advent


God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.


[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

Advertisements

The link to the article read, “At Occupy Berkley, Beat Poets Has a New Meaning.”[1]  I was drawn in.  Robert Hass, the former Poet Laureate of the United States and professor at University of California, Berkley was the author of the article.  Hass describes the encounter between police and the students and faculty at UC Berkley who had joined the “Occupy” movement protest.  UC Berkley is usually associated with “liberal hippies.” One conjures images in his or her mind of the flower children placing daisies in the barrel of a soldier’s gun.   The scene Hass describes in article looks very different from this image. Hass had heard from a colleague that earlier in the day the police had moved into to take down the Occupy tents, and that they had been “beaten viciously.”  Hass couldn’t believe this, certainly not at UC Berkely.  So, when he heard the police had returned, he and his wife went to campus.   I read on, and I’ll share with you some of what I read:

My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down….My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines…

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.[2]

I was…I am…horrified.  Regardless of what you may think of the Occupy Movement, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of concerned citizens getting together to take action and protest, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of riff raff who have no business occupying these places, this is horrifying. What has happened to us, I thought, when peaceful protesters receive beatings?  What has happened to us, I thought, when a Wordsworth scholar is dragged across the grass by her hair?

Robert Hass’ account, and similar accounts and videos, of persons being viciously beaten in the midst of peaceful protest are almost too much to take at times.   It is important as I say this to not demonize all police offers in the midst of this, as many of them are in difficult positions.  Yet, Hass’ account is still frightening and disturbing.  As we struggle with lost jobs, as we struggle with broken families, as we struggle with turmoil and violence in the world, as we struggle with injustice, as we struggle with fear of those who are different than us, it is almost too much to take.  It is overwhelming.  It is often wholly depressing.  And, as people of faith, we begin to wonder, “When is God going to do something about this?”

That is how Isaiah felt, I think, when he wrote the lament we encounter this morning.  Isaiah is in the midst of a lament that began back in chapter 63, verse 7.  Isaiah has been recounting the deeds that God has done in the past, mighty deeds, such as the Exodus, and parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through.   As Isaiah writes, the Israelites are a people who have been conquered by Babylon.  The temple is in ruins.[3]  “Where,” Isaiah asks, “is this Exodus God?”  “Where is this sea-parting God?” And so Isaiah cries out,

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!

 Yet, this God seems nowhere to be found. This God who “did awesome deeds we did not expect” is hidden.  Isaiah, and the people of Israel feel abandoned.  God has apparently hidden God’s self from them as a result of their sin.  But Isaiah isn’t going to let God off of the hook that easily.  He goes so far as to say that God’s hiding has actually caused Israel to transgress further!  “Because you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (64.5) Isaiah is essentially saying, “I know that we have sinned, but we are inextricably bound to one another.  We have sinned more because You have hidden Yourself!” This is not to blame God or let Israel off the hook; rather, it is to move God to action for the sake of God’s chosen people.[4]

As I read that article, I got that kind of “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” feeling for which Isaiah cries out.  Such frustration.  Such sadness.  Welcome to Advent.  Advent begins with a lament.  It begins with a cry.  It begins with a sober look at the state of things.   It doesn’t begin with Black Friday.  It doesn’t begin with the easy listening stations playing Christmas music.  It doesn’t even begin with Thanksgiving.  It begins with a cry of lament.  Why, you may ask, Alan do you think it is your job to constantly try to bum us out when we are trying to enjoy the holidays?  I don’t think actually believe that is my job.  My job, rather, is one of pointing.  It is of pointing to where God would direct our hearts during Advent.  And to begin with, God draws us to lament.  To begin with lament is not to begin a long series of Advent bummers.  Rather, to begin with lament is to begin at the beginning.

