This week, we begin a new year in the church cycle with the first Sunday of Advent. Sermon texts for this week are Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37. Here’s my sermon for December 3, 2017.
Do you ever wonder where God is? Do you ever question why God doesn’t act?
Where is God when people gathered peacefully to worship are shot and killed in Texas, or blown up in Egypt? Where is God when over half a million people are forced to flee from persecution in their own country to camps in a nation that doesn’t want them?
Where is God when nearly 3,000 children have died this year on their way to seek refuge in Europe? Where is God when we are faced with the threat of nuclear war? Where is God when our friends and family are faced with cancer?
Do you ever wonder where God is?
Hear again these words from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Welcome to Advent.
This season of Advent is a unique time in the church year, because it’s a season of both preparation and longing, a season of anticipation and dread, a season of desperation and hope. Most often, we think of Advent as preparing for Christmas, and it’s a season that’s really easy to overlook.
Especially this year because of where Christmas falls, Advent begins later than usual, and it feels like a lot of our world is already celebrating Christmas. We’ve already had weeks of Christmas sales; Christin and I spend time today shopping and eating for the Christmas in Greene event; and we even have the Christmas cantata this weekend right here at church. And Advent technically begins today!
I’m not complaining about Christmas coming too early – I enjoyed the cookies and hot chocolate this morning (yesterday) – and I’m fine with looking ahead to Christmas, but it’s also worth pausing for Advent. Advent gives us an opportunity to remember the why of Christmas, why Jesus was born, why we need a savior in the first place.
The primary image of Advent is God’s light coming into the darkness and shadows of our world and our lives, and to appreciate the light, we need to recognize the darkness.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God.
Advent calls us to recognize how much we need God. For the next four weeks, we get these apocalyptic readings, looking forward to the end of the world. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming to us, we’re also preparing for the second coming, when Christ will come in glory.
As we’ve been hearing over and over for the last few weeks, we know the end of the story. We know the end of the Christmas story – Jesus has been born. We know about the shepherds watching their flocks and wise men’s gifts. We also know the end of the larger story, the second coming. We know that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that our judge is also the one who has forgiven and redeemed us. We have that faith.
As we said in the candle lighting a few minutes ago, even when the world seems dark and cold, we know the light of Christ is coming. We have that promise to cling to.
The season of Advent has a sense of longing to it. We long for the good news that our Savior has been born. We long to hear that God does care. We long for God to tear open the heavens and come down, because there’s plenty of need in our world. There’s plenty of room for wondering and questioning where God is and why God hasn’t acted more obviously.
In Advent, we realize that we need a savior. We need God to act. By crying out for God to break open the heavens and come down to us, we confess our own limitations. We confess we cannot by our own strength save ourselves and our world.
German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in a letter from prison after his arrest by the Nazis in 1943, compared Advent to life in a prison cell:
“One waits, hopes, and does this that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”
It’s hard to admit we need help. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to skip to Christmas. But to appreciate God breaking in, we need to be honest about our situation. We take the time to light one candle a week, to see the shadows where we need God’s light to come.
Advent is also a time of preparation. Think about Advent calendars. Maybe you have one in your house. I know I grew up with the tradition of moving a little fabric Christmas tree each morning to see how close we’re getting to Christmas. I’m still waiting for someone to give me a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar – our culture is pretty good at understanding Advent as waiting and preparing. At the most basic level, an Advent wreath is a simple countdown calendar.
But what does it mean to prepare during Advent? Jesus tells his disciples to watch for signs, like when you see a fig tree begin to sprout, you know summer is near. When you see Black Friday sales, you know Christmas is near. It’s easy to count down to Christmas, to our celebration of the first coming. We don’t get a countdown calendar for Christ’s return though. How do we prepare when we know neither the day nor the hour? We don’t get a countdown to God acting.
Jesus says to keep awake, to pay attention, to prepare. Often I think of preparing for Christmas as doing something, like cleaning the house right before company comes over, or making sure the cookies are ready. But Advent preparation is about more than that, more than trying to make ourselves better so Jesus will be more appreciative of our work when he shows up. We can’t fix our world on our own.
Instead, Advent preparation is about recognizing our need for our Savior to come. Advent is about honestly recognizing our broken world and our broken lives, and begging God to come to us. It’s about living with our doubts that God will everget here, and even bringing those doubts to God.
Isaiah’s plea is pretty blunt. Come on, God. Do something! Tear open the heavens and come down! It’s ok to be real with God.
Isaiah accuses God of hiding, of abandoning the people to exile, but he doesn’t stop there. He continues on to verse 8. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Isaiah ends with hope: Advent hope that relies on God. God doesn’t wait for us to get our act together; God comes to us as we are. Not in ourselves. Not in our money, or our jobs, or our government, or in our family or friends. Our hope is in God.
The advantage of looking forward to the end of the world during Advent is that we know how the Christmas story goes. We know about God coming into the darkness, into the dirt of a stable, to an unwed mother, in a backwater village. We know God comes to us. The blue of Advent is a color of anticipation. It’s intended to be the color of the sky just before the sunrise.
Last week, I invited you to pay attention, to keep awake and notice where you see Jesus in the people around you, especially in the people who are often considered the least of these. Where did you see our king Jesus in unexpected places & people?
On the table in the fellowship hall, you’ll find cutouts of light bulbs where you can write down where you saw God’s light in the people around you. This week, I invite you to consider those places in your life where you long for God to come, those things you can’t handle on your own.
Where do you need God to break in? Notice situations or people or places where you need God’s hope to shine a light, and next week, we’ll bring them to God in prayer.
In the darkness, in the despair, in the pain, in the suffering, in the wars and the sickness and the disasters, in the midst of all of that, there is still hope. We can cry out to God to tear open the heavens and come down, because God is faithful. Christ has come into the world, and Christ will come again.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.