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I’m going to start off Advent by talking about Lent. Specifically Ash Wednesday. We’ve been talking about the commercialization of Christmas at least since “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, and probably before that. I read an article once about Ash Wednesday in which the author told of how much he liked that Ash Wednesday had not been commercialized. We have Easter Parades and chocolate eggs and all the things that are associated with Easter. There is no Ash Wednesday Parade, or even worse Ash Wednesday Sale, thanks be to God.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time in the traditional church calendar in which we pointedly turn toward God. A day to repent in dust and ashes. A day to be reminded of our mortality because this is what ash symbolizes. I’ve taken part in an Ash Wednesday service with our Christ the King Anglican friends and it was very meaningful.
The season of Advent gives us a chance to put aside the commercialism and the rush and all the activities and parties (and I like parties and buying and receiving gifts, make no mistake). The season of Advent gives us a chance to re-align ourselves with God and with God’s purposes – which as we’ve been saying are life and blessing. It’s a time to focus on Hope, Love, Joy, Peace. Christ.
It’s a chance to be real. To keep it real. This is what we want, right? Keep it real? This is what we want to do in church as we begin Advent Season. When I looked at this reading first I thought “Oh no another passage about suffering – everyone’s going to be all ‘There he goes again.’” How are we going to be starting Advent off with Isaiah 64 exactly?
But really it’s fitting and right and good that we begin Advent this way. We want to name things for what they are. We don’t want to be presenting any kind of sugar-coated version of life or what it means to follow this Christ whose birth we await and to which we look forward through these weeks.
You can get that kind of thing out there. Speaking of commercialization, I was at one of our large department stores recently at one of our large malls here in Toronto. The thing about the mall is everything is perfect. I wish my life were like the mall. Everything is clean and pristine. Artfully lit. Everything is in its place, the sizes piled up from smallest to largest. The mannequins are all irreproachably dressed. The models in the pictures are all beautiful and handsome and it can quite make you forget that when you leave the mall all is not quite so well-ordered and beautiful. The underlying message, of course, is that your life can be this good if you would only buy our stuff. You leave the mall and find out that this is ultimately a false promise or at least one that doesn’t last.
We’re here to discuss things that last. We’re not here to present a false veneer of life. There’s a verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” that goes – “And in despair, I bowed my head/ ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said/For hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth goodwill to men.” I know that people have been saying this likely since Christmas was first celebrated but it seems to be particularly bad now doesn’t it? People seem unable to disagree about something without getting angry. People are punching animals. Man punches horse, man punches dog – when did this become a thing? Political divisions are becoming entrenched and increasingly unpassable. Threats of war and nuclear war. No New World Order. New World Disorder maybe. People being murdered in places of worship. People being shot in churches – 3 incidents since 2015 in the US. In church. In the middle of a service. In the middle of a Bible Study. Over 300 people killed in an intricately planned and executed attack on a mosque in Egypt.
What do we do?
What is our answer? How do we respond?
The author of Isaiah 64 knew how to respond. Things were not good for the people of Jerusalem. The cry of “Comfort, O comfort my people” had become “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The cry of “Prepare the way of the Lord” had become “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance for truth stumbles in the public square.” Things were not going well for the Israelites after their return from exile in Babylon. There were divisions among priests depending on what kind of priest they were. The rebuilding of the Temple had stalled. Some returning exiles had done very well for themselves in Babylon and they were oppressing their poor countrymen and women who had stayed behind. Here’s how one writer describes the prophet Haggai’s description of those times – “They make reference to civil and religious leaders who looked only after personal gain and to a court system riddled with corruption. They reflect a low level of community morale and a vindictive spirit that excluded the other nations of the world from any participation in God’s plan save destruction.” I don’t have to paint a picture here. Tribalism. Nativism. An attitude of “It’s their problem.” Vindictiveness. Hate.
