Advent 1, Nov. 29, 2020

Our text is selected verses of our first reading, from Isaiah 64: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. … When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From 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.  Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

It might be a little uncomfortable, but I’d like you to use your imagination for a few moments.  Picture yourself as a young child, shopping with your mom in a large store when something in the toy aisle catches your attention.  You turn down the aisle to check it out, and your mom doesn’t see you turn and continues on several more aisles.  

A few moments pass before you both become aware of your separation, and you begin to panic.  You start to run back in the direction of the place where you were last together, and not finding her there you start to cry and run from aisle to aisle calling out for your mommy.  Suddenly, a familiar voice calls to you over the store’s speaker system.  It is your mom, who had gone to security and saw where you were through their camera system, finding you and lovingly asking you to stay right where you were, promising she would be right there.  And when she comes, she sweeps you up into a tight embrace, tears streaming down both of your faces.

This illustration might help us capture the mood of the prophet in our text.  Israel is a lost child, in exile from its home, aware of the separation from their Father that their wandering has caused and crying out for help to the One who had so powerfully and graciously saved them before.  And on its behalf, Isaiah cries out in longing that Yahweh might come to the rescue, rend the heavens, and come down to sweep them up in an embrace of grace and take them home.  

We remember how, on the day of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens did open up, the voice of our Abba declaring that Jesus was His “beloved Son, listen to Him,” and the Holy Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove.  God has torn open the heavens and come down to rescue us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Giving credit where it is due, much of what follows comes from Dr. Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, in an article call “Stuck in the Clouds: Some Apocalyptic Reflections on Advent.”  

“Advent is often depicted as the slow crescendo leading up to Christmas day.  Each day of the advent calendar presents some waiting children with a sweet and delightful chocolate. It can be enjoyable to ride this wave of enthusiasm and expectation, and to revel in the flourishes of the season: the advent candles, the steady influx of gifts in the mail, and welcoming the Baby Jesus to the local creche.

But in preparing for Advent we miss something crucial if we overlook the fact that at the heart of Advent is a deep wound: God’s groaning, limping creation still waits for its healer to appear in glory and bring into reality what Christians know through faith. To use the language of this week’s epistle, we “wait for the revealing [literally, apokalupsin] of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Advent is a time when we wait for the apocalypse. 

But since 2020 feels apocalyptic enough it just might work this year to explore the more wistful side of the season.  The remarkable events of 2020 demonstrate with stinging clarity our deep need to be rescued from the suffocating tentacles of sin. Much of what we are experiencing in 2020 is our creation, plain and simple. But the fact that we made it, doesn’t mean we can get out of it. We may be so entrenched in our own mire that only the strongest of hands can pull us out.

But the situation is actually worse. The events of this year also draw attention to the profound contradiction between God’s promises and the brutal realities of life on this earth. Human beings are busy destroying one another and creation, but what makes matters worse is that God continues to permit it. To do a little bit of jazz with Mark 13, the tribulation is here but the Son of Man remains in the clouds (Mark 13:24-26).

The painful irony is that the stronger our faith in the God of Israel, the more deeply we feel this contradiction. Advent invites us to linger on these matters, not only on the expectation of Christ’s second advent but also on the disappointing fact that it hasn’t happened yet.”

Obviously, I very much agree with Dr. Chan.  In more ways than one, things feel very different this Advent.  The word I find myself thinking and saying a whole lot is “uncertainty.”  Making plans for 2021, especially with the potential addition of Pastor Ryan Meyer to our staff… I’m very excited about what we might be able to do here at Zion to really get things rolling in our mission and ministry.  I’m filled with hopeful expectations for what the Lord may be about to do among and through us.

But at the very same time, I am rather hesitant to get too excited.  Heck, I struggle to figure out how to plan for Christmas services here at Zion.  What lies ahead in this COVID-19 crisis… not only in terms of the numbers of people getting sick and how many will die, but also in terms of how much more division and conflict will it spark?  I am also concerned about the volatility of our political climate, and about the potential that climate change might be a threatening reality.

Yes, there’s a tension… and we can only trust it is a creative tension.  In hope we cling to God’s promises, believing He is present and that nothing in all creation can separate us from His love, and confident that God can and will make all things work together for good.  And yet in our humanity we cannot help struggling at times with things like worry, fear, doubt, and impatience.

Advent takes the hard questions and the emotion and spiritual struggles seriously. It defies any attempt to explain them away through trite answers and instead opens up space where they can exist in painful but creative tension with God’s promises.  This time is a journey which we trust will have a blessed ending, and in that trust we see that the sufferings of this present time are truly not worth comparing to the glory which awaits us.  This can carry us through times of pain and doubt and questioning.

On our part, we can come to see this time as an opportunity for growth.  As Isaiah expressed, we recognize the truth of what Dr. Chan wrote, that much of “what we are experiencing in 2020 is our own creation, plain and simple.”  Sin continues to wreak havoc on God’s creation.  In a spirit of repentance, we place all things, we place our very selves, into the hands of our Abba Father, trusting in His grace to forgive.

We also trustingly place ourselves into His hands for the purpose of healing and transformation, recognizing that our Father is much like a potter, and that we are the work of His hands.  God created us in His image and redeemed us when our rebellion caused that image to be marred and wounded by our desire to love and serve ourselves above God and others.  And now as redeemed children of God, we seek to be transformed back into God’s image.  

May this strange and difficult Advent be a journey of growth for us of us.  Amen.