Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Advent in Miniature: a sermon (Isaiah 64: 1 - 9)

In many ways, there is frequently a certain confusion to our celebrations of Advent within the Christian church.
  • For some of us, caught up in the frantic pre-Christmas busyness of our wider community, our faith life mirrors this busyness. Advent becomes merely a series of carol services and nativity plays.
  • For others of us, some churches try to make Advent so austere, so solemn, so penitential, … almost so Lenten … that there is no sense that the joy of Christmas will soon follow. For example, there are some congregations where you’ll never hear a single Christmas carol until Christmas Eve.
Given that these two conflicting tendencies – and the resulting confusion - co-exist within denominations, congregations, families, and even within some individuals. I believe that Advent can well be regarded as a season in search of a theology.

But there is a rhythm to Advent, a rhythm that we see in the pattern of our four Sundays of Advent. This pattern is seen in our lesson from Isaiah. From the 64th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, verses one through nine, we read:
 
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.  (Isaiah 64:1-9, NRSV)
 
Now, I have to make a brief note of caution here. Whenever we read a Christian meaning into an Old Testament text, we need to remember that these writings were first written in a Jewish context, rather than a Christian one. 
  • The Christian meaning of any Old Testament text is not the only meaning of the text.
  • Neither is the Christian meaning of an Old Testament text the original meaning of the text.
  • The Jewish meaning of any Old Testament text must always be regarded as the text’s original meaning. 
  • Christians have no right to impose the Christian meaning of any Old Testament text upon Jewish people.
  • While it is legitimate for Christians to read a Christian meaning into an Old Testament text, it must always be seen as a creative re-interpretation of the text, sitting alongside the text’s original – and primary - Jewish meaning. 
Nevertheless, this text reflects the rhythm of Advent as the Christian church observes Advent. Thus, it’s a good text for us in our Advent celebrations.

1.   The reading begins with the words:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down
so that the mountains would quake at your presence …
… so that the nations might tremble at your presence.
(Isaiah 64:1, 2b, NRSV)

This expresses the profound hope – held by many people of faith – that God will sometime intervene decisively and dramatically in human history.
  • For Jews at the time of Jesus – and for Orthodox Jews since then – this was a hope for a Messiah.
  • For many Christians, this hope was traditionally expressed in a hope for the second coming of Jesus.
For many other people of faith:
  • for many Christians who do not take the Second Coming literally,
  • for Jews outside the Orthodox communities,
  • and for others;
for many people of faith this hope can be seen as an expectation of the reign of God -- as the profound hope for that time (in God’s good time) when God’s values of peace and justice, of love and mercy; of generosity, hospitality, and integrity will become the governing principles of human life. 

Traditionally, Christians have called this inbreaking reign of God the “Kingdom of God”. Some Jews have called this reign the “Messianic Era”. Throughout the gospels, this inbreaking reign of God – this “Kingdom of God” – was the great governing theme of Jesus’ own teaching.

This profound hope – however we express it – this profound hope of God’s decisive intervention in human history is the theme of the First Sunday of Advent.

2.   But then, on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, we move from this sense of expectation and hope and we encounter John the Baptist and his austere message of repentance. John’s austere message echoes much of what we hear in this passage:

We have all become like one who is unclean …
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name …
(Isaiah 64:6a, 6c-7a, NRSV)

And this in-your-face message of confrontation was the same message adopted by John the Baptist. And for the two weeks in the middle of Advent, this is also the message of Advent. 

Perhaps the fact that we spend the middle two weeks of Advent on the receiving end of John the Baptist may well be one reason why these weeks are also the prime time for many churches to have carol services and children’s nativity plays. (It’s very easy to feel that we've overdosed on John the Baptist.)

3.   And then, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we move away from confrontation and hear of examples of hope-building. Mary and Joseph step out in faith and in radical obedience to be God’s hope-bearers in the midst of the world, allowing themselves to be shaped and re-shaped by God.

And this radical obedience and this willingness to be re-shaped by God also echoes language from this lesson:

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter;
We are all the work of your hand.
(Isaiah 64:8, NRSV)

And it in is this willingness to be shaped and re-shaped by God, in which we find Mary and Joseph enabling the arrival of the infant Jesus into the midst of the world.

4.   And that arrival is profound good news for all people. In Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, we hear the angel telling the shepherds that this birth was “good news of great joy to all the people” – not “good news of great joy to some of the people” but “good news of great joy to all the people”:
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly religious people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly moral people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly intelligent people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to particularly nice people”,
  • not just “good news of great joy to people of a particular racial, national, cultural, socio-economic, political, or denominational demographic”,
but “good news of great joy to all the people”. 

And this message is also an echo of words from this passage. As we hear the writer address God: “Now consider, we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:9b, NRSV).

So, in this single passage, we have a quick overview, perhaps a quick tour, of the whole of our Advent pilgrimage. In a sense, we have Advent in miniature, moving from the general hope of all people of faith for God to dramatically intervene in human history to the celebration of “good news of great joy to all the people” that we find in the story of Jesus’ birth.

And may this Advent pilgrimage be a time for us all to experience God’s closer presence, now and always.

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