Year B, Advent 1
Happy New Year!! I know it’s not January yet, but it is the first Sunday of Advent and that means it is the first Sunday of the liturgical year. If it was January, we would all be working on our New Year’s resolutions, perhaps dusting off some old ones or coming up with something new. We might be committing to a new exercise routine, joining a gym, buying more vegetables, or if you are anything like me, getting really annoyed that the gym is suddenly crowded and your favorite cardio machine is no longer available. The point it, you would be preparing for change, perhaps an improvement.
A New Year’s resolution is usually a proactive response to a new opportunity. However, when we talk about the new church year and Advent in particular, we talk about waiting, preparation and anticipation. To be an active participant in Advent we tell you to sing mellower songs, not decorate the church, and light one candle a week…one candle. On New Year’s Eve in New York City they have a famous ball drop at midnight. The ball they are currently using is lit by 32,000 LED lamps. It is 12 feet in diameter and contains almost 3,000 Waterford Crystal panels. Clearly, if it was a contest about light and drama, we would be losing this New Year’s contest.
Thankfully, it is not a contest. In fact one of the things that we try to do in Advent is prove that the church is countercultural. Yet I worry that in our push towards mellowing out and waiting, what we are really doing is telling people to “Get bored.” And that is not what this is supposed to be and the readings for the day remind us that there is nothing dull about Advent and there should be nothing boring about our faith. The first line from Isaiah is, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence….” Having the sky ripped open would be a whole lot more impressive than a 12 foot crystal ball dropping a couple hundred feet.
Isaiah is a book full of dramatic twists and turns. The author spent the first part of the 66 chapter book trying to convince the people of Jerusalem to change their ways and follow the one true God or they would be conquered by a foreign land…which is indeed what happened. Jerusalem was conquered and their beloved temple was destroyed. The majority of the people were deported to Babylon where they lived under foreign control and were forced to worship other gods.
The whole time they were in Babylon, they lamented over the exile and looked forward to returning to their home and their temple. In the last section of Isaiah (which is one of the longest books of the Bible) the people return to their home to find it ruined. While they try to rebuild, it takes much longer than they expected. They have long periods of despondency where they question whether they can even build a temple again. They wonder whether God has abandoned them. In many ways, they were moving through an interminable Advent…all of this waiting and Christmas never came.
The reading we have for today comes from the very end of the Book of Isaiah. The people have been back for some time and that initial excitement of returning to their home has passed. Things have not happened as fast as they hoped. They are wondering if it had been worth returning. They learned a hard lesson when they were forced to leave their homes and leave just a few people in Jerusalem. Part of that lesson was how important it is to remain loyal to God and not to take God for granted. Yet they forgot that lesson very quickly. They forgot it so completely, it would seem that they no longer knew how to recognize the presence of God. Otherwise, they would not asked him to tear open the heavens and come down. That would be a pretty dramatic entrance for someone who is already there.
In this one short passage of Isaiah, the people ask God to make his presence known so dramatically that people would have to take notice, have to believe. After making that request, the people remind themselves and God of the relationship they once had and the power that God once displayed. But the mood shifts again when they admit that despite the power of God and his care for his people, they had sinned and turned against God since their return to their home. All of this waiting had not given them time to slow down and rediscover their relationship with God. It had just given them enough time to get distracted and whiny. They had gotten so lazy that they would not even call on his name.
Yet…that is the English word that comes to us in verse 8. It seems like a small unimportant word, but it was pivotal in this text because it marked another shift…but not just any shift, a shift to the present. A better translation would be, “And now.” And now, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of you hand.” While they were in Babylon, they spent all of their time longing for that time when they would return to their homeland. They were full of hope and longing, but it was all for this future event. When they returned they discovered that this home of theirs did not look like what they remembered or what they hoped for. So then they started reminiscing about the past, of what was or what could have been.
But with that one small phrase, “and now,” they were back in the present. They were ready to live instead of just remember. They came up with a pretty interesting way to do that. It was something they had not yet tried. They allowed themselves not only a new beginning, but a new beginning with God as their maker. God would not just be their creator, but their re-creator.
Yes, Advent should be a slightly more quiet and contemplative time. But that time should end with something more than just an unused gym membership. It should be a time of re-creation when we put ourselves in the hands of God and let him mold us. The Gospel text tells us that we should keep awake. That is what Advent is really about. It is a time for quiet, but it is also a time to wake up and to live life in the present. We are not waiting for Christmas. We are preparing ourselves and our world for a God that is so magnificent and so luminous that the mere sight of him would crush a 12 foot Waterford crystal ball. That light from that ball in New York City would look like an old flashlight with a dying battery when compared to the light that we as Christians are preparing for: The light of Christ. So stop waiting around. It’s time to wake up and prepare to be re-created by the light of the world.