Waiting for a Sign
Rev. Amy Butler
Today begins the season of Advent. On the church calendar today is the first day of the new church year, the beginning, again, of our adventure of faith. When I think of the concept of “new year” several things come to mind, none of which includes the darkness, absence, penitence and waiting of Advent. In fact, some of Protestants have been so annoyed over the years about the incongruous somberness of the season of Advent (really puts a damper on Christmas prep, you know?) that we’ve watered it down and, in some cases, eliminated it all together.
I’ll admit that it even seems a little strange to me, after several days of unusually emotional family interaction, consumption of copious amounts of food, reflections on gratitude and warm feelings of fullness and satisfaction, that we’d come here to church this morning, to worship, to mark the beginning of the Advent season, and be drawn back to the stark reality that our world is not made up of perfect families who always have too much to eat and warm places in which to feel satisfied and happy. It seems, yes, incongruous that we sit here, in the darkness, longing desperately for the light. It’s not too cheery, you know?
We’re on our way to Christmas, after all, and, at least according to the folks at WalMart, all is well, everyone is happy and there is only joy awaiting us.
No, instead we start with darkness and waiting, and we ask the unlikely question, “Is God far away?” From within a context of raw human pain . . . yes, the reality of our world . . . we await the coming of God. Our altar is draped this morning in the Advent color purple, the color of penitence. The lights are low and the darkness surrounds us; our voices are hope-filled, yet hushed. And we lit the very first candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of hope, implying that in perhaps more ways than one we are longing for something to change. We’re hoping it will happen again, that God will come to our world . . . to give us hope.
So, here we are on this first Sunday of Advent. Waiting for a sign, looking around for something—anything—to lift our hearts, to carry our spirits, to reassure us that what we see when we look all around is not the final word . . . that there’s something on the horizon that’s on its way, something that won’t allow us to remain in the pain we’ve created for ourselves but offers us the opportunity of something more.
Yes, that’s what we’re doing here this morning on the first Sunday of Advent . . . not rehashing the meal we just had, not celebrating the bargains of the weekend, not playing Christmas carols at highest volume and cheerfully singing of joy to the world. No, this morning in the hush of worship we are sitting in the reality of what it means to be human and we’re waiting . . . waiting for a sign that there’s some hope for us.
To guide us in this somber reflection this morning we have read the words of an Israelite prophet, Isaiah. As you know, there is a book in our Bibles called Isaiah, but it is inaccurate to take the whole book as the composition of one person at one time. Scholars disagree, of course, about the details, but most would say that there are three distinct parts of the book of Isaiah, each one of which has a very scholarly name (which I may reveal to you for a small sum).
Suffice it to say that, in general, the first part of Isaiah was written before the people of Jerusalem were conquered and taken into exile in Babylon for 70 years. The second part was written from the perspective of a people in exile. And the third was composed in the context of a return to the Holy City and the promise of a new life.
Today’s passage is from that third portion of Isaiah, and you’d think the perspective would be one of a people stuffed full with Thanksgiving dinner, happy to be back in the land that was promised them and looking forward to a merry holiday season ahead.
The problem is that the reality was something a little different than what we’d imagine. After years of living in exile, waiting for the day when, finally, they’d be rescued from the evil and unjust domination of the Babylonian empire and returned to their beloved Jerusalem to resume life as they had known it, all of the sudden that day was here and things just were not as they’d imagined.
The reality of what surrounded them was not at all like the memories that had sustained them through years of exile. Jerusalem was devastated . . . a veritable wasteland of a city, still rubble compared to its former glory.
And re-assimilation was not as smooth as they’d envisioned. There had been a remnant of folks left behind, fringes of Jewish society who moved into the city and recreated a society from what was left. And while all of the riffraff were settling into the homes they’d left behind, exiled Israelites in Babylon were marrying and having children who in turn grew up and married in a society foreign to the one of their parents. Different cultural customs, food, clothing, music, even modifications of religion, had slowly crept into the lives of Jerusalem’s returning Jews, and all the dreams of recreating what they had lost had turned quickly into a nightmare of readjustment where nothing seemed to fit anymore, where the utopia of cultural existence that kept their hopes alive over all those years away was quickly wasting away to nothing at all.
