Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent
You may remember when I started preaching with you I said I wanted to help us listen for the voice of God in the Scriptures from the lectionary. I cannot avoid how pointedly Isaiah 64:1-9 speaks to this week’s events that spread from Ferguson, MO across the whole country. When brought up alongside Mark 13:24-37, I believe I am hearing that when we are threatened by our fears and cry out for God to intervene, we must listen for God to call us as partners in the unexpected.
Ferguson, MO is neither isolated nor remote. Whether you are angry about violence against young Black men or rioters in the streets, we ought to be crying out to God to tear open the heavens and come down and fix our mess, realizing that God’s fire burns our brushwood and boils our water, not just that of those with whom we are angry.
Verses 5-7 acknowledge what we want to avoid facing, that we are angry that God has not taken up our cause. This complaint blames God for hiding from us and delivering us into the hand of our own iniquity.
Verse 9 ends this passage with a cry for God to be merciful, for we are all God’s people. In light of racial tensions and other polarizing forces, the cry for God’s mercy is also a plea for reconciliation and unity, for we are all God’s people by creation even if not by faith.
I suspect we don’t cry out to God for mercy because we don’t know what we’ll get. As verse 3 says, God’s awesome deeds were not what was expected. In Mark 13, Jesus was preparing for the unexpected, which he concludes in verses 24-37.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Isaiah wrote of trembling nations and quaking mountains. Jesus spoke of suffering and shaking of the powers in the heavens. People in Ferguson, MO felt like that Monday night, and Christians in Iraq and Syria know it all too well.
Jesus told us to keep awake for we do not know when he will come, apparently he didn’t either (v.32). Don’t calculate his calendar for appearing with catastrophes.
To be alert and awake when we are threatened by our fears and cry out for God to intervene, we must listen for God to call us as partners in the unexpected.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow Norm! This is awfully heavy duty for the First Sunday of Advent when we’re just starting to get in the Christmas spirit.” Perhaps, but Advent is not Christmas, regardless of what the advertisers try to tell us.
As both our hymns and Scriptures for today make clear, Advent is a season for acknowledging how much we need a redeemer, how much we need God to tear open the heavens and come down with fire to shake us up. Whether the violence of Ferguson, MO or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the drug cartels in Latin America, we know how desperately we need the Prince of Peace!
The theme of the First Sunday of Advent is hope. We begin our Advent journey reminded that all is not lost. We are waiting for Jesus to appear in great power and glory, just as God’s people waited for centuries for the Messiah. So Advent is about hopeful waiting, not for the end of exhausting festivities so we can get “back to normal after Christmas.” Rather Advent is anticipating celebrating that God joined us in human flesh when Jesus was born, sharpening our awareness of wonder and hope through Christmas and his revelation to the world at Epiphany.
Advent is countercultural. Instead of instant gratification, Advent prompts us to savor waiting and watching for a deeper satisfaction. Advent takes us beyond the futile efforts to define the “true meaning of the season” without Jesus, to join God’s people through the ages who have cried out to God to tear open the heavens and come down.
Advent insists that when you are threatened by your fears and cry out for God to intervene, you must listen for God to call you as a partner in the unexpected. To what unexpected is God calling you this Advent?
This week we can’t avoid God’s call to be Christ’s agents of justice and compassion. Even with all the food, holiday gathering conversation this year will get around to Ferguson. Ask God how you can speak an unexpected, reconciling word rather than adding to polarization. I suggest this very challenging thought: Real dialog can begin when we can understand why something that seems reprehensible to us seems reasonable to someone else.
As incongruous as it may seem, I believe this approach to Advent speaks powerfully to your interim journey between pastors. O Little Town of Bethlehem says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Advent invites you to articulate where your hopes and fears for the future of Highlands Christian Church meet. Then, cry out to God to tear open heaven and come down with fire to make you a partner in God’s unexpected.
One of my life axioms is that when we respond out of fear we almost always make the wrong choice. This Advent, speak your personal, most threatening fears and listen for God to call you to partnership in the unexpected. Keep awake and watch for God to surprise you as this season moves you toward Christmas.