“From ages past no one has heard […of] any God besides you who works for those who wait for him” (Is 64:4).
The word Advent means coming, and it is during this time that we begin the Christian year by waiting for Christ’s final coming in glory in which God will make all things new and dwell eternally amidst God’s creation (see Rev. 21). What a joyous event! We could be like the Whos down in Whoville from Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They are filled with joyous anticipation (albeit, about Christmas particularly), games, decorating, and singing.
Nevertheless, we might also have a little bit of the Grinch in us – frustration with the commercialism, anger at the joy of others, and loneliness coupled with despair that things will ever feel different. With the above passage from Isaiah, we begin Advent not with shouts of joy but with moans and cries. For as we anticipate and wait for Christ’s coming, reality calls our attention back to the woes of this world – globally and personally.
Isaiah and the people of Israel – who have recently returned from their 50-year exile – lament their present woes. Just because they’ve been allowed to return to the land of Judah does not mean they’ve returned to what was once their Promised Land. The Temple lies in ruin and their lives are in shambles.
Yet, they remember their people’s history from scripture: God’s “awesome deeds” in which God led Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and the desert, and into the Promised Land (Is 64:3). And Isaiah pleads, O that you would do it again, Lord. Care for us, your people, again as you did in ages past! (Is 64:1). But what has happened instead? God has apparently turned away from Israel because of their sinfulness – sinfulness that has left Israel to approach God as all other “unclean” peoples must: with confession, penance, and hopeful waiting.
It seems more likely that God has not turned away from Israel, and they could not ever run beyond God’s presence (Ps 139); rather, in the midst of intense struggle and acute awareness of their sin, they feel as though God has turned away from them.
Burdened with such feelings and longing, Advent is a season to remember and wait in our hope. Our hope is in God’s steadfast love, just as it was for Israel. Yet, it is not as likely that God’s “awesome deeds” will look the same as they once did, for as Isaiah knows, God is Father and potter, not ruthless avenger.
Have you also felt as though God has turned away from you? Have you longed with all your being for God to act as God did in the ancient stories of scripture – or as God has moved in your life at some previous time? You would not be alone. Yet, as Isaiah ends his lament, our hope rests on God’s steadfast love bringing us through in a new way, not the way God once chose to act. In Advent, we anticipate Christ’s coming as God’s steadfast, determined, and immensely slow way to redeem creation. Through Christ, we see that God’s chosen way of acting in and with the world is through suffering service and vulnerable, noncoercive love. In Christ, God has answered Isaiah’s lament, and ours – just not as we expected.
Patricia E. De Jong says, “At Advent, God’s people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily. In tiny ways, we can open our broken hearts to the healing grace of God, who opens the way to peace. […] [This] is not a season for passive waiting and watching. It is a season of wailing and weeping, of opening up our lives and our souls with active anticipation and renewed hope” (Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox: 2008).
This season in worship, we’re holding these themes together with Seuss’ story How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If you’d like to dive more deeply into this, Pastor Matt Rawle’s book, The Heart that Grew Three Sizes could be a great devotional read for this season. By holding together scripture, the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, and Seuss’ story, I hope to accomplish at least three things: 1) to come closer to the heart of God revealed in Jesus, 2) to gain skills at discovering God in the midst of the commonplace held in conversation with scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, and 3) to be a little playful in the midst of a world that may sometimes take itself too seriously.
Let us, therefore, spend these weeks of Advent seeking to open our hearts to God’s grace, which breaks into the world, daily, in unexpected ways.