Advent 1: 2 December 2007
(Isaiah 2:1-5/Psalm 122/Romans 13:11-14/Matthew 24:36-44)
Act 1: Problem and Waiting
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we enter a new season in the worship of the church: Advent. Many differences are obvious: rich hues of purple and blue replace the green and white of the previous season; the Advent Candles reappear after a year’s absence; neither the Gloria nor the alleluia is heard in our liturgy for a time – and that marks a change to a penitential season with an increased emphasis on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, and almsgiving. None of these changes is cosmetic only; there is significance to each element of the church’s observance of Advent. Of course, not all churches mark these changes; not all churches observe Advent or follow the liturgical calendar. These practices are, after all, inventions of men not mandated by, or even specifically mentioned in, Scripture. Though they are not part of my spiritual heritage, I now find great value and deep meaning in them. In fact, the longer I try to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ the more important Advent seems to me. I think it is a self-impoverished church that fails to observe Advent; I know it is a self-impoverished culture that neglects it.
Formal Advent observance dates from the 6th century, though informal, local observances may have begun even earlier. All this is still relatively early in the development of the Christian liturgical calendar. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. Why Advent? we might ask, and probably should ask. The church could have chosen Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation – Emmanuel, God with us, -- the birth of Jesus as a fitting start to the year. Or it might have selected Easter, the moment of new creation, new birth, as an appropriate marker. There is an argument to be made for Pentecost, the birth of the church – the moment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the creation of a holy people – as a candidate for Christian New Year. Each of these days – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – is a single, significant moment in the life of the church and speaks of beginnings of one sort or another. But none of them would do to mark the beginning of the Christian year – at least not as well as Advent. Each of these other moments – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – is an essential act in God’s great redemptive drama of atonement. Each of these moments is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of creation gone wrong. Each of the moments is a partial answer to the question of how God intends to put creation to rights again. But none falls rightly in the opening act of the drama; all emerge later as the play unfolds. Advent is the opening act.
It’s dark. The moon glistens on the barren, snow-covered prairie and a fierce wind whips the snow along the ground. In the distance there’s the sound of approaching horses, growing louder as two riders come galloping into view, heads held low, eyes squinting against the wind. Everything about these men tells a tale of urgency. The riders notice a faint light in the distance and change course a bit to head directly for it. The light becomes a lonely farmhouse and they spur their horses onward, sure now of their destination. As they arrive and hurriedly dismount the door swings open to reveal a young woman who rushes out onto the porch to embrace one of the men. Together they hustle the other rider inside and the door closes. So ends Act 2 of our play. Your task is to write Act 1, the opening act.
Well, the options are seemingly endless, aren’t they? Countless Act 1 scripts could come from what we’ve seen of Act 2. We have the sense that every detail is important: the location – especially the isolation of the farmhouse – the timeframe – when horses were still the primary mode of transportation – the apparent urgency of the riders – galloping across the prairie at night – the eagerness of the woman and her apparent familiarity – perhaps even intimacy – with only one of the riders. Important details, yes, but, we don’t know what to do with any of them. We lack the context for rightly interpreting them. If there is a right answer, a true script for Act 1, we’re unlikely to recreate it here. Oh, we’ll come up with something, just probably not the right thing.
Lest you wonder, here’s the real Act 1 – my sermon, my story, my play, so this is the right answer.
The small house is lit only with oil lamps. The young woman rocks her infant child and from time to time feels her cheek. The fever is worsening. It’s been two days since the child has eaten and now she’s becoming lethargic and unresponsive. The young man, the baby’s father, is pacing the floor. “I’ve got to go now!” he says firmly. “But the snow…” she questions. “It doesn’t matter,” he responds. “The doctor is day and a-half away. If I don’t start now, it may be too late,” he says as he grabs a coat, a canteen, and a couple of biscuits. “I’ll bring him. I promise. You just wait here for us. Do what you can. Pray. Look for us in about three day.” And with that, the man is gone, into the snow and the night, galloping across the open prairie toward his only hope. And the young mother? All she can do is wait and pray, in hope that the doctor will arrive in time, in fear that he might not. She listens for the sound of horses.
Do you see how Act 1 gives meaning to the details of Act 2? Each significant moment in Act 2 is a crucial part of the solution to the problem presented in Act 1. Each significant moment in Act 2 depends on Act 1 for its proper meaning. Only Act 1 can rightly serve as the beginning of the play. Problem and waiting: these are the keys to Act 1. Unless we know the problem and what we are waiting for, Act 2 makes no sense.
So it is with Advent. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all Act 2 (or even Act 3) events; they are partial solutions to a problem that arises in Act 1. We will never understand these solutions unless we know the nature of the problem and what we are waiting for. And that is precisely what Advent is all about: problem and waiting. And that is precisely why Advent must mark the beginning of the church year – it is the beginning of the story we tell, the story we find ourselves in.
