On the first Sunday of Advent, we enter into a new year with joyful expectation of the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Advent is a time of waiting and longing for God’s presence, which means that Advent is a season well suited to many churches in North America. I serve a small church in Mississippi that has slowly, over a period of years, dwindled to an average worship attendance of about twenty people. This past week our congregation met with our District Superintendent about the vitality of our church, its future, and the possibility of closing the church. During the meeting my parishioners lamented to the D.S. that ‘it wasn’t always like this.’ They remembered the days when the sanctuary was packed and the halls were filled with noisy and rambunctious youth. In some ways the meeting was a communal lament for the lost ‘golden years’ of the congregation’s life.
As a leader in the church it can be tempting to view these sentiments as a modern day version of the grumbling of the Israelites who idealized their past and failed to trust God for their future. (Ex. 16) However, what I heard in these conversations was not so much grumbling as groaning. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, grown inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-30). With church membership and worship attendance in decline all over North America, I am sure that my small church is not the only one groaning inwardly, longing for the redemption of their body.
In this week’s lectionary text from Isaiah we encounter the prayer of one groaning over a past filled with loss, and a future that has already taken too long in the coming. The lectionary reading is part of a larger prayer of lament that begins in 63:15 and ends with the troubling question of 64:12 “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?” The preacher should strongly consider using the entire prayer during worship. The lection opens with a request for God’s presence: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” which flows much more naturally following the lament of God’s absence that begins the prayer in 63:15.
The prayer opens by calling upon God to “Look down from heaven and see, from your glorious and holy habitation.” The request is a recognition of God’s transcendence which here serves as a source of lament rather than praise. 63:15b makes it clear that God’s ‘up-there-ness’ is an occasion for concern. “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and compassion? They are withheld from me.” Nevertheless, even the lament is a thinly veiled act of praise as the prophet does not question that God is zealous or mighty or compassionate. God is indeed all this and more. The question not one of identity but felt presence. Where is our mighty and compassionate God in this moment of need?
That this God is indeed ‘our’ God is affirmed in vs. 16 with the filial language of ‘our Father.’ That God is the Father and the redeemer of this community makes the felt absence that much more a crisis. Hence the affirmation of a long standing relationship with this God leads quickly back to lament. “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways…?” This confession of sin ascribes some measure of agency to God for the failure of the people. God has made them stray and hardened their hearts. This same finger pointing occurs in the confession of 64:5-7 that follows later in the prayer “because you hid yourself we transgressed…” Rather than read these lines as propositional truth claims about the role God plays in human sinfulness, these should be read as the anguished prayer of a people suffering through a season of God’s hiddenness.
In a way the confession of 63:17 carries into vs. 18-19 as the prophet names the painful consequences of their hard hearts. “Your holy people took possession for a little while; but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary. We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.” These words may well ring true in many congregations and communities and they set the stage perfectly for the cry for action found in 64:1 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Here God is asked to rend ‘The heavens’, which are a mark of God’s transcendent distance in63:15. God is asked to cross the divide between creator and creature and come down. This is a dramatic request for revelation, a cry for a theophany. The imagery used in 64:1-4 is strongly reminiscent of God’s descending upon Mount Sinai (Ex. 19). It was at Sinai that God declared God’s sovereign rule over the people of Israel. To evoke Sinai is to boldly remind God of the covenant made there. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” The covenant is conditional upon the people’s obedience. And so the evocation of the covenant is followed by a confession of sin in vs. 5-7. The confession is followed by a restatement of the people’s willingness to be led by God.
This communal lament of a prophet for his people can speak powerfully to the longing and lament of many congregations living in the ruins of more promising times. I have heard members of both of the congregations I serve utter similar moans as the one offered by the prophet, “Your holy people took possession for a little while; but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary. We have long been like those who you do not rule, like those not called by your name.” (63.18-19)
Sadly, the response of the Church has not been characterized by prayers of confession and longing for God. This year the Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church asked each congregation to set long term quantifiable goals for worship attendance, small group development, giving, mission work and professions of faith. This request represents an attempt by The United Methodist Church to get a ‘handle on history.’
In contrast, Isaiah can help us to recognizes that the problem is not a loss of cultural dominance or a failure to meet the needs of a target audience. The problem is a troubling mixture of human sin and God’s hiddenness. Accordingly, the solution will not be found in quantifiable goals but in the heartfelt and prayerful cry for God’s self-revelation, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Our churches are filled with people lamenting a lost past and longing for a brighter future. On this first Sunday of Advent we have the opportunity to offer something more than the answers and promises provided by the dominant culture. We can offer them the promise of the God who has torn open the heavens and come down in Jesus Christ, and who will come again.