November 30, 2014 –– First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63:6b–17, 19b; 64:2–7 / 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 / Mark 13:33–37
The purple we use in Advent is connected to its use in Lent. Both are penitential seasons in which we are called to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation. Advent has long been a time for Christians to take part in such practices as fasting and abstinence, but in our culture Advent has lost most of its penitential focus. Our society has absorbed Advent into a popular (and very secular) celebration of what it calls “Christmas.” Instead of fasting there is partying and feasting. We do not like to hear about sin any time, but the resistance can be even deeper when we’re being constantly cooed with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.
Still, we in the Church place ourselves under the authority of Scripture. What we find in these readings is a focus on repentance and a warning about the ultimate coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples WATCH! Why? Because you do not know when the time will come. We are, figuratively, to keep an eye to the sky. And to do that, Jesus says we need to guard against something: spiritual carelessness––lest he comes suddenly and find you sleeping….The warnings given by Jesus in the Gospel are expanded by the prophet Isaiah. The tone of this Old Testament reading certainly does not match our culture’s attempt at “holiday cheer.”
Sometimes I struggle with my intensity. I often feel like an OT prophet trying to break through the lethargy of comfort and seduction. I can’t forget the definition of preaching that was burned into my soul early in my formation: Preaching is a dying man speaking to dying people. Someday I’m going to face the judgment of a holy God––and so are you. I want to be ready; I want you to be ready. It is a grace when we can take God’s warnings seriously.
Really think about what we confess: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…. I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Advent is a time to renew our perspective that we live in two worlds, and that this world we see carries a grave danger of so dulling us to the unseen world that we have no real time or affection for it––and in that condition close ourselves off to God and his salvation.
Maybe you’re like me and sometimes wonder, Why does it have to be so hard? Isaiah asks God a question like that: Why do you let us wander? It is a common human tendency that we wander or drift. I read an article this week about people who wander off trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park; they get lost and need to be found by a Search and Rescue Unit. Left to ourselves, we can become absorbed by something that catches our eye so we forget where we are.
This tendency to let ourselves wander seems even greater in our spiritual lives. It is rare for people to reject God outright if they were raised in the Faith. Rather, people just drift away. When I talk with people who have left the Church, most of them do not point to a time when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back.” Instead, they missed a Sunday here or there, little by little, until missing became the norm. They drifted from the practice of the faith. This is such a common spiritual tendency that one of the great hymns has a phrase: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love….
The thing about drifting is that the further off course one gets, the harder it is to get back. Bad habits become hard to break; Isaiah says we get hardened. God seems more and more distant; we lose our sense of reverence and holy fear. Isaiah shows this by taking up Israel’s voice (and ours!) and “blames” God for it all. Why do you let us wander? Somehow it is “his fault” for our tendency to wander since he lets us do it.
Yes, God has made us free. He respects our freedom. We could not love God if we were not free, because forced “love” is not love at all. We can wander so far that only God can find us and save us. And so in Advent, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel… Come Lord Jesus!… Seek and find us…. don’t let us drift away.
These verses from Isaiah can lead us to a healthy repentance: we are sinful; all our good deeds are like polluted rags…. our guilt carries us away like the wind…. There is none who calls upon your name…. This is a hard truth. Speaking collectively for our contemporary culture, we have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, a favorite T.V. show (or whatever), but have almost no motivation to pray, go to Church, or read Scripture. We can find time for everything else, but God can wait.
Yet there is Good News in this otherwise bad news: Our focus is not to be on our failings. That is not to say we do not need to make detailed confession, but our focus is on who God is and what God does. Here is how the old prophet Isaiah concludes it: we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands. Even more, the hope of the prophet is realized: Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down. Think of the Creed we profess. God does come. He sends his Son. We are not forsaken. Our Advent cry, Come Lord Jesus, is heard and heeded by our Heavenly Father, who loves us and––like a master potter––is molding us into his very image
This is our Faith. The ancient cry of Israel through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled so that the Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthians of the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus… so much so that he gives this promise: He will keep you firm to the end…. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet we need to face our part. That’s why we have Advent. The wandering heart that led Israel to the depths of despair will lead us astray if we do not remember this Gospel warning. Do not let him come suddenly and find you sleeping. As we start preparing for Christimas, the word from our Lord is WATCH! …Jesus is coming!