I know I at least momentarily disappointed a member or two of the Worship and Arts Committee when I declared at our September or October meeting that there would be no Christmas hymns or carols in worship until Christmas Eve and following. Declare is a harsh word. It’s probably how it sounded, though. I am aware that I can be a bit over-zealous in my love for and protection of the liturgical seasons of the year. It didn’t help that conversation that Advent is probably my favorite of them all. I have to remind myself sometimes that the season of Advent isn’t written into Scripture itself, even if I do think the ATTITUDE of Advent, of waiting with a sense of overwhelming desperation on the one hand and a bold and trusting hope on the other, is all OVER the Word of God.
We hear it in our Scripture lessons today. They aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, getting ready for baby Jesus passages of Scripture. In fact, the Mark passage is spoken BY Jesus, the grown man, just days before he endures the agony and humiliation of the cross. I doubt many of us will include these verses in our family Christmas cards this year.
Likewise the prophecy of Isaiah starts a bit darker than most of us would probably like to go as we have made the turn from Thanksgiving toward Christmas. This portion of Isaiah was most likely written during or immediately after the time of the Babylonian exile, about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. The people of Israel had been utterly defeated, their leaders taken away as captives to a foreign land, their cities destroyed, and their temple ransacked, degraded, and burned. And even after their oppressors were defeated and nobility were allowed to return home, they were still not an independent nation, and it was some time before the temple was rebuilt.
The people, held down by captors, defeated by neighboring nations, without a temple, without a leader, the people had nothing they could do, but wait. They waited for the restoration of their sovereign kingdom. They waited for the rebuilding of their once magnificent house of worship. They waited for the renewal of their society that had been decimated by the exile. They waited, and waited, and waited. They waited for God to act, crying out in lament,
“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!”
O that you would tear open the heavens!!!!
O, the people of Israel waited, but they didn’t just sit back silently while they waited. They waited with emotion. They waited with urgency. They waited with ANGER! A people powerless in the face and presence of generations of oppression, Israel waited expecting the power of God to break into history as it had done so many times before.
They waited for a flood to destroy their evil enemies. They waited for tidal waves of judgment to fall on their foreign rulers. They waited for the rushing windstorm of God’s presence to bring about obedience to the law and justice. They waited for Yahweh, their God, who had shown such brute power over nature and humankind in the past, to, again, break into the world, come down out of the heavens, and shake the earth back to its right alignment – with Israel independent and prosperous, a king on the throne, and God at home in the majestic temple at the center of the city. With desperation and longing deeper than they had ever imagined they waited in faith and in anger.
Anger of that kind takes great faith. You have to truly believe that God can and will change things to get that angry with the creator of the world. I don’t know that I always have that kind of faithful anger. This week, if any week, would have been a week to muster up this kind of rage. Come down out of those heavens, God! Can’t you see what is happening in India? Come down out of those heavens, God! Neighbors are losing their homes and jobs; children are sleeping in shelters. Come down out of those heavens, God! Violence is destroying lives in Congo, Nigeria, and countless other corners of the earth. Come down out of those heavens, God! Greed is literally killing us, trampling us under each other’s feet in unbridled entitlement and desire for the first, the best, the cheapest. Come down out of those heavens, God!
Desperation, a longing for God to intervene, to dramatically change the course of action, to wield divine power in order to work a dramatic solution, that is a mark of an Advent people, an Advent world.
But it isn’t the only mark. There’s more to Advent then empty desperation. In this lament, this call for God to come to action, to make God’s name known to Yahweh’s enemies around the world, in this cry is a trust that it can and will happen. Implicit in begging God to change the world is the belief that God CAN and WILL change the world, with a mighty and powerful hand. Which is why Advent, a time of longing for God’s intervention, God’s salvation of the world at the end of its rope, is also a time of great hope. Hope that God will do what God deems necessary to redeem the state of the world.
Isaiah, along with the people of Israel, had an idea in mind. Isaiah wanted the world turned right, and he wanted it turned right now. He and all of Israel had heard of God’s power from the past. They had heard of God’s people being led by pillars of fire and cloud through the wilderness. They had heard of walls coming tumbling down. They had heard of miniscule armies defeating powerful invaders with the Spirit of God. They had heard of awesome deeds, stories of God’s power and promise. They had heard all these things, and they were ready for their turn to be on the joyful receiving end of such incredible miracles.
But the funny thing about hope is that you can’t direct the outcome.
Ultimately, Isaiah knew that, and his knowledge is wrapped up in one little word in verse 8 – “yet.” Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; you are our potter. We know what we want! We know what we think will solve this problem, what will right the wrongs in the world, what will restore the kingdom, restore peace, restore our dignity, our safety, our relationships. We know what will solve the economic crisis. We know what will end terrorism. We know what will bring jobs back, bring our kids back, bring safety back. We are sure we know what will do the trick, but we, O Lord, are simply the clay; you are our potter.
The hands of power that molded the mountains are the hands of tender care the shape each vessel. The hands of awesome deeds that held back the waters are the hands of forgiveness that wipe away blemishes and pull the pot tall and strong, defying gravity, and strengthening in the heat of the fire. We want your power, O Lord. We KNOW you have power, O God. We beg you to show us and use your power, O Yahweh. But the paradox of Advent, the paradox of God’s power is that it comes in so many different ways.
We wait in Advent for God to dramatically, violently even, tear into the world, but instead God is pushed onto the scene in an obscure animal stall. We wait in Advent for God’s mighty fists to shake the foundations of the earth, but a baby’s tiny hands shake in unknown surroundings, reaching for comfort and nourishment. We wait in Advent for God’s name to be known to the world in the awesome deeds that are performed, but his name is whispered by the baby’s father with only his mother and the animals to hear.
Advent hope is hope in the unknown. It is hope in the unknowable. It is hope that rests with God, who alone knows and chooses how to reveal divine power. It is, we will see in just a few moments, baptismal hope that trusts God enough to place the life and care of an infant into God’s hands. It is hope that realizes a baby needs more than two loving parents, countless extended family members, and friends galore to feel God’s love. It is hope that knows God’s cleansing Spirit, and careful hands will wash and cradle a new life in gentle, compassionate love.
Advent hope is an odd thing – it’s what we find somewhere between our reality today and the reality of things that have not yet come. Isaiah got that. In fact, for most biblical writers, hope is not just a passive feeling. It is a passionate action. It’s an awareness of the reality of the world that surrounds us, but a trust that God can and will address the situation. It’s an exercise in confidence of God’s future. Not confidence in our future when we boss God around, but confidence in God’s future, carried out with God’s all-knowing, all-loving power.
That’s why Advent isn’t just about preparing the manger for the tiny baby Jesus. It’s also about looking forward to that which has not yet been. It’s about looking forward to the unimaginable displays of God’s power yet to come.