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. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then 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.
“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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It 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. Therefore, 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
He looked around and saw a world turned upside down. Living under a government that had taken away people’s rights, their freedoms, their wealth. Every day the news chronicled yet another way that things were going wrong, and every day he thought this was rock bottom, things couldn’t get any worse, and yet, every day, they did. People were filled with uncertainty and dread, and coming to believe that things would never get any better, they lived their lives in the hell of lost hope.
That was what the prophet Isaiah saw as he and his fellow countrymen were living in exile as slaves serving the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Jerusalem and Judea, destroying the Temple and life as the Judeans had known it. They had believed that in a very real and special way, God dwelled in that Temple, and the only way the Babylonians could have captured and destroyed it, they felt, would have been if God had left the Temple, abandoning them to the Babylonians – and if that was the case, then what hope was left? Many of the Judeans were angry at God. Many of them gave up believing that God had ever existed and been present at all. No all-powerful and loving God would have ever let something like this happen.
That was the situation that prompted Isaiah to write the words we heard this morning, calling, begging, even demanding that God return and save them – and to do it in a big, dramatic, decisive way. Shock and awe. Earthquakes, fire, nations trembling in fear; make sure there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that the good people would be vindicated and the bad ones punished. God, if you really exist, come down here and set things right.
Today, we start the journey of Advent, week by week considering a different aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and the incoming of God into our world and our human existence. This morning, we think about the particular aspect of the hope that Jesus’ birth offers. Hope is essential to us. It’s the water that sustains our roots; without it, our life itself withers and dies. In the facing of the biggest challenges and setbacks, when people were the most discouraged, the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk used to say “You’ve got to give ‘em hope!” because he knew that without it, everything was lost, and he was right.
Hope is what makes it possible to see past the hard realities and setbacks of the present, to the goodness that can, and will, eventually follow. And it’s hope that enables us to somehow see God in the midst of all of it.
Many times, when we’re struggling to have hope for something better than our present, for things to be set right, just like Isaiah, we want God to come with a big, bold show of force, something that won’t leave any doubt about what’s going on – something like a literal playing out of the words Jesus uses to describe his return, the end of the age, in today’s gospel lesson. Darkened skies, clouds rolling back, ominous events better than any Hollywood special effects team could come up with. However each of us imagines that culmination of this age, we have to realize that in some way, literal or otherwise, what Jesus describes is going to happen eventually, and because of that we can have hope.
He sat in the assisted living center that he’d been living in for the past couple of years. All of his life he’d been in control of his own life. He’d always been on the go, physically and mentally. Now, he spent his days in this little shoebox of a mini-apartment, and it might as well have been a real shoebox – he felt as if someone had just put him up on a shelf in a stockroom, out of the normal flow of daily life, left there and largely forgotten. His physical abilities had definitely declined, but mentally he was as sharp as ever, and it made his furious when the staff, and just as often, his family and friends, talked at him – and it was *at* him, almost never actually *with* him – they treated him as if he were a helpless little child. The whole system seemed to be designed to strip away every shred of human dignity he had left. And at some point almost every day, the prayer entered his mind: “God, where are you? Do you even exist at all? I want to have hope, but right now I’m so mad at you that I wonder if you are even there, or if I’ve just been wasting my breath all these years. I deserve better than this! God, if you really exist, come set things right.”
In Jesus’ birth, God has come to set things right. In his birth, we see that God loves us so much that God actually chooses to live among us, as one of us – knowing all of our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, suffering, and eventually, while on the cross, even experiencing the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, and the hopelessness that comes along with it. Understanding this about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allows us to know that when we experience the same things, God hasn’t abandoned us any more than Jesus was abandoned. And that just as God vindicated Jesus through his resurrection, God will vindicate us, too. Looking at Jesus’ birth, and everything that followed, we can be assured, and have hope, because we can know that even in our darkest moments, God hasn’t abandoned us at all, but is actually right there in the midst of those moments right alongside us.
In Jesus’ birth, God entered the world not in the dramatic way that Isaiah wanted, or the way that we might want intervention today, or the way that people often imagine Jesus’ return. Instead of shock and awe, when that intervention actually happened, God appeared humbly, in the middle of nowhere, out of the spotlight, born to nobody parents that the world would consider losers; not with trumpets blaring and riding in on clouds of glory, but with sheep bleating and lying helplessly in hay in a manger surrounded by animal manure. The thundering voice of God now the frightened whimper of a newborn.
Maybe entering the world this way actually makes it easier for us to find hope, because now we know that we can find God in the everyday. We can find the face of Christ in the face of anyone, without having to wait to see him in the clouds, in the sweet by-and-by. We can find the love of God in the love we receive, and give, to one another.
In Mark’s gospel lesson today, Jesus doesn’t tell us why we, or he himself, would have to endure hardship and suffering, and why God wouldn’t spare us from it before the culmination of all things. He just promises that whatever the actual details of it happening, when it’s all said and done, it really will be all said and done. Things will be set right. And it will be good, and just, and peaceful, and loving, and reconciled, and it will be forever. And it all starts to unfold with the birth of a child in a stable. And whenever and however it does finally come to completion, it will be so dramatic and different that people will understand it as being a time when the current heaven and earth actually passed away. Speaking just for myself, that will be all the shock and awe I’ll need.
Thanks be to God.