“Forward Thinking”Jeffrey C. Hayes Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37 Year B - First Sunday of Advent
I love everything about the Christmas season—the colorful decorations, lights on every tree, festive music, delicious food, and, of course, the television specials. I still enjoy watching the classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Miracle on 34th Street. And Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without my grandfather’s boiled custard—it’s an acquired taste, mind you. But that’s just it.
Like most people I’ve been practicing the same traditions for decades. I pull down from the attic the same ornaments that have adorned our tree for years; the same wreaths; even the same fiberglass Santa whose white beard has faded a tint of yellow and whose eyeglasses no longer stay on his jolly red nose.
Yes, the Christmas season is an exercise in personal nostalgia. With each box that I open, memories flood my mind. Isn’t this true for all of us? This season is an escape from the realities of life by looking backward at a much simpler time with simpler pleasures.
One of my favorite holiday artists, Michael W. Smith, has a new album out this year titled The Spirit of Christmas. Inspired by the original Carpenters Christmas album, Smith wants nostalgia to hit listener’s ears from the very first note, a close remake of Andy Williams’ hit “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Like the inspiration that gave birth to his album that’s the way the world sees Christmas—a wintry wish for days gone by.
Not so in the church. For starters, it’s not the Christmas season. It’s Advent—a time of watchful preparation. Second, it’s not a time to reminisce of years gone by, but a time to herald in the promise of greater things to come.
Every year the first lesson in Advent has nothing to do with a babe lying in a manger and everything to do with the promise of Christ’s return. As theologian Von Unruh has stated: “To focus attention on the child of Mary rather than our coming King is to fundamentally alter the meaning of Christmas” (Von W. Unruh, Come and Behold). And to be completely honest, if we fail to proclaim the second advent of Christ, then we have little business making such a commotion about his first.
I know, I know—this doesn’t make for a happy beginning to “the most wonderful time of the year.” Like our personal celebrations, we’d much rather hear nostalgic sermons about shepherds and wise men. But what if we did more than reminisce this Advent? What if we focus our attention on what God is doing in our lives now as we eagerly celebrate his coming as a babe and his return as our King?
This year let me challenge us to be intentional about watching for our Christ; spending time preparing for our Christ; anticipating his arrival and the rebirth of our hope in the midst of deadly virus threats and global persecution. May we fervently pray with the prophet John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
Obviously we are not the first to express this prayer. Around 538 BC, the prophet Isaiah voiced a similar cry when he called on God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” This cry came as the first people whom Cyrus released from captivity in Babylon now returned to Jerusalem. Like a displaced family returning to their home after a horrific natural disaster, they knew what they would find but there was no way to prepare for it.
The people were shocked to see the city walls leveled, Solomon’s Temple torn to pieces, and their homes dismantled. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah cried. It was a similar lament as the psalmist had echoed three times in decades before as they headed toward captivity, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19).
There is something about desperation that brings to light our finiteness. People invoke God’s name all the time, but that doesn’t always equate to belief. In the face of mortality, however, words can quickly turn to belief to conviction to faith.
Last December a Harris Poll reported 74% of Americans believe in God. (http://www.harrisinteractive.com).
Yet it is one thing to believe and an entirely different matter to live that belief. Many would like the security of belief in God while keeping God’s interaction with their lives at an arm’s length. They echo the words of English poet Robert Browning that as long as “God is in heaven; all is right with the world” (Robert Browning, Pippa Passes).
God in heaven is just fine. God tearing open the heavens and entering into our daily lives is an altogether different matter. Yet this is precisely what Isaiah cried. The prophet knew something that most of the 74% fail to acknowledge—God’s desire is not to stay put in heaven. Our God wants to be intimately involved in our lives.
The prophet also knew that when God comes down to his people, “awesome deeds” happen; for example the giving of the Law (Exodus 19:20). Having returned to their homeland, the former exiles needed God to be intimately involved in their restoration.
That God was already with them they could be sure; the very fact their feet stood in Jerusalem and not Babylon was evidence of that. Still, they needed God to restore them from their present anguish. Isaiah is confident in God’s ability to do this for “no eye has seen any god” besides this God, “who works for those who wait for him.”
After an admission of God’s holiness and their sinfulness, Isaiah gives way to their utter dependence on God: “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” It was a cry of submission. It was a cry of need. It was a cry for God’s continued help. The people knew the work that lay before them was beyond their ability. Their desperate situation had reinforced their belief in Yahweh and now that belief had turned to conviction to faith. It would be God, and God alone, who would restore their lives.
