November 30, 2014 Isaiah 64: 1-9 Mark 13: 24-33
Rev. Catherine Purves
Do you like to count on things? Isn’t it nice to have a fuel gauge in your car and a thermostat in your house? Knowing where you stand and what to expect keeps you relatively sane. I don’t know anyone who really likes unpredictability when it comes to important things. Paychecks should be there on payday. You want the drug store open when you need it. Thanksgiving is always on the last Thursday in November. When you dial 911 someone will certainly answer (and hopefully not put you on ‘hold’). We like things that way. Even children, who are too young to know it, thrive on routine and a predictable schedule. Postponed meals and delayed naps just don’t work with a toddler. It seems that we all want to be able to count on things, and if they don’t happen when we want them to or when we need them to, we become upset, throwing a child-like or even an adult tantrum.
In one respect, Advent fits right into this need for order and predictability. After today, we have 24 more shopping days until Christmas (I’m assuming that the stores will be closed on Christmas). We can easily count down the days. So, throughout December, we will know where we stand and how frantic we need to be about how much time we have left to do everything we think we need to do before Christmas Day. When I was small, we always received an elaborate Advent Calendar from our distant relatives in England. I remember opening the little doors each day with fascination. There was always a tiny picture or a short Bible verse. And with every door that we opened, Christmas was, predictably, that much closer. Each year Christmas is on the same day. Of course, we have no idea what the actual birthday of Jesus was, and we could (and perhaps should) celebrate his coming into the world every day. But we have settled on the 25th of December as the day on which we celebrate Christ’s birth, and that suits our longing for order and predictability.
On the other hand, Advent also reminds us that there are certain things that we cannot control and that we cannot know. As long as we are just concerned with the first Advent of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, we are dealing with a known event that already happened. We can happily count down the days to our hearts’ content. It’s easy to think that this Advent is predictable because we have set up our celebration to be so. But in the years before Jesus’ birth there was only uncertainty and longing. No one knew when God would act to save his people. There was a genuine hope that God would do something, eventually, that God would act, but the delay, the not-knowing when or what or how was excruciating.
This longing is expressed so well in our reading from the book of Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” the prophet cries. DO SOMETHING NOW! Israel needed God to intervene. They had the treasured memory of God coming to their rescue in the past. They knew that, unlike the idols of their neighbors, the God of Israel could and had changed history, and could do so again. How long would they have to wait for God to do something dramatic and world changing? Now! They wanted God to get involved now! “Tear open the heavens and come down!”
Throughout the centuries since the birth of Jesus, Christians have voiced this same cry. What is God waiting for? Why didn’t God intervene during the Black Death in the middle ages, or the Holocaust in the 20th century, or in any one of the many terrible natural disasters of this century? If God can act, then why doesn’t he? We have probably all asked that question. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a push-button God who would show up whenever we called and fix whatever was broken?
At the same time, the old adage, be careful what you wish for, applies here too. The God of Israel was not a tame God, and it was dangerous to ask the holy, all-powerful God to get involved, because the judgment you hope will be inflicted on your enemies may be turned on you as well. So, the prophet’s urgent cry to God for help suddenly becomes introspective and reflective, because, when you get right down to it, our enemies may be sinners and pagans, but we are not all that great ourselves. Isaiah confesses on behalf of the people, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” Perhaps, after all, we don’t deserve God’s help. Perhaps, if God gets too close, we will find that we ourselves are judged.
The recognition that we are all sinners in need of repentance is an essential part of our Advent preparation that is easily overlooked. Isaiah recognized that Israel not only needed to call upon God to change their world, but that they needed to turn to God so that he could transform their lives. “Yet, O Lord,” he continued, “you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We must place ourselves in God’s hands so that we can be re-made as a people and as individuals. This molding and refashioning, the work of the Divine Potter, is the only way that we can escape the stranglehold that sin has on us. When we call upon God to act, to tear open the heavens and come down, we need to prepare ourselves for change on both a global and a very personal scale.
In our second reading from the Gospel of Mark, of course, that first Advent that Isaiah anticipated had already happened. Mark and Matthew, Luke and John had written the story of the coming of Jesus into the world and what that meant. Now they, and we, must wait for a second Advent. Our yearly season of Advent also anticipates and awaits that second coming of Jesus. And again, we have to prepare ourselves for something that is unpredictable, that will happen on God’s timetable and not ours. There is not a lot of comfort in that, because how can we prepare for something when we don’t know when it will come?
People throughout the ages have been tempted to try to read the cosmic tea leaves and to guess how long we have before we absolutely need to prepare for the end. What are the signs? How will we know the return of Christ is near? Even in the few verses which we read from Mark, chapter 13, known as the Little Apocalypse, we are getting a mixed message about this second Advent. The first image is definitely apocalyptic: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” It doesn’t sound as if that could sneak up on us unawares. But then Jesus talks about the gradual changing of the seasons as observed through the slow maturing of the fig tree. These are definitely more subtle signs. Finally, he tells his disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If even the angels don’t see it coming, how can we? Nonetheless, we are warned, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
This unpredictable, uncontrollable, purely God-initiated bringing to completion of all things is what we must cope with during Advent. It is what we are preparing for. It is what we are trying to be ready for, because what Isaiah described as the tearing open of the heavens is also what we are awaiting, for the second time. And we wait for it knowing that it won’t come according to our timetable; we cannot delay it, and we cannot initiate it. We can only try to be ready for our God to act again by getting our lives in order and by inviting God to refashion us, just as a potter molds clay. We can only repent through this season of Advent, seeking God’s righteousness and God’s justice in our lives and in our world. We can only remind ourselves that a God who marches to our drumbeat, who meets all of our perceived needs and demands, and who is ultimately predictable is no God at all.
Even so, we know this unpredictable God as our Father, and so we can wait with hope. God’s promises are dependable. God has acted; God will act. Christ has come, and Christ will come again. Let us begin this season of Advent with an eager commitment to do the work of preparation, anticipating not only Christ’s first coming on Christmas, but also his unpredictable second coming.