1 Advent – November 29, 2020
It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year. And here we are….at the beginning of Advent, still in the midst of the COVID crisis…bewildered, grieving, fearful, and exhausted. And so, it’s rather fascinating that we are given the gift of the Advent apocalyptic readings, because, frankly, doesn’t what we’re going through this year feel somewhat apocalyptic? Might we be thinking…where is God? The Advent season is a gift for us in the midst of this pandemic.
Long associated with the waiting period before Jesus’ birth, Advent has a cosmic dimension. Let’s explore that, with some help from Debi Thomas’ essay from Journey with Jesus. According to our readings, we enter Advent — in lamentation. Lamenting. We are given the gift of allowing the radical honesty of Scripture to make us honest, too. “How long will you be angered, despite your people’s prayers?” asks the Psalmist in desperation. “Because you hid yourself we transgressed,” cries Isaiah. During Advent, we get real.
“Our world is not okay,” is what these Advent readings declare in stark, unflinching terms. God’s apparent absence is not fine — it hurts. It hurts so much we can barely breathe from the agony of it. We are surrounded by evil and suffering, we’re not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day, and though we long for a Savior to rend the heavens and come down, the very intensity of that longing is wearying our souls. Hope itself has become a grind.
A gift of Advent is the permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. We are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. Into our surrounding cultures of denial and spin, apathy and hedonism, we are called to speak the whole truth: we need God. We need God to show up. We need God to stay. We need God to love, hold, deliver, and restore us. We were created for intimacy with a just, gracious, and profoundly compassionate Savior, and when that intimacy is missing, we suffer.
Another gift of the season is less a “gift” than a discipline. It is the discipline of waiting. During Advent, we live with quiet anticipation in the “not yet.” We stop rushing, and decide to call sacred what is yet in-process and unformed.
This is no easy task in today’s world, which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey or the odd way station. Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life “a long obedience in the same direction,” and we can’t get more counter-cultural than that. If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that necessary things — things worth waiting for — happen in the soft, fertile dark. Next spring’s seeds break open in dark winter soil. God’s Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb.
Perhaps years from now, when we look back on these bleak months of the pandemic, we will recognize these days of waiting — waiting for a vaccine, waiting for a cure, waiting for a return to our normal social lives — as paradoxical treasures. Learning to wait for God is akin to learning a new form of physical exercise. Waiting is a muscle, and it has to be worked, toned, sculpted, and shaped over a sustained period of time. To sit and wait for God — not in bitterness, not with cynicism, not in fake and frozen piety — is serious spiritual work. But it is the invitation of Advent. To wait.
Advent prepares us for the God who is coming — a God who will turn out to be very different from the one we expect and maybe even hope to find. Today, Isaiah longs for a Very Big God to do Very Big Things. Recalling the history of the Exodus, he asks God to once again do “awesome deeds” — deeds that will make the mountains quake and the nations tremble. Who among us has not prayed such big prayers? For the past eight months, haven’t our prayers have been as outsized as Isaiah’s: Bring an end to the pandemic. Protect the most vulnerable. Strengthen healthcare workers. Help the unemployed. Spare the children. Save the world!
But why stop there? Why not go further? Eradicate all illness. Clean up the mess in Washington D.C. End world hunger. Root out corruption. Destroy systemic racism. Thwart corporate greed. Protect this wounded planet before we ravage it past saving, and most of all shield us, O Lord, from our sinful, self-destructive selves. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
I don’t believe we should stop praying these prayers. God is big. But during Advent, we are asked to prepare ourselves for something else. Someone else. Someone so unexpected and so small, we may be tempted to either laugh or cry at the thought of him. After all, the world is falling apart, our hearts are exhausted, people are dying, and God chooses to send … a baby?
In his sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God:
“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”
Notice that Mark, in our gospel today, employs the four “time-stamps” of the parable – evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn – to mark the scenes of the passion about to commence – gathering with his disciples at evening, betrayed and arrested at midnight, denied at cockcrow, and sentenced to death at dawn. Similarly, Mark uses the Greek verb to “rend or tear asunder” that is also used to translate Isaiah’s plea (in the Septuagint) at two points: Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit comes down, and the rending of the curtain in the Temple at Jesus’ death.
So when, according to Mark, will the unlooked for day and hour of God’s unveiling and appearance be? Not so much at the end of time, but at the cross, in the hidden and expected unveiling of God’s greatest work. Religious authorities mocked it. Bystanders dismissed it. Even his disciples missed it. Yet in that small and broken figure of Jesus on the cross, God was at work, rending to pieces all that would divide us from God, closing the gap between what we deserve and what God wants to give us, promising to be with us and for us in and through all things.
What are we to make of this? The God who is limitless chooses limits: one womb, one backwater town, one bygone century, one brief life, one agonizing death. The salvation we long for is not the salvation he brings. Come Christmas, let’s be ready to receive God as God is. Not as we might wish God to be, or insist God become. Advent is time to prepare for the Savior who is.
So. Here we are. Exactly where we need to be. Here we are, wrestling with the brokenness of the world and the hiddenness of our God. Here we are, voicing our laments and registering our yearnings. Here we are, waiting. Here we are, preparing ourselves for the God who is coming.
“Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down.” This is an honest prayer, and we need not fear it. It’s okay to pray into the silence, the hiddenness, and the absence. It’s okay to struggle with Advent and its complicated gifts.
So pray and wait. Wait and pray. As much as you can, be patient. Be still. Hope fiercely. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender is forming. Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born. (A large part of this homily is based on Debi Thomas’s essay posted Nov 22, 2020 at Journey with Jesus – Current Essay)