Sermon preached on Saturday, November 28, 2020 (First Sunday of Advent) via Zoom at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL.
If there are two things I hate, they are waiting and staying awake.
I hate waiting.
Ask anyone who knows me. I am absolutely horrible when it comes to delayed gratification. I’ve been known to open new boxes of cereal on the way home from the store.
And I hate staying awake.
Ask anyone who knows me. I’m convinced that nothing good happens after 10:00 o’clock at night. 9 o’clock, really, if I’m honest.
(Ahem, and my young children have driven this point home!)
Keeping watch all night long sounds like the worst thing in the world. I mean, unless you’re in the middle of a good book or an episode of Bake-Off, why not just go to bed?
- I hate waiting.
- I hate staying awake.
- I am impatient!
- I am tired!
And I’m wondering if Kevin or God assigned me this sermon on purpose!
Maybe it’s appropriate that I can literally see myself on the computer screen that I’m preaching to!
Friends, it’s been a long year. We last gathered in-person for Holy Communion on March 7th. I was the Celebrant. That was 266 days ago, but it feels like it’s been a few years.
I’m sure you’ve all been through a lot. On my end, while the Lord has proven faithful to provide glimpses of joy—including an addition to our family!—this has been one of the most difficult years of my life. I’ve recently decided to step away from my Ph.D. program for a year for the sake of my mental health.
It’s been a long year. And, I don’t know about you, but I am impatient and oh so tired.
As 2020 comes to a close, I’m tired of
- division, and
And it’s very tempting to begin the new liturgical year today by skipping straight to Christmas and leaving all that unhappy junk behind us!
But Advent gets in our way.
As Fleming Rutledge puts it in her collection of Advent sermons,
“the season [of Advent] is not for the faint of heart.”
Why? Well, to borrow another phrase from her,
“Advent begins in the dark.”
You see, Advent reminds us that, if we’re going to follow Jesus, we need to stay awake and wait for him to return—in the dark.
And yes, I’ll admit that “Stay woke, people, it’s dark outside!” is a hard word for the weary. But I think it’s a good word.
It’s certainly a much better word than “Everything’s fine, folks! Here, have some eggnog and, you know, try not to breathe on anybody!”
Because, here’s the thing: when Jesus tells us to watch and wait for his return to judge the living and the dead, he’s not telling us to sit down, shut up, and keep a stiff upper lip.
No! There are things to do.
And, as our reading from Isaiah reminds us, as we wait for the Lord, it’s OK if we’ve got something to say. A hard word of our own.
Namely: “God, where are you? Why haven’t you torn the sky open yet? Why haven’t you come back to fix things?”
That’s how Isaiah 64 begins. It’s actually the second half of a lament prayer that begins by recalling how God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. (Just like we just did in our sermon series on Exodus!)
The problem, of course, is that God’s people promptly rebelled against him before they even reached the Promised Land.
Then, once there, they continued to break their covenant commitments to God until they received the promised punishment of exile.
But Isaiah hasn’t forgotten the exodus or the covenant.
God has proven that he can save. And God has promised that he will save.
So, what gives?
- Where are God’s zeal and might?
- Why is he withholding his tenderness and compassion from his people?
- Why have enemies trampled down the sanctuary?
- Why has God hidden his face?
- Why has God given us over to our sins?
- Is God going to keep silent and punish us by refusing to rescue us forever?
- Doesn’t he know his reputation is on the line?
But wait, that’s not quite right. And this is very important.
This is not a lament ABOUT God to a third party. This is a lament TO God.
Hard words, yes. But words spoken within the context of a relationship.
- Where are YOU, God?
- We are YOUR people. Why haven’t YOU rescued us yet?
- Don’t YOU know that YOUR reputation is at stake?
Friends, if you’re feeling far away from God these days, might I suggest that you start praying this way, with brutal honesty? God knows how we really feel. Tell him! He can handle it.
But there’s something else we need to be brutally honest about as we wait for the Lord, and that’s our own sin.
Yes, as Isaiah 64:4-5 notes, God is a God who “who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” And this means that he’s a God who comes “to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember [God’s] ways” (64:4–5).
Did you catch that? Waiting for God means “gladly doing right” and “remembering God’s ways” by living according to his will! We don’t “wait for God” by sitting around and twiddling our thumbs!
