Dec. 3, 2017
These scripture words that we’ve heard this morning aren’t what we would necessarily expect as we kick off a new Christmas season that is supposed to be all holly jolly, and “the most wonderful time of the year.” Our wreathes are up, and our trees are up, the red hymnals are out, our candles are on display, the manger scene greets you as you enter the narthex, and yet Jesus talks about suffering, and cosmic upheaval, and an end of times for which you better be ready. Of course, Isaiah is no better. He’s in the midst of a long lament over the suffering of God’s people. Where have you gone, God? Why do you hide your face from us? The power of Isaiah’s cry is made all the more passionate by the way it contrasts this absence with God’s mighty acts in the past. You parted the sea; you delivered your people; the mountains quaked at your presence, but where are you now? “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
The thing is, from the Church’s perspective, this is not the start of the Christmas season; it’s the start of Advent, a time to prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ by thinking about the comings of Christ: the ways in which the heavens have been torn apart and the ways in which they are yet to be torn apart.
Mark’s brief apocalypse is here to assure us that in the end God is victorious. Keep the faith because in the face of death there is resurrection, in the face of a broken world there is the promise that God’s vision of love will ultimately stand alone. Isaiah’s lament is the cry of a people who are struggling to keep just such a faith. You were to us a great liberator in the past, but here and now we need restoration and we don’t know where to find you. In his commentary on this passage professor Scott Bader-Saye asks, “Who has not at one time or another wondered the same thing? If in biblical times God intervened in history with ‘awesome deeds,’ why does God not do so today? Surely there are egregious wrongs that deserve to be righted. Why would God deliver Israel from Egypt but not deliver six million Jews from Hitler’s death camps? We read stories about God’s spectacular interventions, yet we look in vain for such visible signs of God’s involvement in the world today. We want the mountains to quake and the nations to tremble at God’s presence. Instead, the sufferings of our day are too often met with divine silence.”[i]
Bader-Saye answers his own question, saying “God’s refusal to replicate the Red Sea – type deliverance does not mean that God has abandoned Israel (or the church). Our hope does not rely on God’s acting today in the same ways God acted in the ancient stories, but it does rely on God’s being the same God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – a God who hears our cries, a God who does not abandon us, a God who will finally redeem all that is lost in a new heaven and new earth.”[ii]
Though our passages today may not be what we expected, I think they are in a way what we need. They launch us into this Advent season’s opportunity to rethink the ways of our God, to reimagine how God might come, to make room for the kind of grace that comes by way of a manger and a cross rather than a red carpet and a throne. So, I’ve been doing just that: looking back in hopes of being better able to receive the presence that is to come.
I was reminded of a time of fervently praying for healing. The pain fluctuated in intensity but it would just never go away, and all I wanted was for it to be gone, and so I prayed and prayed that it might stop, and though it didn’t stop what God gave me more clearly than ever was sermon thoughts, a fruitfulness that drove my preaching so that I wasn’t seeking the inspiration so much as organizing it into sermons that came with ease. It was not the answer I expected, but nonetheless it felt like grace.
That moment of sitting in silence with the woman in the back pew came to mind as well. I was silent because I had no idea what to say. I wanted to say something, but everything that came to mind struck me as useless. I felt like an incompetent failure. Her best friend had just died; she was brokenhearted, and I sat there mute. Eventually, I stopped trying to come up with words; I said a silent prayer beside her, and I walked away. A week later I got a letter from her in the mail. She was flying back home for good and wanted to thank me for the comfort I offered her and for, “knowing that words would not have helped.” What I didn’t know, God did. And God used even my ignorance as a way to enter into her sadness. (This is a strange God who keeps coming.)
I’m reminded of that sloppy Maundy Thursday service that the senior pastor put together. He found the most banged-up table we had and he put it in the sanctuary with no cloth on it at all. Just some bread and a cup, and when it came time for Communion he offered very little instruction. The people came forward and they served themselves and one another, but with all the added time that these confused worshipers took I decided to pray for each one, and before I knew it I was lost in prayer for the people of that church in a way that I hadn’t ever been lost before. Coming out of the prayer, and despite my disapproval of the liturgy, I found that I had experienced a Communion unlike any Communion I had previously known. (This is the way God works.)
Lately, what keeps happening is that I set out to have a normal, run of the mill, conversation with someone, but by the end of it something has happened that’s reminded me of the sacred, God-given beauty, that we share and come to know in relation with one another.
I visited Ernie Knecht the other day. He’s not well off. He sat sleeping in his wheelchair next to a roommate who was also asleep. I woke him to say hello and asked him how he was doing. He told me he was tired. I said I understood. I asked him about his spirits; I asked him about his family; but he just stared out the window. I told him it was warm in addition to being beautiful out there. He didn’t react, but when I asked to pray he nodded and we closed our eyes. But what do you pray? I stumbled along with words I meant but didn’t find especially powerful until the thought came that Ernie said he was tired. So, I prayed that he might rest. I prayed that we both might find rest in God. When I opened my eyes Ernie didn’t. He slept peacefully and it seemed just like the kind of answer God would give.
My colleagues and I sat around the lectionary table on Tuesday thinking about today’s scriptures thinking about God, God’s purposes, and that glorious end that Christ talks about. A friend said, “I expect that when we go to heaven and come into the truth of things we’ll see just how little we knew.” It wasn’t a depressing statement; rather, it was an admission of the greater wisdom that is at work in our lives. Advent waiting is a similar kind of admission. It’s the sometimes joyful and sometimes bewildered claim that we are part of a mysterious and sacred world that a mysterious and sacred God holds and mysteriously and sacredly enters. It’s the claim that the heavens are torn apart in something as simple as the breaking of the bread, or the lending of a hand, or a wordless silence, or an unsure prayer.
Today Christ calls us to wakefulness because to be awake to this kind of a God takes some work.
[i] FOTW, Year B Volume 1, page 4
[ii] Ibid, 6