It is from this perspective that Trito-Isaiah (Third Isaiah) is writing—from the perspective of what should have been happiness and fulfillment, dreams realized and Promised Land recreated. But the reality was somewhat dismal. Well, actually, it was very dismal. It seemed like they had everything they’d ever wanted but God seemed really, really far away.
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I was reading the other day about a working class family from Medford, Oregon, a couple in their fifties with three children entering adulthood. The family made their living with the combined incomes of the father, who owned a small landscaping business and the mother, who worked as a bookkeeper at a local business. They didn’t have much but they were getting by, as most Americans do, putting their kids through college, taking out a second mortgage on their home to do some sorely needed renovations. This family, by all accounts, is highly regarded in their community, just your run-of-the-mill American family.
Life was going along just fine—with the normal struggles you’d expect—until recently. October 19, to be exact. It was that morning when everything changed in the West household. Steve West, you see, had happened to notice that the Powerball was up to 340 million dollars and decided on a whim to buy a lottery ticket. You guessed it: 7, 21, 43, 44, 49, 29—the numbers on their ticket—matched the winning numbers of the largest single-ticket prize in Powerball history.
It’s mind-boggling, really. Can you imagine how that family’s life changed in that one moment? No more struggling to pay for college tuition. No more putting in time at a job you hate just until you can scrape together enough to retire. No more repairing the 15-year-old car just one more time to see how long it might possibly last. No more second mortgage; no more first mortgage. All those times they sat around musing over the what-ifs of their lives . . . if only we could win the lottery, everything would be taken care of.
I don’t know how the Wests are going to fare in their new adventure as millionaires, but my guess (though I deign to admit it) is that all their problems may not be solved by the acquisition of a whole lot of money.
It seems that what happens is that the utopia of suddenly coming into 340 million dollars is not really as wonderfully fabulous as it might seem. Upon getting the news that you’ve won, you see, everything about your life changes. The moorings you had come to depend upon to provide perspective and structure are suddenly blown out of the water; you are now the focus of intense interest from almost every corner of society; your perspective becomes skewed into something you cannot even recognize.
Frankly, it all sounds terrible (I have to think, however, that if it happened to me I could handle it!).
While I myself have never had this experience and thus cannot testify from a personal perspective, I did see a recent survey of lottery winners 20 years or more after winning the lottery. Surprisingly, almost every one of those folks said their lives had become more difficult, filled with problems they’d never imagined, and that if they could go back and redo their lives they would have preferred NOT to win the lottery.
How many of us are people who have more than we could ever imagine we might need but still feel a sense of emptiness, of longing, of the absence of God this first Sunday in Advent?
We might have a lot of stuff but anyone with a lick of sense will not be fooled for more than a minute by the shiny glitter and curling bows of our society. This year in particular our television screens have flashed with the real-life suffering of people—this time, NOT halfway around the world, but in our own backyards. And this raw human suffering despite the fact that our televisions blare from stations in the richest country in the world, are only indicative of piles and piles of deeper pain carried like unbearable weights through this human existence we live.
If there is anything we Americans know in the deepest part of who we are, it is that all the shopping fliers in the world, all the X-Boxes and fine jewelry, all the gourmet food and fine furnishings, all the . . . whatever it is that makes your heart sing temporarily . . . well none of those things will fill the darkness we feel when we cannot feel the presence of God.
We know all of that, and so, here we sit, stuffed full on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. We’re here in church. We dutifully recited prayers around the Thanksgiving table. We know by rote all the carols of the season and how exactly the manger should be set up.
But where we are is in the darkness, entering the season of Advent, a season where we feel the cold and emptiness of God’s absence and where we hope beyond reasonable intellectual possibility that the world would be brought to its knees in the presence and power of God (for once).
We’re here because we want to believe that some evidence of hope will sprout—somewhere, that, despite everything we appear to have, that the hope of God’s presence would be born in us today.