But, I suppose, even thumb-twiddling would be better than what actually takes place! As Isaiah 64 goes on to describe, God’s people keep sinning despite God’s obvious anger. How, then, can we be saved?
Verses 6 and 7 read:
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.”
Yes, biblical lament gives us the space to air our grievances to God. But we shouldn’t stop there. We should continually confess our sins to God—both individually and communally.
Do you hear how Isaiah is speaking for the people here? There’s a solidarity between the prophet and the people that I think should also characterize the Church.
It’s not enough as Christians to say “not my problem” or “at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!”
No, instead, as we wait for the Lord, we need to ask ourselves:
- What do I need to confess and repent of?
- What does our church need to confess and repent of?
- What does the church need to confess and repent of?
In other words, we need to consider, in the words of our collect prayer, exactly what it looks like for us to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”
And this is where the rubber meets the road, I think, when it comes to Jesus’s commands in Mark 13 to “Be on guard! Keep alert!” And “keep watch.”
He’s not talking about being paranoid, constantly checking the news, and what the kids these days are calling “doomscrolling” through Facebook and Twitter.
Yes, on the one hand, we need to make sure that we’re not selfishly ignoring the real suffering around us.
But, on the other hand, there’s a big difference between checking Twitter every hour to find out what we should be angry about and really listening to the heartbeat of the world’s pain.
Friends, our problem isn’t that we’re starved for information and data. No, we’re starved for insight and discernment.
So, if we’re going to read the news, we should first read our Bibles. And if we’re going to read our Bibles, we need to let the Bible read us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer correctly diagnosed a persistent problem when he said that:
“We no longer read the Bible seriously. We read it no longer against ourselves but only for ourselves” (DBWE 11:377-78).
This particular facet of our sinfulness is called “confirmation bias.” Whether we’re reading the Bible or Facebook, we’re looking for things that confirm what we already think, feel, and do.
(And, in Facebook’s case, it’s showing us things that we tend to agree with!)
As we watch and wait for the Lord, we need to push back against this. We need to let judgment begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17) and lead the way for the world in terms of confession and repentance.
Unfortunately, without the help of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to, at best, lead the way for the world in terms of self-righteousness and self-justification! Filthy rags, indeed.
In order to get out of this mess, we desperately need God’s help.
That’s why Isaiah is so indignant in his lament. Sure, it’s not God’s fault that we sin. But we sure can’t save ourselves!
As Psalm 80 reminds us, we need our Shepherd, the LORD God of Hosts, to “restore us” and “make your face to shine on us, that we may be saved.”
We can do our very best to keep watch, but, as Psalm 127:1 reminds us:
“Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”
But, of course, for Isaiah, that’s the problem! God has “hidden [his] face from us” and has “given us over to our sins” (64:7)?
“How then can we be saved?” (64:5)
In almost every biblical lament, there is a “turn.” In Isaiah 64, it’s in verses 8-9:
“YET you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
“Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.”
God is our Father. We are his children.
He may tarry, he may judge, he may allow us to experience consequences for our rebellion, but he will NOT “hold himself back” forever.
He will NOT “keep silent” forever and “punish us beyond measure.”
Because, although we’re still awaiting his final return and judgment, God has, in fact, torn open the heavens and come down since Isaiah’s lament.
God has not kept silent.
In fact, as the book of Hebrews reminds us:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets [like Isaiah!] at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (1:1-2),
…at whose baptism the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove (Mark 1:10).
And God has not punished us beyond measure.
In fact, as Isaiah 53:5 reminds us, in Christ, God himself
“was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
You see, when Jesus’s body was torn upon the cross, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, allowing us to enter the Holy of Holies with confidence by the blood of Christ!
Friends, this is what gives us confidence to stay awake and wait for the Lord’s return, even when it’s dark outside.
So, we can be brutally honest with God and we can confess our sins with confidence, even when the sun goes dark, the moon goes dim, and the stars fall from the sky.
We can gladly do right and remember God’s ways, even when the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.
Because we are God’s children and God is our Father.
And so, we pray to Our Father:
“Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people” (Isa. 64:9).
“Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us [in the face of your Son], that we may be saved.” (Ps. 80:19)