The 8:30am Liturgical Service at La Sierra follows closely the lectionary texts for Advent. Mandy Shultz gave the following homily this past weekend on Isaiah Isaiah 64:1-9.
It feels as if everywhere I turn, Christmas is present. Homes are decorated with twinkle lights. Nativity scenes decorate fireplace mantles. Carols sing, “It came upon a midnight clear,” and “Silent night, holy night”. Radio hosts talk about the love of the season, and churches proclaim, “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all.” It’s simple. It’s calm. It’s still.
And while I adore Christmas (I confess I listen to instrumental Christmas music all year long) this enforced calm and peace irks me. In our culture, we have skipped the challenge that Advent brings and have leapt straight ahead to the safety of the Nativity scene. Consequently, it feels as if the season imprisons us in a forced peace without allowing us time to anticipate, without allowing us to learn what it means to wait when there’s a gaping hole in our hearts and a longing for something to fill it.
When we skip Advent and go straight to Christmas, we neglect to understand that “Peace on earth, goodwill to all” is a statement that our world, our communities, and likely ourselves aren’t at peace. In the midst of political turmoil and wars, in the midst of refugees and immigrants, in the midst of looming depression and loss of loved ones, so many of us cry out, “Where is God? Where is the Divine presence in this?”
This week’s Advent passage in churches around the world, Isaiah 64:1-9, shows a prophet deep in lament:
“God, why are you absent?”
After half a century, the Jewish people have finally returned to Israel. After years of exile in the kingdom of Babylon and years of dreaming for the restoration of their own kingdom, the prophet and his people have finally arrived home. But they are quickly confronted with the reality of the work ahead of them. They stand facing a city in ruin, a temple in rubble, and a people broken. Darkness of spirit and heart encompass them. And in anguish Isaiah cries out:
“God, where are you? When you were here before, the heavens burst open and the mountains quaked and the nations trembled. But now . . . nothing. You are absent, we do not see You, and because we do not see You, we do not follow You.”
The Jewish people had waited so long for this moment of return, but in their waiting they had lost their vision for God. The rubble, the ruins, the brokenness blinded their eyes from seeing the Divine so that all they saw in the waiting and anticipation was the absence of God.
In many ways, Isaiah’s lament is our cry today. The murder of people, whether worshipping at a mosque or attending a country music concert, begs us to ask, Where is God? The political tensions that divide nations and communities beg us to ask, Where is God? The conflict that rips apart families, the death of loved ones that tear our hearts beg us to ask, Where is God? The depression that blocks out goodness and light, the persistent illness and diseases we battle beg us to ask, Where is God? And we are tired. Oh, so tired.
This Advent, Isaiah warns us: though we are tired, though we are resigned to wait in anticipation of God’s coming, we are not to wait without watchful hearts and eyes. As we surrender to waiting, Isaiah teaches us that though we may not see the heavens break apart and the mountains quake, that God is still present. For while we are clay, God is the potter and God is with us.
Which means that God is not the hammer and we are not the nails. God’s method isn’t always one of loud bangs and grand miracles and cataclysmic action. Rather as our potter, God is more often a subtle, yet powerfully persistent presence. The lack of fierce, Divine action isn’t an excuse to let our heartaches, our fears, and our pain declare the absence of God. Rather, it is a challenge to wait by watching intentionally for the persistent presence of God in the seemingly insignificant moments of life. In Advent we wait for God’s coming, but we wait by training ourselves to recognize God’s Spirit in a world that so often and falsely seems to declare God’s absence.
A few weeks ago I heard the story of a grandfather. He gathered with his family to celebrate his 66th birthday, and as they placed him in the center of their circle, they handed him his gift in a box. Tearing open the box, he pulls out a pair of simple black glasses. A paper falls out. The grandfather picks it up.
“Color for the colorblind,” he reads out loud. “Well,” he chuckles, “I am colorblind.”
His son says, “Dad, these are special glasses. When people who are colorblind put them on, they can see color just like the rest of us.”
The grandfather pauses, a look of pure disbelief. “Color? Like it’s supposed to be? You’re kidding me.”
“Go on try it!” they say.
The grandfather looks at the glasses one more time, shrugs his shoulders in a well-what-do-I-have-to-lose sort of way, and puts them on.
And then tears.
His granddaughter cries out, “Papa, do you hate them?”
To which he says, tears rolling down his cheeks, “I’ve never seen color so clearly.” And picking up a bright, vibrant red balloon says, “Oh, I really like this one!”
In Advent, we wait and we watch. We wait in our hurt, we wait in our fear, we wait in our anger and our darkness and our anxiety, and even so we wait in the hope of God’s future coming and we wait knowing that God’s presence is in the midst of us now. Maybe not in mountain-quaking, nation-trembling, hard-to-miss miracles, but rather, God is with us in the color red, the presence of family, the conversation between strangers, the silence in the morning, in a lit candle. This Advent, may we wait – learning the ways God subtly and persistently molds our lives, so that one day we can exclaim, “I’ve never seen God so clearly!”
Along with serving as the Community Engagement Coordinator at the La Sierra University Church, Mandy Shultz is a student at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School. She thinks stories and chocolate are the solutions to everything.