Waiting on the World to Change

Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge, by J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A sermon for the First Sunday in Advent on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37…


I remember a particular day when our children were younger–Emma was seven and Wilson was five. It was one of those days I looked forward to, a day spent at home just being together. But it was a long day, and as long days often do with children, this one turned ugly somewhere around 5 pm. While trying to cook dinner, I heard yelling from one of the kids’ rooms. I moved in quickly to try to prevent the situation from escalating further. I instructed everyone to retreat to their respective rooms for some cooling down time while I tried to sort out what had happened. (That was back in the day when I thought it was actually possible to reconstruct what had occurred during such an incident. Of course, I later gave up on this altogether.) But on this day I went to talk to each child separately, explaining what was and was not appropriate behavior toward a sibling.

Emma, however, showed no remorse. Instead, she blamed me. She said simply:  “If you and Dad hadn’t had another child, this would never have happened.” She had constructed in her mind a picture of what it must have been like when she was the only child—those must have been the glory days, everything must have gone her way, nothing but peace all the time. But then her dad and I went and changed the status quo. And any wrong-doing on Emma’s part toward her brother since that time? Well, the blame clearly must lay on us.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, Israel makes the same move. The Israelites aren’t willing to take all the blame for the situation in which they find themselves. Although we often hear in the Bible that God’s absence at certain times and places in the history of Israel is a result of the nation’s sinfulness, here we find the opposite—that Israel’s unfaithfulness is a result of God’s absence. The prophet says to God:  “you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.” The Israelites make their case to God—you used to be with us, but then you hid yourself. And that changed everything. Now “there is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Basically, if we’ve sinned how can we help it?  It was you who turned away from us first.

This passage from the Book of Isaiah is part of what some scholars refer to as Third Isaiah, a portion of Isaiah believed to have been written not long after the exile. No wonder the Israelites feel God has kept a great distance from them. They’ve watched their nation crumble, and their people be deported to a foreign land. And although they’ve begun to return to Judah, they’re still oppressed by a foreign power and their life is harsh. It has been a long time since God spoke in the burning bush, parted the Red Sea, provided manna and quail in the wilderness.  Since Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mt. Sinai, since the wall of Jericho fell, and since the prophet Elijah triumphed over 450 of Baal’s prophets in a dramatic show of power that left no doubt that Israel’s God is indeed Lord of all. Yes, it’s been a long time since God has been with Israel in such tangible, earth-shattering ways. The stories have grown old, and the memories have become faint.

Israel won’t be happy with tweaking the system at this point, with minor changes. Instead, she demands that God act in the fashion of old:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Israel doesn’t just demand this dramatic appearance of God, she expects it.  After all, “we are all the work of your hand” she reminds God, “we are all your people.” And so Israel turns her face toward God and waits. What else can she do?

Leonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America on the night of November 12-13, 1833. By Edmund Weiß (E. Weiß: “Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt”) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus also describes a time when God’s power will come on earth in all its fullness; the tangible, cosmic signs that will come on that day are reminiscent of those sought by the Israelites centuries before. The sun darkens, the moon gives no light, the stars fall from heaven. When God comes near, big things happen. This passage from Mark is apocalyptic in nature. The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word meaning “uncovered” or “revealed”—on that day they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, he will be revealed. Apocalyptic writing in general functions to give hope to communities who are suffering under hardship and persecution—basically, things may not make sense now, but one day the truth will be seen and all will be set right. Since many scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written around the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians and the Jewish revolt against Rome, Mark’s community could probably have used some words of hope.  With things in such a mess, what else could they do but turn their faces toward God and wait?

Today the North Korean regime has a rocket that can reach all the way to Washington DC. Sixty-five million people in the world have lost their homes; they are asylum-seekers, refugees, or those displaced within their own countries; they are victims of war, persecution, or famine. Our planet is getting warmer, carbon dioxide levels are on the increase, and sea levels are rising, We, like Israel, might wish that God would tear open the heavens and come down and set everything right. We turn our faces toward God and wait.

Maybe that’s always the stance of God’s people—to be waiting, to be looking forward. Today starts a new year in the church calendar. It’s interesting that we in the Church start our new year not with the celebration of Christ’s arrival, but with a period of waiting and preparation.  Advent is seen within the Church as a kind of mini-Lent—a reflective period when we take stock of our lives and the world. In longing for God to come and set things right in the world, we, like the prophet Isaiah, inevitably acknowledge that somewhere along the way things have gone terribly wrong. Things aren’t the way God intended them to be, and so we call on God to save us, to make Godself known to us. And then we wait.

But it would be a mistake to assume that our waiting in Advent is merely a passive stance; instead, it’s rife with anticipation.  I want to do a brief exercise a friend of mine once did.[1] Close your eyes for a second and picture the ripest, plumpest, yellowest lemon you’ve ever seen.  Now imagine slicing that lemon with a knife. The juice and pulp ooze out, and you can smell the tartness.  Imagine what it will taste like when you lift it to your mouth. Now open your eyes. Am I the only one who can already taste it? This is the kind of waiting we should experience in Advent—a waiting so rife with anticipation that we find ourselves changed by it. Our mouths water with expectation; we already taste what we’re waiting for. That’s Advent. We may be waiting, but we’re leaning forward as far as we can without falling completely over.  I think it’s kind of what Karl Barth had in mind when he said that “the Church, waiting and hurrying, goes to meet the coming of the Lord.”[2] Hurrying and waiting, waiting and hurrying—that may describe the season of Advent as well as anything I’ve heard.

And so in this busy season of buying, cooking, visiting, traveling, laughing, and being with those we love, let us take some time to turn our faces toward God and wait. Not passively, but with such anticipation that we find ourselves changed by it. With such expectation that even in Christ’s hiddenness, we already begin to find him.


[1] Thanks to Anthony MacWhinnie for this exercise.

[2] Barth, Karl.  Chapter 22, “The Church, Its Unity, “Holiness and Universality.”  Dogmatics in Outline.  New York:  Harper & Bros. Publishers, 1959.  Page 148.