Lamenting is different than complaining.  If you look at the Psalms of lament, or the laments in the prophets such as the one we encounter this morning they are not simply complaining.  It is not simply a whining for God to solve all of our problems.  As biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann points out, lament is the beginning of hope.[5]  We can only hope when we have a clear sense of what is wrong.  We can only hope when we have properly lamented the brokenness that we see all around us.  We can only be clear about that for which we hope when we are clear about what has broken and hearts and drawn us to lament.

We can only know that for which we are hoping when we have seen so clearly what is wrong that we begin to demand that God do something about it.  A lament that moves towards hope is different that complaining that leads to wishing.  The difference between a wish and a hope is that hope is certain.  This is Isaiah’s disposition.  He recounts the deeds that God has done because he is certain that God is still there.  Indeed, even as Isaiah laments God’s absence, he returns to the sureness that God has not finally abandoned Israel:

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 for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Even as Isaiah laments God’s hiddenness, notice the intimate imagery he continues to ascribe to God.  He calls God Father.  He calls God the pottery, and Israel are the clay.  The people of Israel and God still belong to each other because they are in a familial relationship.  They are tied to each because God gives them their shape as a people.[6]  While apparently hidden, God is still present.  Even though Isaiah cannot perceive God’s presence, he speaks with hopeful words because he is certain that God will still act.

This is Advent.  Only after have we had perceived the depth of the brokenness, the depth of the sins personal and structural, the depth of our needs, can we perceive clearly the hope we are approaching in Advent.  Christ did not come to make things more awesome in a world that was already awesome.  Christ entered into a world where the poor need good news, captives need release, the blind need sight, and the oppressed need freedom.  And, as we will see, he entered into that world in poverty and a refugee from genocide at the hands of his government.  Christ came into a world that had been crying out for him for hundreds of years to be God’s decisive answer to the brokenness that the has a seeming strangle hold on the cosmos.

And so, in Advent, we enter into the discipline of patience.  We enter into the practice of looking around at the world, at all the places and people that desperately cry out for God to tear open the heavens, and we join them in solidarity.  To wait in this way is not to sit on our hands and do nothing.  Rather, as one commentator says, “It is a tensive waiting charge with the pathos of lament and conjoined with the joy of remembrance and the anticipation of praise.”[7]  To wait during Advent is not to bum ourselves out, but it is let the anticipation of Christ’s coming to swell in our hearts and minds as we prepare the way of the Lord.  It is, a “passionate patience.”[8]  And as we enter into the disciple of passionate patience, we will resist the temptation around us to look at ourselves and what we think we deserve for Christmas, and we will look outward to others, who are feeling that “God would tear open the heavens and help us” kind of feeling.  This week through the angel tree. Next week through Society of St. Andrew alternative gift-giving, the next week through bringing food for DAWN, and the final week of Advent through packing meals with Stop Hunger Now.

The hope, as we move forward in our passionate patience, is that we will encounter more clearly the one through whom God tears open the heavens.  Except that we don’t see lightning and shaking of mountains.[9]   Rather, the tearing of the heavens comes as the God of the universe takes on flesh and blood and becomes one of us.  The God who Isaiah sees as hidden remains hidden because not all recognize the God who has become one of us so that we might become like God.  This one who came, who did not “do something” about was wrong with the world through violence.  Rather, he “did something” by serving and offering himself up to die.

This is the one who reveals God’s power that is made perfect in weakness is the one in whom our hope certainly rests.  This one who invites both police and protesters into one family.  It is this one for whom we wait to come again.  It is this one who we heard about last week who makes it clear what our conduct should look like in the mean time.  It is he who tells us in our Gospel passage to “Stay awake!” as we swell with that passionate patience for the culmination of the kingdom.  And so, regardless of what you think about the Occupy movement, I invite you in these moments to Occupy Advent.


[1] Robert Hass, “Poet-Bashing Police” New York Times Online http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/opinion/sunday/at-occupy-berkeley-beat-poets-has-new-meaning.html, cited. Nov. 27, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1,  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 3.

[4] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984), p. 52

[6] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[7] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 5-6.