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Advent I, Common Lectionary year B

What are we waiting for?
(Isaiah 64:1-9)

Audio version

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

What a day!
Did you know the first Sunday of Advent is actually
the first day of the year in the Christian Calendar?
Like any New Year’s day, it’s a great day for new beginnings –
a great day to choose to welcome babies and adults
into the family of faith.
My heart is full at these signs of hope, and newness in our midst!
It’s been a crazy week of preparation, but so hope-filled, it’s been fun.

But I always feel flat-footed this time of year,
never quite ready, despite all the buzzes and reminders,
on lectionary websites, calendars, clergy mailings,
and the flurry of activity in the sanctuary to change the banners,
set up the wreath,
and those Coffee House singers on Friday – who must have been practising to be ready for that wonderful evening!

Perhaps I’m not the only one who rushes breathless into today,
startled that “it’s here, ready or not!”
Perhaps I’m not the only one who trudges through November
resisting the trappings of Christmas that appeared overnight,
even before the candle wax had dried in our hallowe’en pumpkins!
And perhaps I’m not the only one who’s a little confused over
just what “it” is that I’m barely ready for?

What are we waiting for, preparing for?
What is this Advent?
What is the point of all this tinsel,
and red, and evergreen and sleighbells?
What are we waiting for?
And will “it” be all it’s cracked up to be?
Will “it” meet the expectations of marketplace or of heart?

Inside the malls, and inside the church we seem to be
all watching and waiting for something,
but, I’m pretty sure that we’re not all waiting
or hoping for the same thing,
despite the attempts, inside the Malls,
and inside the Churches,
to tell us we are.

The mall says “The most wonderful time of the year”
can be created with just the right purchases,
just the right ring tone on the smart phone,
just the right car that will drive us to that perfect family reunion,
decked out with lights, the scent of turkey and evergreen,
the next best perfume from Gucci,
and the jaw-dropping “perfect gift.”
And we know it isn’t so…..
Dreams of sugarplums rarely come true, despite our best efforts,
but we do it anyway, hoping against hope.
The church says….. well, what does it say these days?
Some churches will decry all the commercialism of Christmas,
will put up banners saying “Jesus is the reason for the season”
and will replace those impossible consumerist expectations
with equally impossible spiritual ones
– advent services, advent studies,
rigorous singing of Advent (not Christmas) hymns,
and perhaps even a few haranguing sermons reminding us
that Jesus was a refugee baby born to an unwed mother
in a cow barn,
and he will change your life,
if you let him into your heart.

And here we all are,
caught in the expectations and hopes of both those worlds,
sifting through the wrapping paper
to find what it is we’re waiting for.
No wonder it’s confusing.
Overwhelming, even,
and for some, dreadworthy.
Because whatever it is we’re waiting for
will have to meet the challenges of our real world,
in here, and out there.

And finally this is where that dark reading from Isaiah comes in.
Unlike Paul who is doing a bang up advertising job
declaring the best of all possible worlds,
that we have it all together,
that God has given us every perfect gift to keep us holy and perfect
while we’re rushing through Advent to Christmas,
or through life towards heaven,
Isaiah’s is the lone honest voice in the room.

He comes into our Advent Sunday,
our newness and hopefulness
with a lamentation for a world
that’s not meeting expectations,
and more to the point, a God who is not meeting expectations either.

In Isaiah’s world, an entire nation has lived for a generation
on Obama-like audacious hopes of a changed world order,
a time when God will lead them home from exile,
back to the golden city on a hilltop – Jerusalem –
there to worship God, and live off milk and honey,
pomegranates and olives, and wine,
and an abundance of meat and wheat.
God the restorer of the fortunes of Zion,
the shepherd folding her sheep once more in safety and plenty.

Only it didn’t pan out quite like that.
The city was a crumbled crater of ash and ruin,
the vineyards were flattened, olive groves burned,
the fields a mess of weeds,
trampled flat by defeated armies,
the economy is in tatters, the houses have no roofs,
and the temple is gone,
God has apparently vacated the premises.

The perfection of promises rarely pans out as we hope.
TV or prophetic visions of the perfect world
bear little resemblance to their or our realities:
the family who instead of anticipating the Christmas gathering
with joy,
is grieving the empty chair of parent, or child.
Likewise, the family with not enough money for a meal,
let alone a tree with presents,
is not hoping for, but dreading the coming season.
Hopes and realities are cruel cousins, making mockery of one another.
Olden day theologies of fairness – reward for the just, and punishment for the wicked,
crumble under the unfair chaos of reality,
and God – our tried and true image of God – is called to account,
as Isaiah does here.
“Come down God, make yourself known!
It’s you we’re waiting for!”

I’m thanking God for the discipline of the lectionary today,
so that despite my wishes that Scripture for today
would have been hope-filled and baptismal-baby proof,
garnished with tinsel and candles,
instead we given Isaiah
and his lamentable word of honesty
for this real first day of Advent.

A day when the turning of the calendar does not erase the
imperfections of our private, and even our public lives.
A day when despite advertising’s best efforts,
we are fearful, worried, exhausted,
with stretched bank accounts, and tapped-out families,
unable, and even unwilling anymore,
to paper over our imperfections,
and yearning for a moment, an hour of honesty
when we can open heart and lung to say,
“O God, I wish that you would tear open the heavens
and come down,
do those amazing things that put the world to rights before.
I wish that you would come into my life
and do those things with me and mine.
I wish that you could show me somehow,
in some corner of my real life,
that you care, that you hold me in your hands
like a potter holds soft clay.”

That’s what we’re waiting for, God.
That’s what this season is about, God.
That’s what our Advent will be about, God.
Watching and waiting for you to come
in all your newness, in all your unheard of strangeness,
into the imperfections of our world.

And thank God, that Isaiah has given us the words to say so.

Amen.

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