First Sunday of Advent: Year B
In the following commentary, we examine the lectionary text through three lenses: the ancient, Ἰησοῦς=Jesus, and modern.
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Longing created by exile: For the Israelites, who escaped enslavement and exile in Egypt, the experience at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19 was formative. It framed their past, their present, and their future. The day that the Lord came down and revealed himself to Moses and Aaron was seared in the collective memory of the people and their offspring, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke in a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently” (Exodus 19:18, NRSV). God spoke to the people, “I am the Lord God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:1-2, NRSV) With these two juxtaposed statements of God’s deliverance and his demand for allegiance, we discover the tension of painful longing in the prophet Isaiah’s poetic utterance in Isaiah 63:7-64:12.
A prophet’s vantage point: Isaiah 64:1-2, “Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence–as when a forest catches fire, as when a fire makes a pot boil,” (The Message) is voiced against the backdrop of yet another period of exile and captivity, this time to the Babylonian empire. The prophet taps into the shared memory and history of the people of Israel as they find themselves once again displaced and abandoned. He cries out with wistful desire and longing that God would descend anew with fire and smoke, to shake the foundations of the mountains and intervene on behalf of his people as he once did at Sinai. However, the prophet’s longing is wincingly painful. While it appeals to the character of the God who delivers, it recognizes the apostasy of God’s people, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV).
The desire of a prophet: What does Isaiah desire? What does he want? Is he looking just for the power of God to descend, the presence of God, or both? Isaiah believes that God will relent from his anger and not only, “Look down from heaven and see,” (Isaiah 63:15) but he will come down in power and might again, “that the nations might tremble at [his] presence” (Isaiah 64:2). His confidence is in the character of a God who is potter to the clay. He implores God to remember that the Israelites are both the work of his hands and are called “his” people (Isaiah 64:8-9).
Word study: Qara’ (Isaiah 64:1) means “to rend or tear.” The Hebrew Bible uses this verb to describe the tearing out of portions of clothes infected by disease or the rending of one’s clothes in a time of mourning. The verb is also used to describe the throwing open of windows. Isaiah hopes that God would throw open the windows of heaven, that God would see and descend into the predicament of his people. Zakar (Isaiah 64:4; 8) means “to remember or recall”. For Isaiah this verb is important from both the human and divine perspectives. The verb means to “recount” in Isaiah 63:7, “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,” and has a similar meaning in Isaiah 64:4 when Isaiah describes “those who recall your [God’s] ways”. This act of recalling gives hope for a people who wait. God has intervened in the past and is bound to intervene again. Isaiah also uses this verb negatively in Isaiah 64:8, “remember not our iniquity forever.” This dual remembrance provokes trust in God by his people and pleads that God would relent from his anger towards their sin.
Isaiah 64 and Advent: Why does the Revised Common Lectionary connect this text to Advent? The correlation of Isaiah 64 with the liturgical season of Advent and its period of longing for the imminent presence of God (a longing that can be painful and arduous) is framed in the terms of faithful waiting, “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet those who actively do right, those who remember you in your ways,” (Isaiah 64:4b-5a). It is an active waiting on the Lord. In the New International Commentary on Isaiah, John Oswalt says,
“Thus to wait for the Lord is to live the covenant life, to commit the future into God’s hands by means of living a daily life that shows that we know his ways of integrity, honesty, faithfulness, simplicity, mercy, generosity, and self denial. The person who does not wait for these things may be waiting for something, but he or she is not waiting for the Lord.”
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Exile at Home: Isaiah 64:1-9 is not referenced by the Gospel writers, yet it’s message of active waiting in times of painful longing parallels the exile of the people of 1st century Judea. Their exile was not one of physical displacement from their homeland to a foreign territory, but rather an occupation and captivity within their own geography. In 63 BCE, the Roman general, Pompey the Great, had stolen the region by force from the Seleucids (the heirs of Alexander the Great’s conquests) through a siege of Jerusalem. With the exception of a period of restive revolt by the ragtag Maccabean family early on in the governance of the Seleucid empire, this tiny land in between the route from Asia to Africa, from Rome to Arabia, remained a virtual vassal state for centuries on end.
Oppression and Opportunity: Rule by foreigners was oppressive, demoralizing, and degrading. It created both its share of homegrown terrorists as well as opportunists who sought to take advantage of the Roman rule by compromising and manipulating their fellow countrymen. It’s soil was rich with both those zealous for the law and thirsty for overthrow. There was a cry for liberation throughout the land in which Jesus was birthed. Hopes for a messiah, a representative of God, an anointed king in the line of David, were present in the contemporary psyche of Jerusalem and its environs.
In this home incarceration, the people had put their trust in rebels, thieves, liars, lunatics, and rabbis to free them, men who had claimed a kinship with God and a promise to emancipate the nation from Rome. Every one of these movements and coup-d’etats, though, had fizzled out or been crushed. The zeitgeist was restlessness, wanting, clawing, craving; a tinderbox of revolution and revival was in the air. It was a period ripe for the prophetic spirit of Isaiah that God would once again, according to religious dogma and lore, as he had at Mt. Sinai, “rip open the heavens and descend.”
Active Waiting in Hardship: We are given an example of what Isaiah means to righteously and actively wait on the Lord during a time of exile. It is visible in the lives of two people who frequented the temple from their youth until their old age: Simeon and Anna. Luke says there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25, NASB). Luke further states that there was a prophetess, “Anna, the daughter of Phanuel…she was advanced in years…and…she never left the temple…and continued to speak of him [Jesus] to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38, NASB).
