How jarring it is to hear this doom and gloom from both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus in today’s Scripture readings. This is supposed to be a season of splendor and hope and all things happy. We want to see carolers and reindeer and snow and a jolly old elf/4th-Century saint and Nativity scenes on lawns and mantles. We want to hear talk of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, of peace, and joy and love. We want to have that warm feeling the weather will not provide, that anxious excitement that waiting for a baby always provides. And yet… What we hear about is a God who has kept distant because of the sin of the people and an ominous monologue from Jesus about not knowing the day or the time when he will reappear, but it doesn't sound like it will be during a relaxing picnic on the beach. That’s not what we want on this First Sunday of Advent. As the great 20th Century English prophet Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
I contend that we need these passages of Scripture today, of all days, this year, of all years. We need to hear of a God who has not left us, but from whom we have wandered so far that we are unsure of exactly which way to turn to seek God out. Isaiah is appealing to God on behalf of God’s people Israel. We are near the end of the book of Isaiah, when the people are still in exile. Their hope is fading as they realize that maybe all those prophets might have been correct about the coming of God’s wrath. They are convinced that God’s back has been turned on them. And yet the prophet calls upon God to remember mighty works of the past, when God spoke and mountains trembled. However disorienting the exile of their sin and guilt is, Israel, through the writer of Isaiah remembers the grace and power of God, remembers the forgiveness of God, remembers the greatness of God. Now that they cannot take God’s presence for granted, they are, as a people, doing all they can to remember God in every action they take.
In a similar way, Jesus’ hearers in Mark’s Gospel are an occupied people. Unlike Isaiah’s crowd, they are at least in their home and not in a distant, foreign land. The distant, foreign land has come to rule them. Historians debate how rough life was for those in Israel during Roman occupation, but they tend to agree that the poor had very little, and the wealthy only had their wealth because it pleased Rome. No one escaped the oppressive taxes of Rome, and Jesus was just one of many ‘would-be’ Messiah’s of his time. (The big difference is that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. He let others do that for him. Other men who touted their own messiah-ship often found themselves on the wrong end of a Roman garrison.) But Jesus hearers and followers were waiting for someone to bring back the reign of God and cast out the Roman swine once and for all. But Jesus is talking about something different to his disciples. Yes, there will be insurrections. Yes, there will be things that look like the end is near. Yes, things are not going to be great from time to time. But that won’t be the sign that things are coming to an end. And guess what, he says, it’s not for you to know. Jesus says that even he doesn't know when he will return. That is only for God to know. Jesus urges his hearers, then and now, to live as if this return is just around the corner, not in some far off distance. One commentator wrote, “we are to be more like a waiter who is continually busy serving others and has no time to sit down and count our tips.”
The season of Advent is not about waiting for the birth of Jesus, but for the return of Jesus. We already know, as much as we can, what that first arrival was like. We do not know what that second arrival will be like, nor are we really supposed to know I think. The season of Advent is about preparation for God’s kingdom on earth, something we pray for each time we say the prayer Jesus taught his followers. This holy season calls us to look beyond ourselves and beyond the secular holiday to see how exactly it is we can serve others, and thereby serve God.
At the same time that we wait for the return of Christ into the world, we are challenged to see the places where Christ already is. It’s this theological murkiness known as the “Already and Not Yet.” That Christ is already in the world, but we do not yet see him as we should. Jesus has provided the means for us to already be in relationship with him, we do not yet live in complete harmony with God and our neighbor. The realm of God is already present, but that realm is not yet fully established.
While this imagery can be jarring on this first Sunday of Advent, imagery of a God whose back has been turned on us and a Messiah who will return in some mysterious and thunderous way, we find comfort in Isaiah’s words as he reminds us not of the faithlessness of humanity, but the faithfulness of God.
“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,” he writes.
In the uncertainty of life, we can find comfort in the promise of Jesus that heaven and earth will fade away, but his words will not.
We take comfort knowing that the hands and feet and voice of Jesus are still working in this world because God has not, and will not, left us. The people of God, here in New Bern and around the world, are still caring for each other as Jesus called us to do. We are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. Whether it is in the massive response to the needs of Migrant Farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina or the unsung heroes who are taking on the challenges and opportunities for healing and reconciliation in Ferguson, Missouri, Christ is working in and through the people of God. Our job is to recognize it and name it for what it is: Christ alive in the world today.
Our prayer for Advent is that God will break into the ordinary of our everyday lives, even, maybe, hopefully, through us. That we can be the presence of Jesus in this broken and wounded world. That if this season is going to be about Emmanuel, peace, and joy, and hope, those things have to come from us and Christ working in and through us, especially as we work to help those who have less than we do, whether that “less than” is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Our prayer is that the Holy breaks into the Daily so that we can be reminded and remind others of the holiness and faithfulness of God.