Let me give just one example of the kind of problem that arises when Advent is ignored. Christmas. That’s the problem. In our first world, Western culture, Christmas is a travesty. And I think this is true in large part because our modern culture doesn’t understand, and thus ignores, Advent. Without Advent, Christmas is a solution in search of a problem – an Act 2 with no Act 1. Our culture fills this vacuum by defining the problem on its own terms, by writing Act 1 – and it gets it exactly wrong. It seems that our society can conceive of no greater problem than the lack of personal happiness, the absence of self-satisfaction. And we all know what it takes to be happy: more stuff! If you define the essential human problem in this way, then a Christmas celebration that focuses almost exclusively on conspicuous consumption is the logical outcome. But start with Advent, with a true understanding of the fundamental human condition and need, and it is lot harder to say, “Christ the Savior is born. Here, have a tie.” We need Advent to set the context for Christmas, for Easter, for Pentecost – for the entire human condition.
More than any other, I consider Isaiah to be the great Advent prophet. His are the words that define the human problem. His are the words that call us to wait on our powerful and gracious God for the solution. His is Act 1.
4 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged (Is 1:4, ESV).
Isaiah knows the true problem of the human condition, and it’s not the lack of stuff: it’s the presence of sin. God created man in his own image, to be his eikons – his image-bearers. He created man in perfect relationship with one another, with the created order, and with God himself. He set tasks before us: stewardship, fruitfulness, obedience. But we rejected these and we rejected God. We sinned through our own fault. And, to borrow Scot McKnight’s imagery, we became cracked eikons. And this sin which cracked God’s eikons also cracked all our relationships – with ourselves, with others, with the created order, and with God.
I’ve enjoyed watching Susan, our resident iconographer, guide our girls in the writing of an eikon during the past few weeks. I’ve especially appreciated her reassuring mantra: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Susan may have heard that at one of the eikon workshops she attended, but it originates with God, himself. Looking at his cracked eikons in the Garden, I imagine our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – whispering over fallen man, “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” And so God set about the process of restoring his eikons, of renewing his image in man.
God established covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – covenants that called into being a people, a single people blessed to be a blessing to all peoples. Through this people God began restoring his cracked eikons. God delivered his people in the Exodus – the defining moment in the life of God’s first-covenant people – delivered them from oppression, led them through the sea to freedom, and revealed himself to them through the Law. Restored eikons must be holy as God himself is holy, and the Law showed them how a holy people lives in a holy society. The Law moved them toward restored eikonic relationships – with self, with others, with the created order, and with God. God led them into the land he had promised on oath to their fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey, and established them there in safety and prosperity. God raised up judges and prophets and kings to call the people to righteousness, faithfulness, and justice – all this to restore his cracked eikons.
This was the history of Isaiah’s people, a history of God’s refusal to abandon his cracked eikons. But it was also the history of those cracked eikons refusing God’s restorative grace. God made them a people, delivered them from oppression, gave them the Law, settled them in a land, and established their kingdom – all acts of restoration. The people rejected God and worshipped pagan deities; forgot God’s deliverance and neglected Passover observance; acted unjustly and unfaithfully and ignored righteousness; and split the kingdom asunder through civil war. The northern part of the kingdom – Israel – had been conquered by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, Judah, was awaiting imminent destruction by the Babylonians. And God laments over his cracked eikons, eikons which refuse to be restored.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:"Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Is 1:2-3, ESV).
And Isaiah, the great prophet of Advent, joins God in the lament by singing a song to God, a song of God’s vineyard.
1Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;for righteousness, but behold, an outcry (Is 5:1-7, ESV)!
And this is the problem of Advent in a nutshell: God’s cracked eikons refusing his restoring grace. Isaiah is left to wait, trusting that what God has whispered is true: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Amidst a land of cracked eikons, from deep within his waiting, Isaiah speaks:
2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORDshall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills;and all the nations shall flow to it, 3and many peoples shall come, and say:"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob,that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.4He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD (Is 2:2-5, ESV).
“It shall come to pass.” Wait on it. The Lord will yet have his way. The cracked eikons will be restored. In this problem, in this waiting, in this hope lies Advent, Act 1. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost: all these lie in Act 2. All these are moments in the solution of the Advent problem. All these are moments in the fulfillment of Advent waiting. Only in the light of Advent is Christmas more than stuff, Easter more than marshmallow bunnies, and Pentecost more than just another Sunday. Advent is the only proper beginning.
I’ve heard that the first step to true recovery is to admit that you have a problem. “Hi. I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.” If that’s true then maybe the church should focus more on Advent for awhile and less on Christmas. The world has a problem: it is populated with cracked eikons who need not more personal happiness, not more self-satisfaction, not more artificially manufactured self-esteem, but rather God’s restorative grace. And let’s be clear – the church doesn’t look much better. We may have submitted ourselves to God for restoration, but we’re not very far along in the process, and we are doing everything we can to avoid the hard work and discipline of that restoration. We, too, need the Advent message. We, too, need to hear God’s lament and join Isaiah in the Song of the Vineyard. We may just need to live awhile in Act 1 before Act 2 makes any sense.
 A Community Called Atonement, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).
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