Holy Desperation: Nov. 28, 2020

December 3, 2020

 Year B, Advent 1                                                                Isaiah 64:1-9                                                                           

            Typically when we come to the first Sunday of Advent, I find the readings rather jarring and incongruous with the holiday season. First Advent usually comes right after Thanksgiving when people are doing their Christmas shopping and decorating their homes. People come to church expecting some of that same light and joy.  Then they hear readings like the ones we heard today, which are depressing and a little scary. 

If this was any other year, I would start by apologizing for the readings as they just don’t seem to fit where we are right now.  But this year I read them and thought: “Sure, that sounds about right.” The Gospel reading is about the end times, the 2nd coming of Christ. The sun is darkening and stars are falling from heaven.  There has been more than a few times this year when I have thought, “Yup, this is it. The end is coming.”

            However, the reading that really appealed to me this year was Isaiah.  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…”  When this was written, the people of Israel were desperate for God to make himself known, to be an unavoidable reality in their lives.  Things were so bad, they wanted God to tear apart the heavens, because he clearly wasn’t on earth with them.           

They knew their history—they knew that there were many times when God had intervened.  Isaiah wrote, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”  God had done it before for the people of Israel when he sent the plagues and delivered the people from the Egyptian army.  God toppled the walls of Jericho with just the shout of the army.  God delivered the 10 commandment and fed the people for 40 years with manna from heaven.  God had done marvelous and astounding things. They wanted to know, “Where is that all powerful God now?” 

            When I think of the themes of Advent, I think of preparation, expectation, repentance, waiting and hoping.  These are the tame themes, the ones that work well with the 5 candles of our Advent wreath.  So I was surprised when one of the commentaries I read mentioned that this reading from Isaiah contains two of the major Advent themes and neither were themes I usually consider.  The first theme Isaiah highlights is a deep sense of desperation about a situation that is out of control. I thought, wow, that sums up 2020 pretty well. I mean— it doesn’t really work with any of our candles, but it fits our current situation to a tee.

Photo by Brian Kairuz on Unsplash

The people of Israel understood desperation. The book of Isaiah tells of a country that was defeated in battled. The land was devastated.  The Holy City (Jerusalem) was demolished. Most of the people were carted off to a foreign land where they were enslaved for generations.  In our reading for today, the long exile was over. They had returned to find a home that looked nothing like the one they remembered, nothing like the stories they had been told. They had to rebuild.  They were weary and they wanted a divine intervention.  They wanted God to burst through the heavens because no matter how scary that might sound, it was nothing compared to their current predicament. 

The first 4 verses demand and insist that God come down and make things right.  But then starting in verse 5 they acknowledged their own sin and seemed to give reasons why God should not come down.  It’s like they had this burst of self-awareness and realized that maybe there was something they should have been doing instead of simply demanding that God fix things.  There is another shift in verse 8. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand….Now consider, we are all your people.”

            In just 9 verses, we can observe massive shifts in the way people perceive themselves and God. It begins with a desperate demand that God display his great power and shake the very foundations of the earth. Then the people acknowledge their own guilt. Then they shift to their relationship with God, the relationship of the creator and the creation, the parent and the child.  That is an intimate relationship, one of trust and love.  And that is the 2ndtheme of Advent that Isaiah highlights— a bold and confident trust.[1]

            I resonate with this reading from Isaiah, probably more than I ever have before. I understand what it is to go from desperate fear— to guilt– to trust and hope—sometimes in less than an hour.  Everything is so unpredictable and chaotic right now. Desperation can do funny things. If we look inwardly at our desperation, that can lead to hopelessness and grief.  If we look to God in those desperate times, that can lead to a renewed appreciation of what God has done for us and continues to do for us.

            There is a part of me that yearns to skip over Advent this year and go straight to Christmas. We have had enough of waiting and preparation.  No doubt, the people of Israel felt the same way.  The themes of desperation and trust might not be what we want right now—but they might be what we need. When this pandemic is over, things will not be like it was before.  The people of Israel returned to a land that had been demolished. It was nothing like they remembered.  They had to rebuild despite their weariness. We will have to do the same.  I know that I will yearn for a quick fix, because really, haven’t we been through enough?  Yet that will not be an option for most of us. 

Maybe this Advent we need to focus less on preparation and expectation and more on surrender…surrendering to our own powerlessness and brokenness.  Allow yourself that feeling of desperation. But in the midst of that desperation, let us remember that no matter how hard rebuilding might seem, we have the creator as our guide.  Our God knows how to create and recreate. It is ok to be desperate (perhaps even necessary), but let us never lose our faith, even when we are in the midst of that desperation.  Let it be a holy desperation—one that leads not to despair but repair.  If we are the clay and God is the potter, then we are never broken beyond repair.  Our world is never broken beyond repair.  Our broken places are places where God’s light can shine that much more brightly.  That light, that is the light that will give us the power to rebuild.

[1] Texts for Preaching, Year B Commentary p. 2