A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • ©2020 All Rights Reserved
First Sunday in Advent/B • November 29, 2020
Isaiah 64:1-9 • Mark 13:24-37
One day last summer, when Jacquelyn and I were on vacation, we got up to a beautiful day that seemed to promise the plans we made would be perfect. The sun was out but it wasn’t too hot, there was a nice breeze blowing, we were rested and ready to enjoy the day. We were staying at a friend’s house, so we packed up, cleaned the kitchen, left a little thank you note and went out to the car, impatient to get started. I turned the key as we talked and…nothing. Not the sound of the engine, not even a click. I thought I’d done something wrong, so I did what we all do, I tried again; still nothing. No horn; no lights—the battery was dead. Over the next three hours or so, we called for help, got a new battery, he weather worsened and by noon, when we finally got the car going, we were two tired, disappointed people. I guess we’ve all been disappointed at one time or another. We hoped something, we wanted something, we looked forward to something and it didn’t happen. What do you do when things fall apart?
I usually try to begin sermons with a positive illustration but these scripture readings today are from disappointed people. So it’s important for us to remember our disappointment. Both these stories are stories of disappointed, dispirited people; both these readings have a background of hope denied, delayed, destroyed. Today, in a time when we all face fears and sometimes feel overwhelmed, it’s important to learn from them. They found hope even as they lamented—and so we can we.
Isaiah is speaking to a people who have the spiritual equivalent of my experience with the car. A century before, they had been defeated, exiled, lost hope in God’s power to save them. Then they began to hope again; they learned to sing the Lord’s song in foreign lands, they learned God was bigger than they had imagined. They looked forward to a time when God would save them and return them to their home.
Now that time has come and many have returned to Jerusalem after a long exile. But the vibrant, hopeful, inspired community they had expected God to create hasn’t happened. They’ve returned to ruins; they’ve camped out in their despair. And so we hear this lament, this cry for God to come to them as God came in the past.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
They’ve failed at going to God and now they are remembering that their inspiration wasn’t their own doing. They remember the wilderness, they remember how God saved them at the Reed Sea and they begin to understand that what’s needed isn’t something they can do: they beg God to come to them.
Our culture glorifies our efforts. From the basic story of someone working hard and making good to the spiritual version of getting saved by giving your life to Jesus, going to church, pledging gifts, all of it is about what we do, what we achieve. But the stark reality in the midst of despair is that the prophet tells us it isn’t our effort that makes a difference; it’s God’s. They want God to come to them: “tear open the heavens and come down”. Isn’t that the ultimate cry of all our hearts?—that having come as far as we can, God will come to us, enfold us, save us.
One writer has shared a personal experience of this.
When my son, Christopher, was a boy, I took him to Toys-R-Us, and he got detached from me.
Christopher being my first child, my fatherly instincts caused me to panic. Yet, because I could see the doors, I knew that he had not exited the building. I paced up one corridor and down another… around a corridor… around another aisle… peeping… looking to find him amidst a crowd of people in the Christmas rush – but I could not find my son. I found a security guard and asked him, “Do you have surveillance in the store?” He said, “Yes.” I then asked, “Do you have a monitor?” “Yes.” “Can I look at the monitor?” “Yes.” “Can you scan the floor?” “Yes.”
The guard began to scan up and down the aisles, and there I saw my son, surrounded by toys, yet crying. He was clearly in a state of panic. My son was all by himself among people he did not know. My son was feeling lost and alone, and I did not know what to do. I asked the guard, “Do you have an intercom?” He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Keep the camera on him.” Then I got on the intercom and said, “Christopher.” My son looked around because he recognized my voice. I continued, “Stay where you are.” He started looking around. “It’s Daddy,” I said. “Don’t move. I see you although you can’t see me. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”
That’s what this lament hopes. It imagines us sitting and crying and hoping God will come find us. It’s no accident that the prophet goes on to see the solution to despair in God remembering who we are: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
That’s the spirit of Advent and that’s the hope of Advent: that God is coming, no matter how lost we feel, now matter how absent God feels. The Gospel of Mark was written for people who faced persecution, wars and a dark disappointment that everything they had hoped was in vain because Jesus hadn’t come on their schedule. Jesus imagines a violent time, a world ending time, and they says in such moments, “Keep awake.” Why keep awake? Because God is coming—and we don’t want to miss the moment. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard several parables that lift this theme as well: hope isn’t about what you see, it’s what you can’t see but believe. Keep awake: God is coming, tearing open heaven, coming into the world.
Why is staying awake so important? Because of something Isaiah says: “…you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down…” God’s coming is a surprise. Abram wasn’t looking for God when God found him. Moses wasn’t looking for a life mission when he went to look at burning bush. Jesus didn’t come and do what people expected of the Messiah. God’s coming always surprises, never fulfills our expectations because our expectations aren’t big enough, creative enough. I’ve spent most of my life working in churches and what I’ve seen, what I know, is that we never imagined big enough, never thought big enough. We were so busy making sure we sang familiar hymns, we often missed the chance to praise God in new ways. We were so busy doing what we’d always done, we often didn’t hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” [Isaiah 43:19] So we missed it.
Advent is a time to wake up and wait. Do those sound like opposites? They aren’t, they are the bedrock of spiritual life. Think of the lost child in the story: the child hears the father’s voice, and may want to run toward it. But what’s important is for that child to stay right there, wait right there, so the father can come and to watch for the father. That’s Isaiah’s message: hope because like a father coming to a lost child, God is coming to us. That’s Jesus’ message: hope because if you stay awake, God will send messengers—angels—to help you. That should be the inspiration of this time: hope because God is coming.
What do we do with this hope? What do we do while we wait? Listen, watch and one more thing: let God out. Isaiah pleaded for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Today, our problem isn’t the forbidding height of heaven, it is the boxes in which we’ve enclosed God. Let God out! Let God come into our whole lives, the life of our church, the lives we live at home, the life we live when no one is looking.
This is a moment pregnant with possibility. Over the last few days, we’ve been doing something at our house you may have experienced. We brought the Christmas decorations down from the attic, we’ve unboxed them. They haven’t changed; they were there all the time. But the joy of their beauty was put away, the inspiration of their presence wasn’t visible. One by one as they are put out, they bring memories of hope, memories of love, memories of what has sustained us through times of despair and happiness.
It’s the same with God. Let God out! Stay awake: this is a time when God can come at any moment. Stay awake and you might hear the sound of the heavens tearing open, and a baby crying as he’s born.