Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the new church year. We are implored to look. Look not to the past, or to the beginning, but to the future to the end. We are implored to meet God face to face. And the face we are implored to behold may not be an easy one to look upon. Yes, there is the face of the baby in the manger, our sweet lamb. But in Advent, we prepare not only for His birth, but for His second coming, an event that does not lend itself to merriment and Christmas carols. This is why today’s Advent readings are apocalyptic in verse and tone. Today, we all fade like a leaf. Today, our iniquities take us away like a mighty wind. Today, we are fed with the bread of tears.
But why? In this season of expectation, one wants to take the prophet by the shoulders and say, “Why the long face, Isaiah?” And to the psalmist, “Why do you speak about the bread of tears, friend? Why not the leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin bread, which I had just this morning and which was sweet, and not yet stale?”
Here’s why: At its core, Advent is another chance for us& to get it right. Advent gives us four weeks to get our acts together. It is a season of preparation, a time to make ready, a time to clean out our hearts, mind and souls to receive Christ in the flesh. We are to make ourselves into empty vessels, ready to receive what is revealed. Don’t get me wrong we need to write our Christmas cards and make our wish lists! That bounty under the Christmas tree is essential to the Advent experience. And we need light and joy in our lives this time of year.
But, I believe that in order to know Advent, we must make ourselves aware that the word “apocalypse” means to reveal. Popular culture has taught us to equate “apocalypse” with ruination, but you and I must understand what the word was originally meant to convey: clarification, edification. And as every schoolteacher knows, education takes two: There is the one who reveals, and the one who opens up to receive what is revealed. This is why Isaiah equates our iniquity with God being “hidden” from us. And this is why Mark is telling us to “keep alert& keep awake.” You and I ought to proceed through Advent as if Santa weren’t the only supernatural presence coming to town. We ought to expect Jesus to show up unannounced on our doorsteps. We must expect the wise counselor to pop in tonight for dinner, or tomorrow for breakfast, or perhaps next week for tea, to show us our spiritual progress reports, and to chat about them. I regret to inform you that grades will not be negotiable, and will not be based on a curve.
So& are we ready for perfection to come knocking at the door? How can we do all in our power to prepare for it?
Isaiah tells us where to begin: with repentance, confession, and self-reflection. An honest assessment of our lives, our priorities. What have we done? What have left undone?
Now, it’s easy to stand here in my pulpit and throw these rhetorical questions at you. I know that. So let me share with you a little of what I plan to share with Jesus when he shows up on my doorstep this evening. Lately, the things I have done and the things I have left undone have left me soul feeling a lot like that filthy old cloth described by Isaiah. I’ll not go into all the sordid details here this is a sermon, not an episode of Oprah. But I will say that my inward journey and my outward appearance have lately felt& misaligned.
Earlier this week, I was boo-hooing to Randy about how overwhelmed I feel. Overwhelmed and overwrought. Angry. Angry in a profound way–at the loss of my mother, who passed away four years ago at this time of the year. And angry in a petty, everyday way the combined pressures of baby-raising and professional responsibility. Angry at the fact that I was angry and looking to take the next phone call or e-mail or meeting as that day’s last straw. Angry at all these little distraction bombs detonating as I was trying to write an inspired sermon in the quiet and reflective tone we are asked to adopt in Advent. What a joke.
In fact, I happened to be in a full lather when poor Randy called me from home to talk about the Thanksgiving Day sermon he was writing. He wanted to talk about the blessings of this life; instead, he got the telephone equivalent of road rage.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Tell me you do. You’re working, you’re feeling productive, creative. The phone rings. You hear the wrong bit of news, or the wrong tone of voice. And just like that, the bottom falls out. Still, you persevere. You work on as if nothing has happened. You compartmentalize. Or convince yourself that you do. Oh, it’s just a miserable state of being.
What do you do? If you’re lucky, some inner voice, some guiding angel, tells you to STOP (in capital letters). To step outside of yourself for a moment and look. To notice yourself. Notice the fact that you are in a snit. Notice that while you may know that you are raging, you may not be quite aware that you are. You say to yourself: My anger has become like air, so ever-present that I have begun to take it for granted. You say to yourself: I have literally INSPIRED my anger, and in turn it has INSPIRED me. You say to yourself: God make it stop.
Something like that happened to me while I was working on this sermon. Not surprisingly, the relief came from the Scripture that was right in front of my face. “Restore me, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and I will be saved” (80:3). I said to myself: All I can do right now is pray that psalm. So I prayed it. And then I prayed it again.
If you listen, the voices of the prophets come through loud and clear. God always calls out the big guns when he needs to get our attention. He calls out an unwelcome, scolding, righteous Isaiah to tell us that “we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” Such strong language! A filthy cloth. I tell you, I read that and I was convicted; I could see my own name written in the grime and folds of that cloth. I could hear Isaiah telling me to confess, atone, reflect. To ask myself: What is eating me? Making me short-tempered, quick to judge, ready to pounce?
I remembered something a friend said a few weeks ago: Dana, you need to find a way to EMPTY. “Empty?” I said. “How can I empty when I already feel so depleted?” But I was just playing dumb. I knew what she meant, and I knew she was right. But I also knew that to empty myself properly, I would have to name what was really bothering me. And naming a poisonous thing within oneself, calling it out, requires work. And bravery. And in my case, it also requires a good cry. And I didn’t have the time and energy for all that. Or so I thought.
What ended up happening over the last few weeks was not an emptying, but a leaking. I started to leak every few days. I’m blessed because I have loving friends in this parish who sensed my unraveling and who acted as confidantes, prayer warriors and guardian angels. Let’s just say that it takes a village of women to raise a woman-child.
The reason I share my story with you is not to work out my latest psychosis from the pulpit but because I know I am not alone. Life’s pressures can wear a person out! Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness. I’m not just talking about the burdens of working mothers with children. Advent implores us to reflect, to purify our souls, to wake up to our miseries and to purge them!
Advent. Repentance. Reflection. Restoration. The themes of the season reveal themselves. Let me pray the psalm again: “You have fed me with the bread of tears; you have given me bowls of tears to drink.” Now “Restore me, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and I will be saved” (80:5,7).
These words provide a cold clarity about what it means to be God’s people, and what our responsibilities are to each other, by way of forgiveness, and to our awesome God. How remarkable that God refuses to give up on us. Did you know that “countenance” has a meaning other than “face” or “demeanor”? It means “moral support.” Let me read the psalm again: Restore me, O God of hosts, show the light of your moral support, and I will be saved. Restoration has no meaning if it does not lead to a new beginning.
Advent. Repentance. Reflection. Restoration. Rebirth.
There is power in those words, power in the way each begets the next. They contain the rhythm of my life, perhaps the rhythm of all life. Advent. Repentance. Reflection. Restoration. Rebirth. There is one more word, though, which illuminates and fulfills all the others: Mystery. The holy mystery of our God and His plan. The mystery of a god who comes to dwell among us in the flesh Emanuel! the child of a poor and unsophisticated young girl from the back roads of Nazareth. Mystery spoken by the angel Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Advent. Repentance. Reflection. Restoration. Rebirth. Mystery.
Here is the deep mystery, and the great gift, of Advent: We are not alone. God is delivered to us and in turn He wants something from us: an honest sharing of who we are. Dig deeply. Notice yourself. Take what you find and offer it up as prayer. Be open to hearing how the Lord may ask you to change. Do something on the outside to reflect who you are on the inside. Seek, as I will, to allow your inward journey and outward appearance to be one. And the gift you may receive this year: eternal life with the one who loves you.