Will Willimon says the hope found for the church in Advent is that we, like the exiles, are totally out of hope, and we know it! (Will Willimon, Going Against the Stream, www.religiononline.org). We’ve tried doing things on our own and it didn’t work out. We’ve learned nothing within us can save us. No president, no bomb, no new car, no white Christmas can save us. We cry with Isaiah for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Why? Because we need God to an awesome new thing in our lives; something that only God can do!
Fast forward to Mark’s Gospel. The people were looking for signs pointing to the Son of Man’s return. Jesus says about the day or hour no one knows. Even so, the people who heard those words thought it would happen in their lifetime. Obviously that wasn’t the case and after two thousand years we now know we’re here for the long haul. Maybe we’ve even moved on.
We greet predictions like the Mayan calendar or Harold Camping or even as far back as Y2K with a collective yawn. We no longer look for the “sun to be darkened” or the “moon not to give its light.” That’s the thing of it. We no longer look for God to do something new. Our faith has become complacent.
We pull out the same decorations, prepare the same recipes, and expect the same warm fuzzies watching It’s a Wonderful Life. And while none of that is inherently bad it doesn’t point to the newness of what God wants to do.
Our focus on the first Sunday of Advent is, as it is every year, forward not backward. It’s not that we ignore the birth of Jesus. We will get there soon enough. But what we anticipate today is far fresher than a babe lying in a manger—that’s been done already! We anticipate our coming King; you know, the grown man who rose from the grave and promises to return so that where he is we may be also (John 14:3).
Reynolds Price, in his book A Whole New Life, tells the story of his personal struggle with cancer. Diagnosed with a tumor running down the length of his spine, his lot in life was “six months to paraplegia, six months to quadriplegia, and six months to death.”
Lying in bed one morning about dawn he found himself watching the sunrise not in his bedroom but on the slope of Lake Kinnereth near the Sea of Galilee where he had visited twice before. Around him, lying in the grass, were Jesus’ twelve disciples still sleeping. He lay there for a while just looking across the shore.
Then one of the men woke and arose. It was Jesus and he started walking toward Price. He bent over and whispered into Price’s ear: “Follow me” and walked toward the lake. “I knew to shuck off my trousers and jacket,” Price says, “then my shirt and shorts. Bare, I followed him.” Waist deep in the water, Jesus scooped handfuls of water and poured them over his head and cancerous back. Then he spoke, saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” That was it. He turned, leaving Price with water running down his face and standing bare in the lake alone.
Price thought to himself: “But it’s not my sins I am worried about.” To Jesus’ receding back, Price yelled after him: “Am I also cured?” Jesus turned and faced him and said just two words: “That too.”
Price writes: “with no palpable seam in the texture of time or place, I was home again in my room.” Though he was back, he was not the same. He began, he says, “a whole new life” (Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life as told by Wayne Stacy in The Search).
Do you believe God still does new things? That God could do something new for you this Advent? You should. Because this is the God who doesn’t just bandage our hurts, but gives us an entirely new life.
This is the God who rescues exiles from captivity and gives them a new home.
This is the God who rolls in justice like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24).
This is the God who was, who is, but most importantly—because no other god can say so—is to come.
Thanks be to God!
About the writer: Jeffrey C. Hayes earned a BA in Religion from Furman University and a Master of Divinity from the M. Christopher White School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University. Presently he is enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at Gardner-Webb where his focus is on merging the themes of the Lectionary Year with annual church planning. Rev. Hayes has served churches in Greenville, Spartanburg, and Barnwell counties, all in South Carolina. He currently serves as Pastor for Calvary Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to spending enormous amounts of time with his newborn son and wonderful wife, he enjoys Furman football and a near-par round of golf.
Scripture and Music:
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The Advent of Our God
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming
Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Lo, How A Rose E er Blooming (Michael Praetorius)
Arise, Your Light Has Come (David Danner)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
Advent Alleluia (Douglas Wagner)
E en So Lord Jesus (Paul Manz)
Of the Father s Love Begotten (Paul Wohlgemuth)
There Shall A Star Come Out of Jacob (Mendelssohn)
Dona Nobis Pacem (Hal Hopson, Carl Nygard)
Come Peace of God (Eugene Butler)
Comfort Ye My People (Handel)
Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (Handel)
The Gift of Love (Domingo)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (Plainsong)