Advent: a time to re-connect with all that is most important

Peter Seal, 3 December 2017

Isaiah 64: 1–9; Mark 13: 24–37

Advent is a time to re-connect; to plug in to the rhythm of the seasons that enrich the Church year. These coming weeks provide a rich resource for growth in faith. The themes are engaging and enlightening – with their emphasis on watching; waiting; being alert; and praying a little more. It’s a time to acknowledge again God’s ongoing presence in history and the ways in which his purpose is worked out down the ages.

We need to come back, again and again – to re-turn, to re-connect – with all that is most important and most profound. Advent this year is different from Advent last year. The main reason for this is that you and I are different from a year ago. We need only to be aware of our physical bodies to know that this is true; our bodies mature and age. So Advent 2017 is not simply another turning of the carousel but, actually, altogether new.

Older people often talk about how their faith becomes less complex as they grow older. Things that used be troubling no longer have the same importance. People sometimes say, ‘I’m finding I need fewer words in my prayers these days – I just need to go deeper into what makes most sense’. Here is an Advent truth that applies to many areas of life: we discover that more is often less.

It’s so easy to get caught up in chasing what turns out to be illusory in terms of happiness, and fulfilment, and material goods. Mother Julian of Norwich in the 14th century put it like this: ‘God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me’. These simple, pure words can perhaps be on our lips and deep in our hearts as we wrestle with the demands of the coming weeks.

As one Advent collect puts it, ‘Rouse us from sleep, deliver us from our heedless ways, and form us into a watchful people’. Today is a midwinter, dark morning wake-up call to be watchful and alert.

The famous Advent word Maranatha, which forms part of the Advent liturgy, is translated, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’. As the phrase goes, ‘bring it on’ – bring him on. We need the Lord Jesus, right here, right now, to help us to see in a new way: to help us go deeper into God’s eternal truths, expressed through his Word in scripture; expressed in the beauty of music and the phrases of the liturgy.

We need the Lord Jesus, right here, right now, to help us go deeper into God’s eternal truths.

The Good News is that God is still around. God comes in the flow of human events.

Sadly Jerusalem, today, is still a city that knows violence and destruction. The prophet Isaiah takes us back to Jerusalem long before the birth of Christ. The people – Isaiah among them –return from exile in Babylon, and what they find is appalling. Jerusalem is a hollow shell of a city. The walls are damaged almost beyond repair. Squatters from the surrounding tribes occupy the crumbling buildings. Everything that was precious has been smashed. The task of restoring the city is, to say the least, daunting.

In our mind’s eye we can picture Isaiah taking a solitary walk through the ruined city. Perhaps this is not his first reconnaissance walk. Perhaps he is deliberately forcing himself to face the reality that they have found. Perhaps we see him walking until he is well outside the city boundary.

Out there, possibly on some hillside – the equivalent of the vantage point we have from St Catherine’s Hill – where he is alone, he raises his hands, and out come his feelings in a shout to heaven, which is the eternal shout of every human being: ‘O that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down’.

Those returned exiles and their God have much to say to one another. Isaiah sees it as his role to be the bridge between them. And so he expresses not only his own feelings, but also theirs.

First, he brings to mind the great things God has done for his people in the past. Maybe the image of the mountains quaking recalls the days in the wilderness around Mount Sinai. Second, he recognises that God is a moral God before whom what we do with our lives is clearly seen.

God works with those who wait for him. God meets those who put themselves on the side of goodness. God loves us and thereby has high expectations. If God is a moral God, then a response is looked for in those who claim to be God’s people.

God is a moral God before whom what we do with our lives is clearly seen … God meets those who put themselves on the side of goodness.

Third, Isaiah confesses to God. We can picture him bowing his head and shaking it sadly. Perhaps he looks back towards the city. Through tears of frustration, weariness, regret and disgust, we hear him vent his helpless anger at the situation they are in. He acknowledges that the people are responsible for bringing it on themselves. He acknowledges the general tragic nature of the human condition. Each admission is dragged unwillingly from him.

But we are all as an unclean thing,
and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;
and we all do fade as a leaf;
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

And there is none that calleth upon thy name,
that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee:
for thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

That last line unflinchingly accepts responsibility. Isaiah is not whining like a whipped dog. He places his humanity before God. He fully acknowledges responsibility for the damage done by his own nature and that of his people.

Maybe it is that very openness and acknowledgement which make possible the extraordinary change that is coming? We see Isaiah straighten up, look upwards and address this same God in an utterly different way.

Isaiah has called God to mind. He has recognised God as a moral God. He has confessed the corporate sinfulness of his people. And now, in full awareness of the age-long covenant between God and his people, Isaiah is able to turn from confession to self-offering. Somehow he knows that, although all he has just said is true, the covenant still stands. Unworthy as he and the people are, the offering of themselves is still acceptable.

In this moment of self-oblation, he sums up what he believes about God: ‘O Lord, thou art our father’. Above all, God is loving. We are the clay, God is the potter. God is able to work even with this poor clay.

Isaiah’s voice strengthens, gathering confidence: ‘Behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people’. We see him turn. He faces towards the ruined city and begins to walk back to it. He and the people have work to do – God’s work.

This Advent, may you and I turn our faces to the future and step out again on the journey of our life’s work.