The first Sunday of Advent! A new church year. Coming off the craziness of Thanksgiving, it’s hard for me to be emotionally present in the start of the season. This week’s readings seem scattershot at first, but then I started to see some common threads that stand out to me. Most surprisingly, that our God is not like other gods. It’s almost like being in doctrine class. Anyway, I hope you might find something meaningful in my post for this week.
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! – Isaiah 64:1-2
The first reading, for the first Sunday of Advent. What a call for divine intercession! This Sunday begins a new year for the church, for all of us. Maybe we can begin again, to renew our walk with Christ. To reflect on living with a God who is not like other gods. And Advent is a season of questions. As the days grow short and darkness surrounds us, it’s natural to wonder where God is, in relation to us and our needs for today.
This passage comes from Isaiah, a huge book of extravagant visions and searing prophesies. Isaiah himself was a prophet active in the land of Judah (think Jerusalem and the Temple), in a time of great tension. Nothing unusual about that! Judah was busy selling itself out to Assyria, to survive attack by Israel and Damascus. I find this Thing between Israel and Judea fascinating. It seems like we tend to think of the Exodus and one body of God’s people – not thinking of God’s people split in two and waging major warfare upon each other. And the sellout – Judea walking right into servitude to Assyria. It’s all like a 50 car pile-up on the highway, and we’re watching the chaos and destruction happening in slow motion. Judea is reaching out to something not….. for them.
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. – Isaiah 64:3
Anyway, of course Isaiah is totally political – scathing warnings against reaching out to Assyria. But if we take a few steps back to get a better view, Isaiah’s larger themes dive into God’s plan for the whole world, and the holiness of God. This brings us back to us, and our Advent season here and now. In these shortened days, and growing darkness, what is God’s plan? Where has God’s light gone? Black Friday (appropriately named, no?) and the conspicuous consumerism of the holiday season tears away our attention. Our trees glow brightly with their LED bulbs, and big box stores light the night with their neon signs, and it’s like light pollution of the soul. Where has God’s light (i.e his plan) gone? Seems like we’re reaching out to something that gives meaning to the season that has some danger about it. Something not…. for us.
Before I say anything about God’s holiness, a few more details about the book of Isaiah. If you dig into what we believe about Isaiah, you’ll find that we think of Isaiah as having three parts. This passage comes from what’s known as Third Isaiah. Everything I’ve shared about Isaiah the prophet, the man, the time setting, sits within First Isaiah. Third Isaiah comes much later, after warfare, exile, and God’s people having come back to their promised land, if you can even call it that now. Obviously not written by Isaiah himself. Anyway, there’s the vision of a renewed Israel, and the hard reality of rebuilding out of desolation. And a people failing to live up to that vision. Can’t we understand their struggle in their own dark days? Justice, not fasting. Faithfulness, not works of violence. Repentance. Humility. Things that don’t seem to help us survive in a hard land. They were hung up on superficial rituals and traditions. Nothing deep or lasting. Maybe something that distracts from the hardness. Strings of holiday lights that brighten up the darkness.
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. – Isaiah 64:6
So, what about the holiness of God, then? When I read this passage from Third Isaiah, I see a huge proclamation – our God is not like other gods!
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. – Isaiah 64:4-5
The gods of Assyria, the gods of not Israel, were about appeasement. About favor. All for personal gain, and everyone else be damned. This God is about people doing right for others. Waging justice. Equality. Peace. The things that don’t seem to help us survive in a hard land. This God is different. This God is holy. We are all indicted. How could we not be, embedded in our systems and empires? Hard to imagine reaching out to those things that are not for us, and yet we do.
So, Advent dawns on us as we may find ourselves hell-bent on our holiday planning, shopping, decorating. Lighting our nights with tinsel and twinkle lights. Grabbing onto a lot of things that are great ways to distract ourselves from something deeper. Distracting ourselves from asking where God’s light has gone. The growing darkness of the season makes it especially meaningful to talk about God’s light. When our holiday plans fall apart, it’s time to ask ourselves “Is that really it? Is that all there is?” These distractions might seem to define the season, but they’re not for us. They’re for their own sake. For big box store profits. They are ubiquitous. Universal. But our God is not like other gods that surround us. Our God is for us, and for the people around us, and how we do right for them.
