Sermon for 1st Sun. of Advent, Isaiah64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1Cor1:3-9
My sister and I used to play hide-and-seek when we had babysitters. As the search started, the call was shouted, “ready or not, here I come!” Was that announcement good news, or not? If you hadn’t yet found a hiding place, it could mean you’d quickly get caught and lose. On the other hand, the seeking and finding was the point of the game.
That question might lead us into this Advent season, which announces expectations of God coming. Is that good news, or not?
There are, of course, plenty of times we’d prefer not to have an all-knowing, all-powerful heavenly being show up or be watching. Worse than a Santa who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, and less preferable than the eavesdropping, email-scanning of a spying government, there is simply no escape from what we imagine to be the repercussions of God’s stern, judgmental view looking down from heaven. It isn’t even that we’d try to get away with being so bad. We just know we fail to live up to our own standards, so our imagined God would have to be frowning down at us, too.
Yet there are other times we indeed long for God to come, to come to our aid, to find us, to be with us. Our first Bible word from the prophet Isaiah starts our Advent with exactly that prayer: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That’s probably pretty accurate for our expectations of God. On many occasions, it is fitting for our lips, or aching hearts, or hurting lives. Come down, God! O that you would tear open the heavens! Break apart the barriers that are keeping you at bay, that restrain you from helping me, that are giving my enemies a false sense of success! We’re ready! Please come!
This certainly was Isaiah’s setting. His people had been captive in Babylon, exiled in a foreign land. But at this late part in the book of Isaiah, the Persians had beaten the Babylonians and were preparing to let the Israelites return to Jerusalem, to the temple, to go home. Yet this generation was born in the foreign land and had never lived at home. Facing a change of political power and a move on the horizon caused reasonable anxiety.
So they looked up at the sky, yearning for a mighty deliverer to rush to their rescue. They wanted to feel not so helpless, wanted a strong indicator that God was on their side. Tear apart the heavens! Shake the mountains, God! Come like a raging fire that consumes the brush and branches blocking the way!
In longing, they even throw in the melancholy and always-suspect “used-ta.” You used-ta do awesome deeds! You used-ta lead in a pillar of cloud and fire. You used-ta drive back the Red Sea and swallow up Pharaoh’s army. You used-ta make the mountain smoke and shake with thunder when you talked to Moses. You used-ta show up and there was no doubt about it!
For us who can feel like our entire faith is used-tas, that really resonates. We, too, know the old Bible stories that evidently don’t happen anymore. All of the exciting stuff seems to be in the past. We’ve been sitting in the dark, scared and waiting for God to come and find us. Has God forgotten? Why can’t we get an answer? Why are things the way they are? If only we had a sign! If God would just show up in a big, apparent way to straighten out this whole mess. O that you weren’t shut up in heaven, God!
You’ve probably prayed this prayer—hoping, longing, pleading. Casting wishes toward God. Wanting God suddenly to appear, to come be with you. Your reasons for such yearning may be so personal, so fragile and scary and tender, that you can hardly dare to hope for them. Perhaps you dreamed of some supernatural phenomena. Or were you simply asking for a little something to go right, a change in life, to be better? O that you would come from heaven and be present, God.
Now, if you’re stuck in the used-tas, then you can only figure that it doesn’t happen, that God frustrates you yet again, fails to show up when and where you need it, leaves you to your own devices and dark disappointments. With no shaking mountains or blacked out sun, that kind of expectations go unfulfilled yet again. If we’re waiting for the mighty arm of God and an angelic army to drop out of the sky, that quite plain and obviously hasn’t happened. It doesn’t happen.
So was Isaiah wrong? Was his prayer worthless? Will there be an hour of redemption, a day when God finally is ready to come help us? Or is it just foolish, our prayers whistling in the dark? In our seeking, does God continue hiding, refusing to be revealed?
Let’s reverse the question: what if God is not the problem? What if God is faithful, but our hopes and expectations are misdirected? It’s not that you’re waiting for something that won’t happen, but that you’re ignoring what does happen, seeking in the wrong sort of places.
There’s a story to start the book of Acts of Jesus ascending into heaven. The disciples are grouped standing around on the ground slack-jawed staring at the clouds, getting kinks in their necks, trying to spot some distant, disappearing speck. It finally takes an angel to show up and say, “hey, what do you bozos think you’re trying to see? Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Well, today I’m your angel, your messenger, with good news that you can stop craning your necks, trying to read signs in the stars. That is not where you’ll spot God, so stop bothering with it.
This Lord of yours is not one for pyrotechnics or loudspeakers, much less trying to communicate through natural disasters. Instead, he comes as a thief in the night; and what thief in the night loudly announces herself? It is quiet and subtle and surprising. He comes like a leaf slowly unfurling itself on a fig tree. He comes as the gift that preserves you through the night and rises as each new dawn. Even as your days pass and wither like a dried up leaf, still his breath fills you with life, for today and forever. This one like a careful potter formed you from the dust of the earth and still continues to shape you for his good purposes. His work is so constantly with you that you can’t even begin to be alert to it all, to stay so constantly vigilant. The best you can do is occasionally recognize it.
Still more than that, this is of course the God you know in Jesus. He doesn’t drop out of the skies, tearing open the heavens. After nine months of waiting, God arrived from a womb, through a birth canal. With that, we have to break apart an old notion: Advent is about Jesus coming, and we’ve often said that means once at Christmas, and when he will return again. That has ended up sucking us into some impression that two different Jesuses come, that Jesus was humble and meek the first time he came to earth, but when he comes back he’ll be taking numbers and knocking heads, that last time he was killed and next time he’ll be the killer, that last time was the Lamb of God, but next will be the bloodthirsty lion.
That may fit some of our yearning, but that isn’t the most faithful portrayal of God in Scripture. Even Revelation says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s not playing a cosmic millennial game of good cop/bad cop. Rather, he arrived as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother, wrapped to stay warm and snug, no room in the inn for the poor family, left out in the cold and surrounded by livestock and lowlifes. Our hope and expectation is in that same Jesus, in his returning to be with us, and also his presence among us still.
This news is earth-shaking and heaven-shattering, but not how we usually envision with action movie melodrama. That birth has changed the course of nations and enlightened history, but not by overwhelming, insistent miracles. It is amazing and revolutionary that God comes to dwell with us, but it’s in a quiet and humble way. All barriers are broken down, but not by violent might. He conquers death for us, but by going through it. It is almost unbelievable that God sees your iniquity but doesn’t let you get swept away by them or just abandon you to keep suffering the repercussions. Here he comes, not because you’re ready but because you need it.
Today, Jesus says his words will not pass away. It’s not that they are so loud they reverberate and echo in sound waves across the rolling spheres. It’s that this song still needs to be sung, because we need to hear this good news, and simply because his promise remains good forever. His word is good and stands firm, even though it comes in the confusing voice of your preacher. It searches you out and finds you. Again and again he shows up to say, your iniquity is forgiven. I’m not keeping score. I’m not waiting to pounce. I’m here for you, sharing all the gifts you need. Still his presence is with you, sneaking into your life, stolen away inside crusty homemade bread and too-sweet cheap wine of communion.
One final word to assist your searching and know where he may be found. Our 1st Corinthians reading says you were called into the fellowship of Jesus. That’s koinonia, like our Koinonia Place. It does mean fellowship or sharing, like cookies and coffee. It is also community and communion, like this supper. It is uniting together, becoming one with each other. And so it means Jesus gives you all he has, that you share in everything of God’s, even as he takes all that is yours. You lack nothing, even as you wait and yearn and hope for something more. All that he has he gives to you, still giving even his life.
Hymn: As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW #261)