Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The First Sunday of Advent
This is the first day of the church year. We, like millions of other Christians around the world, follow the liturgical calendar, a progression of seasons and holy days. We just finished the long season of ordinary time, that stretched from Pentecost until now. And now we are in the first season of the Christian calendar: the season of Advent. This is the first Sunday of Advent.
Sometimes you’ll hear people complaining this time of year that store clerks don’t say Merry Christmas anymore. That has always struck me as incredibly strange. Why would I want someone to wish me a merry Christmas if it isn’t even Christmas yet? And according to the church, Christmas doesn’t start until sundown on December 24th. And Christmas lasts for 12 days, from December 25th until Epiphany on January 6th.
The calendar of commercialism is different of course. According to the calendar of commercialism, Christmas started even before we made it to Thanksgiving Day. I was getting ads for Black Friday sales a full two weeks before we made it to Thanksgiving. And according to the calendar of commercialism, Christmas ends as soon as the boxes are opened on the morning of the 25th.
But not according to the calendar of the church. According to the Christian calendar, Christmas is still a long way off. Before we can get to Christmas, we have to get through four Sundays of Advent.
The season of Advent gets its name from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival, coming. It is not so much a season of celebration as it is a season of preparation. We are preparing for the arrival, for the coming of Christ. It is a time for us to slow down, to let the spinning wheels of our lives run a bit slower. Of course, slowing things down won’t be too difficult this year. We’ve been in a slow’ed down world for about eight months now. Still, it is a time to reflect, to look inward and consider how it is that we will welcome the Christ. It is a time to listen and watch, to be mindful as we look for the Lord’s coming.
On this first Sunday in Advent, we turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah. While there was a historical prophet Isaiah who worked in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in the time leading up to Judah’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, biblical scholars have, since the 1800’s, believed that the Book of Isaiah represents the work of several different people, writing over the period of several decades. The first thirty-nine chapters of the book are referred to as First Isaiah, or proto-Isaiah. This first part is thought to be the work of the prophet Isaiah, or his students, during the time before Judah was defeated by Babylon. Chapters forty to fifty-five are called Second Isaiah, or deutero-Isaiah. It is thought to be the work of another, anonymous prophet during the time that the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. The last eleven chapters, called Third Isaiah, or trito-Isaiah, is thought to have been written after the return of the Jews from exile. This is the part of the book that we find ourselves in this morning. Although the composition of the Book of Isaiah is likely more complicated than simply being three separate chunks arranged one after the other, it is at least helpful to know that this is a work that was written over a long period of time, multiple generations, and it meditates on the cycle of the decline of the kingdom, the defeat and exile, and the eventual return.
Here at the beginning of chapter 64 we hear the prophet longing for the advent of God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” the prophet cries out to God. If only you would tear open the heavens and come down.
This is a deep longing for a greater closeness with God. The world is still not as it should be. Some things have gotten better, and others have gotten worse. The powerful and wealthy exploit their power and wealth in order to get even more power and wealth, while the common folk struggle to get by. The leaders who are lifted up to govern the nation, they disappoint again and again. They are not righteous. They do not always work in the interest of the people. Their actions and their motivations are far, far from God.
But why does it have to be like this? Why, God? Why don’t you come down and straighten things out in person? If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! If only you would tear open the heavens.
What would happen then? What would happen if God arrived on earth in order to set things right? What would the divine presence feel like if it weren’t mediated by distance in space or time?
The prophet continues: “Mountains would quake before you/ like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.” God’s very presence would set off the volcanos, light fires, boil waters. All of nature would be shaken by the imminence of God.
What else? “If you would make your name known to your enemies/ the nations would tremble in your presence.” All those who work against God’s justice would be brought to fear. Who would dare rush into war if they knew they would be immediately accountable to God? Who would dare take advantage of the poor? Who would dare abuse their power, assault their neighbor, if they knew that God was right over their shoulder?
How do we know? The prophet continues: “When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations/ when you came down, mountains quaked before you.” That is, when God showed up to free the slaves and bring them out of Egypt, it was in a cloud of fire and smoke. When God held back the army of the slavemasters, it was with crashing waters. When God visited Moses with the words of the covenant, it was on a quaking mountain, covered with smoke and with fire.
The prophet continues: “From ancient times/ no one has heard/no ear has perceived/ no eye has seen any god but you/ who acts on behalf of those who wait for him!” That is to say, there is no other god like our God. Isaiah has heard stories about many other gods, from many parts of the world. Every nation has their own gods and their own stories about the gods. Ba’al. Marduk. Zeus. Isis. Odin. But none of the other stories tell about a God who cares so much for humanity. It is only the God of Israel who comes to the rescue of slaves. It is only the God of Israel who fights for the well-being of the lowly. It is only the God of Israel who wills the good of humanity, who cares enough about human beings to pay attention to our struggles. No other god but the God of Israel cares for people like that.
The prophet continues to speak about how we humans never seem to rise up to the standards of God. Even when we try, we sin. And much of the time, we don’t even try. We don’t even reach out to God, we don’t even struggle for God’s truth, God’s justice. We turn our backs on God. We try to hide ourselves. We try to act and live as if God did not exist, as if God had not set standards for our living. And detached from God, we whither up like leaves. Our guilt blows us away like the wind.
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God. If only you would tear open the heavens and come and meet us here on earth. If only you would set things right. If only you would bring your justice. Then we wouldn’t be tossed around by sin, stirred up in disorder like leaves in the wind.
But, the prophet says, there is room for hope. All is not lost. God is still speaking, still working in our world. God is our father and our mother. It is God who gives us life; it is God who gives us a name. It is God who forms us. It is God who crafts us like an artist, taking simple clay, molding and remolding. It is God who shapes us, who gives us form and purpose. In the midst of the chaos and unrest in the world, it is God who brings order to our lives.
We are like clay sitting on a table. Left unworked, it does nothing. It serves no particular purpose. It does not accomplish anything for anyone. But if it is worked, if it is shaped and molded, if it is fired and cured, then it begins to have purpose. It can be a plate offering food to the hungry. It can be a cup offering drink to those who thirst. And in fact, it can become a vessel that holds the very being of Christ, Jesus’s own body and blood.
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God. But of course, God does that very thing. God tears open the heavens to visit an unmarried Palestinian girl with the birth of a savior. God tears open the heavens to show Jesus the power of the Spirit in baptism. God tears open the heavens and causes the earth to shake at the self-giving death of the Christ.
And God still tears open the heavens to visit us with the presence of Christ. God tears open the heavens each time we read the stories, each time we pray the name. God tears open the heavens each time we gather around the table, say the words, invoke the mystery of God’s own body and blood shared in simple bread and wine. God tears open the heavens each time we accept Jesus into our lives, each time we allow the Spirit to work in us, each step we take along the way of Christ.
And as we watch and wait this season, as we strain our eyes to see the Christ child amidst the tinsel and wrapping paper, as we seek the peace, the hope, the love and the joy that comes with faith in the faithfulness of God, we say with the prophet. Tear open the heavens and come down, O God. Tear open the heavens and make yourself known. Tear open the heavens and make your home in us. Tear open the heavens and show us the Christ.