And, funny enough, spanning thousands of years of human history from their lives to ours, we find that such was the case for Isaiah’s contemporaries in the newly resettled city of Jerusalem. While they’d finally gotten what they’d wished for, they had all they had envisioned, yet everything had changed. Even though they found themselves in the ideal situation they had been waiting and working for all those years in exile, God seemed absent.
We can tell this, of course by reading the lament of the prophet in Isaiah chapter 64. See, usually it was the prophet’s job to tune his or her ears into the voice of God, to be ever-listening for a message to give to the people. At this point, for this prophet, despite all his furious tuning, he did not seem to be able to intercept anything of meaning from up above. And as he looked around at the situation in which the Israelites found themselves, even he, the messenger of the Lord, was beginning to feel desperate.
What was he desperate for? Like us, he was desperate for God to come down, to be present, to make himself known one more time. Isaiah was desperate to know the presence of God when all he could see and feel was distinct and ringing absence.
Isaiah was a prophet of Yahweh; like us, he would have been a regular churchgoer, a religious professional—he wasn’t having trouble believing that Yahweh existed. No, he knew beyond a shadow of doubt that God was out there somewhere. The problem was, even though it was clear God was around (somewhere), God seemed all of the sudden far away, hidden, silent, absent. Even for the prophet of God, even for the people of God, the absence loomed large.
He felt the absence strongly and Isaiah wailed: “Oh that you would tear the heavens, that you would come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” (v. 1).
While he cried out to the heavens, shaking his fist and pleading for God to do something, anything, Isaiah the prophet was asking the people to join him in living their lives in anticipation. He wanted them to scan the darkness while they waited and to look, look hard for a sign . . . for any sign . . . that God was on the way.
If we pause in the craziness of life as we know it, we might notice that life can be downright dismal at times. Like the prophet Isaiah, we long in the deepest part of our souls to be delivered from this messy lump of nothingness we’ve created.
Isaiah said, “We have been in our sins such a long time . . . when shall we be saved?” We do not long for more of the same, for more running around aimlessly, constructing and reconstructing cities, accumulating things, trying to rebuild things to just as they used to be. But, rather, sitting, waiting, quietly looking for hope, for God to come and tear open the heavens and come down, to wait in the silence and penitence for that one who can save us.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
Look around you. If it hurts too much to look at the darkness in your own life, you have plenty of it in this great big world of ours. Lives lived in utter despair, ruled by unhappiness and failed attempts at satisfaction. Systems run by power and greed, created to save lives but now functioning as instruments of oppression. Vast and unresolvable inequities. Loss and pain, greed and hopelessness.
If we’re honest, we must admit it: nothing can save us from this mess we’ve created. No government, no relationship, no substance, no acquisition. Our only hope was what the prophet begged for: “Oh that you would tear the heavens, that you would come down!”
We hope a Savior is coming, of course, to be born in us again. But if we barrel toward Christmas oblivious to the reality of our lives, bolstered by too much eggnog and running on adrenaline after late night shopping sprees, senses overwhelmed by too much sugar and too many jingle bells, well, then we will never really stop long enough to remember how much we need a Savior.
We have to pause and wait, in the quiet and darkness, in the hush and stillness . . . not rush toward the idyllic manger stuffed with sweet-smelling hay and bathed in the light of a star . . . . Advent invites us to sit in the darkness with only the flickering light of a candle, even for just a little while, to remember . . . to remember that we really need a Savior.
Today is the Advent Sunday of hope, ironically draped in purple and lit by the light of just one candle. But we begin this journey toward Christmas waiting for a sign, just a little sign, that what we see all around us is not the final word.
The only thing we can hang onto in the darkness is the hope . . . yes, hope . . . that God is on his way, ready to be born in us again, to shape the reality in which we live into something promising and beautiful, something full and meaningful.
Chin up, Isaiah. Chin up, church of God.
Sit now in the darkness and notice the little flames of light;
wait for the promise you believe will come;
hope for the salvation of God for your hearts, for this world.
It’s on the way; it’s on the way. For now, our job is to wait for a sign. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible or the author’s paraphrase.
Copyright 2005, Amy Butler. Used by permission.