I feel moved to offer a prayer for the local community, where I see festivities and shoppers. May God’s light break through, to turn our minds to those around us. That the gift of our care, our time, our compassion, may shine God’s light in their own darkened days. That our God is not like the god of our festivities, and that we might worship Him instead.
God of light, as days grow short, as night lengthens, illumine our darkness. As our holidays grow festive and frantic, help us to not be taken over. Help us to let Your light break through, in us, to notice the struggles of those around us, to lend aid to them, that we might shine light into their own darkness.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Short passage! Abounding grace.
… in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end… God is faithful; – from 1 Corinthians 1:4-9
I picked some of the phrases that stood out to me. This passage seemed awfully generic after reading Isaiah. Not that grace can be understated, but why is this passage special for the beginning of Advent? If you dissect it a bit, there’s a phrase “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And “God is faithful.” These phrases seem to tie this reading to the advent of our Advent. If this is an in-between time for us, Christ resurrected but not yet come again, we wait. The calendar season’s decoration of growing darkness grows tension in this in-between time. In the tension, and mystery inherent in night, Paul reminds us that we have God’s faithfulness to cling to. Unlike so much, our God is faithful. And what other god invites us into a fellowship? When I see the news reports of People Behaving Badly in the stores, I don’t see fellowship among them as they pursue the god they share.
So, coming from the Isaiah reading, the talk of God strengthening, of God’s faithfulness, I’m again struck by the theme of our God being not like other gods. What does it mean to worship an unusual God? What does it mean to be different? To be unconventional? I’m moved to offer a prayer for utilities, of all things! Electricity. Water. Gas. The energy sources that seem so vital to our surviving the harshness of winter. In the theme of conspicuous consumerism and profit, and the theme of unconventional, what would it mean for a utility provider to see their meaning not in shareholder profit, but in caring for the human needs of those less fortunate among us, as the days grow bleaker?
Lord of faithfulness, you care for those who hunger, who suffer, who toil in difficulty. As weather begins to grow bleaker, as days grow harsher, be with those who provide us with heat and light, water and power, that they might extend compassion to those in need, offer dependable service for all people to thrive, and help them to reach those most in need of assistance.
This passage seems to bring out the theme of in-between time.
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. – Mark 13:28-31
But then, further on:
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. – Mark 13:32
This strikes me as a glimmer of the theme of our God not being like other gods. Because the Son doesn’t even know when the day will come. The Son, one in being with the Father, doesn’t know. How unusual is that for a powerful God? Does our God have multiple personality disorder? No, I think this serves to emphasize the mysteriousness of the second coming. Nothing we can do or say will hasten that day, nor can we have any insight into when it will happen – it will always remain a mystery to us. A favor that we most certainly cannot affect. Again, a God who is not about appeasement like other gods. A mystery, like the mysteriousness of night, and our nights are getting longer.
This passage inspires me to offer a prayer for the Church, that we can strive to offer a more effective message of hope for the world. Maybe we can use the elements of the season, darkness, harshness, to offer a more effective message of liberation from all things. Liberation from consumerism. Liberation from having to get it all just right. Especially in a holiday time so focused on appearances. That uncertainty is o.k. That not everything is under our control. And that ultimately, there is a hopefulness of a coming glory that will transform everything.
Spirit of mystery, we live in an in-between time, a time of waiting and wondering. Bless Your Church, that we might offer a meaningful and liberating message of hopefulness to the world, that we can live in uncertainty, not knowing what will be, and yet live in the hope of Your coming, to transform everything. Help us offer this message as liberation to the world.
So, I hope this week, you might be more aware of the meaning of Advent, and that it might be a time to start reflecting on where our attention seems to be focused. As we all rush and hurry to get everything done, let us be aware that there’s really no such thing, and that it’s completely o.k. Because that’s liberating. Because our God is not like the other gods that keep grabbing our minds. May you find some moments to reflect, and to find peace.