Having been raised Southern Baptist in a not-remotely liturgical church, I came late to the Advent party. But I am oh-so-happy to be here now. The music, the purple, the waiting that is more than counting down the shopping days till Christmas … if there was an Advent geek club, I’d be a charter member.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we have lit the candle of hope … makes sense. When we start something, it’s often with some degree of hopefulness. Reminds of me of that great Emily Dickinson line:
Hope is the thing with feathers,
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all ….
So here we are, wearing our purple and decorating our tree and lighting our candles, and WHAM comes Mark with the Little Apocalypse. Not exactly a little-bird kind of text, is it. Feels more like a sledgehammer than something perching in our souls.
Well, starting Advent here actually does make sense … and we’ll get to that.
But let’s start with our Hebrew Bible reading, in Isaiah. It’s a long text, a prayer, really, and if we break it down, we can see that it has three parts.
The first part is petition, and remembrance:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …” just like the good old days, God, when you used to come down from heaven and the mountains would quake. Oh, no one’s ever seen a God like you. You’ve always taken care of your own.
We can just hear the longing, can’t we. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down ….”
But … no.
This is where we come to the second part, a confession of the hard reality we find ourselves in. Apparently you’re angry, God, because you have hidden your face. We can’t see you. Nothing we do matters. All we can do is sit here in the mess we’ve made.
And yet … and yet … we come to the third part. The plea: And yet, O Lord, you are our Parent. We’re just the clay; you are the Potter. We are the work of your hand. We are all your people. You can’t just forget about us; having made us, surely you will repair our brokenness.
Which brings us back to the beginning:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …”
In this prayer, the prophet has a very real sense of place when it comes to God: God is in the heavens. Up there. But when we look, all we see is blue. Or clouds. Darkness. It’s like there’s a veil in the way that keeps us from seeing the One we love. “Tear the veil away,” we plead. “We want to see you.”
What Isaiah’s prayer gives us is one clear taste of what hope is made of: longing. If we are hoping, then there is something – someone – we are longing for.
But what’s the difference between longing and hope?
Some degree of assurance, some confidence, some faith that what we long for … we can actually have.
To hope, then, is a deeply faithful act. When what we long for is not present, our very hoping is itself an act of faith. Which is what Jesus is calling for, in this weird and scary word from Mark’s time plopped down in the middle of our post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas, somewhere-between-Black Friday-and-Good Friday Advent season.
But maybe it’s not all that weird. After all, which one of us has had a holiday season with nothing painful in it? How’re the headlines treating you these days? From unemployed people dropping out of the job search to Occupy Something, from wars around the world to children sick to death here at home, signs of loss and even hopelessness are all around us.
We don’t have to look too far to feel the little Apocalypses popping up everywhere and everywhen.
And yet, Jesus says. And yet ….
When the world is falling apart all around you, such that even the sun and the moon and the stars are not doing what they are supposed to … Don’t give up. Don’t go to sleep. Don’t lose hope.
This is what Jesus was saying to his disciples; and it’s what he is saying to us.
But the disciples don’t get it. They’re looking at all the wrong things in all the wrong places. Right before our story today, Jesus and some of the disciples are walking around the temple compound, Jesus is extolling the widow who gave her all, and one of the disciples says, “My, my teacher. What large stones and what large buildings!”
I can just see Jesus pulling his hair out.
Especially since he knows his time is growing very short. So, he cuts right to the chase. “These fancy buildings? They’re all going to fall down, you know.”
The disciples have a four-alarm come-apart. “When? How will we know? What will we do?”
“Oh, you’ll know,” Jesus says. “When everything you have come to depend on is falling apart, then you’ll see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
In other words, Advent. God coming to us. In our darkest moments, when the world makes the least sense, that’s when we can know God is coming to us. It might be overwhelming, with great power and glory, or it might be subtle, like the first fuzz of green on the fig tree in spring. But we can know … God is coming to us.
So, what are we to do? We ask, as the disciples did. And what does Jesus say?
Keep watch. Keep awake.
Which sounds … not very helpful.
And yet. And yet …
What does it mean to keep watch? Why keep awake?
If means you believe that what you are longing for will actually come. It means you are being faithful. It means you have … hope. Hope is the shape that love takes, waiting.
It means you remember how the story comes out. That Isaiah’s prayer was finally answered … God tore the heavens open and came down. God came into our lives and into our hearts, not with clouds of power and glory, but with the cry of a newborn child. God came into our lives, with care and compassion and healing and hope.
God came into our lives through the valley of the shadow of death, which we need never fear again, because the God who has been there promises to bring us through it, too.
Thinking about our God of the mountains and the valleys reminds me of a particular time of waiting …
I grew up in South Texas on a farm, the country mouse to my city cousins. Every Christmas, the whole family would gather back on the farm, and I would sit in the front room of the house looking out over the flat fields watching for the headlights that signaled my cousins’ imminent arrival. I could see a car coming over a mile away … closer it would come, closer … and then on it would go. This would go on forever, it seemed. Waiting, waiting, finally a car, is it going to turn … and no.
But then finally, the car I’d been watching for would come to our drive, slowing, slowing, and turning, and the lights of the car would shine down the driveway and YAY, it was about to be Christmas, all over again.
I waited … I watched … because I believed those lights were going to shine toward me once again.
Sometimes, like the prophet Isaiah, we think God must be mad at us, when things don’t go well.
But that’s not really how it is. It’s more like, we have hidden ourselves from God. We are looking everywhere for our lives’ purpose, in every big building and behind every big stone … we are looking everywhere but toward God.
And yet … like a child sitting in the window of our hearts, God is already here. Watching. Waiting. Hoping we’ll come home. Knowing that what God waits for is worth waiting for.
In truth, nothing separates us from the love of God. In this time of Advent, we celebrate that God has come God’s own self, tearing away the veil of what we imagine separates us from God, coming down right here to where we are.
Do we see? Keep watch. Have hope.
God is the One who has come, God is the One who is coming, God is the One who will always be coming toward us.
Advent 1B at Bricks Reformed UCC, Burlington, NC.