Hate. Someone said to me after the Texas shooting, “What do you say when people say ‘Why didn’t God stop this?’ or ‘How does God let these things happen?’” The prophet does not give any easy or glib answers. We’re not called to give easy or glib answers or to ignore the state of our world (and the state of ourselves) either. We don’t have easy answers.
We have a response though. One that goes back to the Psalmist. Lament. Asking these questions not about God, but to God. “Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation.” We have an image here of God as one who is far removed from us. Looking down. “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” Because I know that’s what you are like and you seem very far away right now “For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us: you, O LORD, are our father.” We seem to be cut off from your promises and yet we know you are our Father, the God who is faithful, who keeps promises - “our Redeemer from of old is your name.” We know what you have done. There’s a disconnect between what we know about God and what we see around us – “but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.”
The thing about the lament is, when we’re asking these questions, we’re not asking them about God. We’re not saying “How could God let these things happen?” We’re asking these questions of God. It’s a recognition that we are not facing whatever it is we are facing on our own. It’s a recognition that we need help from outside ourselves in the middle of pain. It’s searingly honest. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” It’s not enough to ask for God to look down at this point. The cry is for God to come down to us. The desire for God to come down in a spectacular way. It’s like the cry of those who say “If only I had some sort of proof, I would believe.” If only God would do something spectacular. If there were some proof of the existence of God, I would believe.
Of course, love is not simply about proof. Loving or being loved without condition is not reducible to proof. An act of God that would be akin to mountains shaking, a brush fire, waters boiling, might garner some attention for a while. Probably a few days in our 24 news cycle until the next thing came along. We walk by faith and not by sight, after all. We walk by trust.
We remember that “From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” God spoke from a burning bush to a solitary shepherd. God worked salvation through this servant. God would speak later to a prophet not through the earthquake or whirlwind but in the stillness.
In the silence. So let all mortal flesh keep silence. And come before God. And confess. One writer puts it like this – “…how does a people open itself to the re-entry of divine grace, forgiveness, and healing? The prophet gives the classical biblical answer, repentance. Accordingly, the prophet ignores for a moment the divisions that cut through the community and leads the entire people in a confession of sin.” I often think we should do more confession together and so we’re going to engage in an act of corporate confession in a few moments to open ourselves to the re-entry of grace and forgiveness and healing which we, which our world so sorely needs. We’re going to engage in intercessory prayer for us and our world. Just as Moses made intercession for the people of Israel and pled before God on their behalf, like a priest. He stood in the breach for them, stood in the gap. As followers of Christ, we are called to make intercession as priests. To stand in the breach, stand in the gap. But note that those praying include themselves in this prayer. It’s not just “We confess that they have sinned.” There’s no self-righteousness here. Look at the language used – “We have all become like one who is unclean.” “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Let us confess together:
“We begin the season of Advent Lord, acknowledging our estrangement from you, our Creator. We acknowledge your anger and absence, and we confess our complicity in the situation. You have a right to be angry God, because we, your people, have sinned against you and one another. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will. We have broken your law. We have rebelled against your love. We have not loved our neighbours. We have not heard the cry of the needy. Do not remember iniquity forever. Consider that we are all your people. Forgive us Lord, by the grace of your Son. By your Spirit, direct who you would have us be. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
To lament is to recognize our need for God. To recognize that we need God to make us, to fashion us, into God’s likeness. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The lament signals a desire to put to an end the hubris that says “We can handle this on our own.” “We need you Lord,” is what the lament says.
In the end, we have a question. “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” Will the silence be broken?
This is what we are looking forward to friends. Advent. The coming. The arrival. The silence will be broken. Not in shaking mountains. Not in the spectacular. The silence will be broken by a mother’s cries of pain. The silence will be broken by a baby’s cry. A baby who will grow to know rejection and derision. One who will know suffering and die and be raised to life again, and in so knowing will show us that there is no suffering from which God is absent, or from which God cannot bring life.
In the midst of our lament, in the midst of our questions, this is the one we await. This is the one in whom God’s love was revealed. This is the one we remember today. This is the one we’re called to follow. May each and every one of us take up this call.