true, what they know they’ve needed all along, and most importantly, of who they know will give it to them even in the face of our faithlessness and sin: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…” they cry out, “yet, O LORD, you are our Father… we are the clay, you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand… do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD… consider [that] we are all your people.”
It’s the same full-throated cry, the same need, the same HOPE… yours and mine, for a Savior, who is the Christ of Christmas.
And we need that Savior now, more than ever.
This season of Advent is, of course, a time of patient, hopeful awaiting for the joyous event of Christmas. And it is, we always need to remember, a dual act of awaiting: symbolically, we await the birth of the child of Bethlehem, who was born in a manger amidst shepherds and angels and farm animals; but we are also awaiting the next arrival of Christ, who we are promised “will come again.” The first awaiting, in many ways, has to do with the calendar and we mark the passage of days with the lighting of candles and reminders of the hope, the peace, the joy and the love that this tiny baby embodies for the world and for us. We sing songs and we set out the creche and we return to all the cherished traditions, these days as best we can, and before we know it – all too soon – the day is here, our waiting is done and “joy to the world,” the Lord is come!
But the second awaiting; well, that’s something else again. Because to wait for Christ to come; to know that his kingdom is about to unfold in all its fullness; well, that requires true patience because this does not follow a calendar, nor does it meet all of our expectations. Dan Clendenin again: “We wait in patience knowing that not every act of God reverberates like a pounding hammer… God does not always split open the heavens. Whereas even His closest disciples longed to call down fire from heaven and to brandish swords, Jesus compared his coming kingdom to tiny mustard seeds and to the imperceptible but certain fermentation of yeast.” Our advent waiting is for a sure and certain revelation of an invisible kingdom; or to put it in the words of the carol, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”
The schedule is unknown to us; the specific nature of God’s awesome power and the work of his hands is beyond our understanding: and yet, because God is our Father, and because “we are the clay, and [God] is our potter; we are all the work of [God’s] hand… we are all [God’s] people,” the people of God’s sure and certain promises that will surely come to pass by God’s intent and in God’s good time…
…and so we wait – patiently, purposefully – staying alert to God’s many whispers as well as his shouts.
There’s no doubt that this Advent and Christmas season is going to be different this year for all of us; certainly, it will be for us in the church and I will confess, both pastorally and personally, as to feeling some real sadness about that. But it also seems to me that this year, of all years, we’re afforded a wonderful opportunity to wait, and watch, for signs of his coming in ways, what with all of our holiday activities, we’ve not had time for before. Perhaps these are the days when we can finally pause to truly, as the Psalmist has sung, “wait on the Lord: [to] be of good courage, [so that] he shall strengthen [our] heart,” (Psalm 27:14), or as Isaiah himself proclaimed, to “mount up with wings like eagles, [to] run and not be weary, [to] walk and not faint.” (40:31) Or maybe it’s a time to recognize who we really are in this world, and what it is – who it is – that we really need in this life.
In a word, there’s ample room in this “different” season of Advent for a spirit of penitence. William Willimon says this very well when he writes that this is why “purple, the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher. We dare not rush to greet the Redeemer prematurely until we pause here, in darkened church, to admit that we do need redemption. Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We tried that before… our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We find our way only because One comes, takes our hand and leads us home.” It would do us good, says Willimon, if we spent our time in this darkness waiting prayerfully for this One who is about to come, this Child who will be born among us. “If we are to see the fragile light which dawns among us in Christ, we must sit awhile in the darkness. If we are hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent.”
One thing is for sure; this crazy, uncertain and utterly imperfect world keeps on spinning, and us along with it; and there’s no end in sight. No… Christmas won’t be the same this year; but it seems to me that rather than focusing on that which we’ve lost this year, we ought to considering all that what we have, and turn our hearts toward what God has done and is doing for us even now. We would do well, you and I, now more than ever to silently give thanks in prayer for the mercy of the God who continues, even in this very moment, to act; and to prepare our hearts to truly embrace the One who is coming soon and very soon. For by doing so, no only will we find Christmas, but we will also learn for ourselves that indeed, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides [our God], who works for those who wait for him.”
Let us wait, and watch and prepare… and may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.