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. Read more