These two individuals embody the righteous “ones” of Isaiah 64 who “wait for him…gladly [doing] good, who follow godly ways” (Isaiah 64:4b-5a, NLT). There is a sense that their longing was long-suffering, that their waiting was worthwhile. From experience, they had every reason to despair, to doubt, and to dismiss Isaiah’s vision of a mighty God storming the earth from the unfathomable heights of heaven. Nevertheless, they clung to God’s character by living out God’s character. Once again, as aptly said by Oswalt, of faithful and active waiting, Simeon and Anna committed, “the future into God’s hands by means of living a daily life that [showed that they knew his ways].”
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
What lessons can we glean from the exiles? Depending upon where you reside, it may be difficult to preach on waiting in exile because experience is lacking. Indeed, there are places in our world in which the theme of waiting upon God to storm from the heavens, while we long painfully in exile, is palpably real. From the townships of South Africa to the villages of the West Bank, from the waterways of Hong Kong to the Syrian refugee camps of Lebanon, over the last century until today people have struggled to catch a glimpse of a God who would come down and intervene. A couple I (Scott) count as my pastors from afar, know what it is like to live exiled in their own land, growing up with the “wrong” skin color in the townships around Johannesburg.
The husband experienced unprovoked beatings at the hands of the police as a young man and his wife, after the birth of their only child, was involuntarily sterilized at the hospital in which her daughter was born. Despite these injustices, they waited actively, seeking justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly with their God, expectant for the day that God would appear and rewrite the wrongs. Another dear friend, raised in Hong Kong, now living in the United States, is separated from his parents whose home remains in the place that they love, anxiously waiting upon the Lord to rectify the tensions that have recently been handed Hong Kong by mainland China’s National Security Law. His parents’ faith is quiet, but strong, meek, yet fervent. Though separated from one another, they all trust that the God who has ripped open the heavens for Israel at Sinai and for the captive exiles of Jerusalem through Jesus will indeed do so again.
How is the face of Jesus showing up in your life and relationships? Of course, these examples of places of material struggle against governing bodies who oppress and dehumanize are not meant to dismiss the real spiritual, emotional, relational, exiles that our own souls experience. Many of us are fortunate to live in places that do not proscribe limits on our freedom, but nonetheless our existential reality is that of exile. Poverty of relationship, especially during the COVID pandemic, may have robbed us of the feeling of the presence of God. Estrangement from a family member, the ravages of a painful separation from a spouse or business partner, loss of work, a prolonged sickness, or death of a loved one brings with it a sense of divine abandonment. We and our congregations may ask ourselves where is God in this season? Why does he seem to hide himself from us?
Exile of the Soul: The exile of the soul is real. Jesus himself experienced this upon the cross when he cried out to God from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is in these times that we are called to actively wait upon the God who has revealed himself and will reveal himself again. He will not always hide his face. In this time of waiting, like the righteous ones of Isaiah 64, the examples of Simeon and Anna, are we actively pursuing the character of God while we wait? Are there areas in our lives in which the experience of the hiddenness of God is less a problem of his abandonment of us and more rightly of our abandonment of him? Isaiah does not accuse God of being hidden without recognizing that there are ways that the people themselves have turned away in sin, ways which have contributed to a sense of his silence in their lives.
Our Active Waiting: In this season of pandemic and painful longing, will we wait actively, faithfully living out the character of God as we wait upon the immanent presence of God? Will we turn from those ways in which our sin has hidden us from him? Will we in full repentance and humility acknowledge to him that we are the work of his hands, the clay in the potter’s palms, that we are his people? Will we, with expectancy, trust that he will once again show up in our lives?
God always comes alongside us in our waiting and suffering. But it is rarely to explain what is happening to us. Rather, he comes to speak of his love for us, to assure us that he is near and to tell us what he requires of us as we wait and as we hurt.
The Silence of God
In the deeply moving novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, the protagonist, a young Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues describes in horror what it is like to watch two of his disciples, Japanese nationals Mokichi and Ichizo, become martyrs for their faith. Instead of being an inspiration, perhaps as he would have hoped, Rodrigues experiences the deep darkness of doubt and God’s silence:
The martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily—in silence….What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand.
Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.
Shusaku Endo, Silence, Picador Publishing.
It is in the debilitating quiet of exile that Isaiah breaks the silence. The words of Sebastião Rodrigues, “the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent,” echo the sentiment of Isaiah whose plea is for God to turn, look, and come down from his place of hiding. The pain of suffering and loss highlight the sensation of God’s silence in our lives.
Additional Sermon Resources
Call to Worship
Adapted from Psalm 80:1-7
Leader: Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us.
People: Only then will we be saved.
Leader: Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us.
People: Only then will we be saved.
Leader: Revive us so we can call on your name once more.
All: Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.
Prayer of Confession
In the silence, we raise our voice before you. We wonder aloud why you are so far from us when we call. In the agony of our cry, we are reminded that it is we who have wandered from your fold, from the nearness of your love. We, alone, have rebelled against you. We, alone, have turned our backs to your face. We, alone, have closed our ears to your words of correction and comfort. We confess that we are both a people of unclean lips and unclean hearts. Restore unto us this day, the joy of our salvation. Speak to us words of hope, words of healing, and enter into our lives anew. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever. He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.
Adapted from 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns.