This week’s reading from Isaiah is part of a larger psalm of lament which begins in 63:7. The narrative force of the lament is this: God was gracious in delivering the Hebrew slaves even though they were obstinate; but the rebellion of the people eventually turned God against the people; because God was angry and hid from the people the people sinned in even greater ways; the lament ends with a request for the LORD to remember his people, and to forget the people’s iniquity.
The lament is found in the post-exillic section of Isaiah (sometimes referred to as third Isaiah). After the Persians allowed the Jews in captivity to return to their homeland in-fighting broke out between the returning exiles, those left behind, and those who had repopulated the area in the exiles absence. The return to the promised land to encounter this tumultuous and tense situation was a major let down. The result was the production of oracles and laments like the one we read in Isaiah 63 and 64.
In our celebration of Advent we remember our need to confess our own obstinate behavior, and to call on God to renew his relationship with us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While we remember the first coming of Christ we pray for God to come once again and set the world to rights.
Psalm 80 thrice repeats the refrain “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” It is a call for God to act in a world that is not yet set to rights. In that regard it is an appropriate response to our Hebrew Bible reading. The world is so wrong, says the psalmist, that the people eat the bread of tears and wash it down with bowls full of tears. The psalmist asks God to once again have regard for his people (metaphorically referred to as a vine [vs. 8-14]).
Verse 17 read through the lens of Christian history has messianic overtones appropriate for the Advent season, “Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” The psalmist promises that if God raises up the one on his right the people of God will never turn away from God again.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is written to a church rife with division and marred with perversions of the Christian faith. Regardless Paul greets the Corinthians as those “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and as “saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of…[the] Lord Jesus Christ,” and finally Paul “thanks…God always” for the Corinthians.
The reason for Paul’s optimism toward the Corinthian church is his belief that the Corinthians, despite their many problems, are given all they need by the Spirit of God to successfully wait on the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, Paul writes “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…he will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s optimism reminds us of our need to stay optimistic that we have what we need to wait for God’s second coming. Paul sums up his belief in verse 9, “God is faithful.” It is easy to let the woes of the world (and the woes of the church) get us down. Thankfully it is not the world, or the church, that is the catalyst for creation being set to rights, but God himself. And this same God empowers us in the meantime to proclaim the day of his coming. And this same God offers us grace when we weaken the Lord’s proclamation through our human frailty.
What does apocalyptic and advent have in common? If you listen to the major advertising and media outlets the two have nothing in common. Advent is a mad dash to grab seasonal promotions and door buster sales. It is one long shopping spree garnished with candy canes, hot chocolate, and sugar plums. Apocalyptic is doom and gloom. It is end of the world stuff. Nobody wants apocalyptic during the holidays.
The church’s proclamation of the kingdom was never meant to go along with cultural expectations. The church offers a counter narrative to the forces that pull us along a path of spiritual ignorance. The church begins advent with apocalyptic. Apocalyptic thinking asserts that the world has not yet been set to rights. It pronounces that bad things are happening, and that more bad things will happen. Apocalyptic thinking builds to a perilous crescendo. There will be a time, says the apocalyptic prophet, when people will no longer speak of hope, and all countenances will fall, and defeat will be imminent. It is just at this moment that God will act on behalf of the faithful.
Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet in Mark 13. Speaking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem Jesus predicts a time when the heavens themselves will be shaken (the sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars will fall). At this critical moment in history the ‘Son of Man’ will come in the clouds with great power and glory. The prediction has an already/but not yet implication. Just as the kingdom of God is both present with us now, and still waiting to come in fullness, so too the judgment of God is a daily reality, and a final end.
Mark 13 reminds us of our need to stay ready and alert (to keep awake) so that when this moment happens we are prepared. Our world of seasonal promotions and door busters can lull us into a deep apathetic sleep. Our spiritual edges become dull and blunt. Apocalyptic is a needed reminder that the coming of Christ is both grace and judgment.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the need for the world to be set to rights. Despite the happy holiday commercials and bright cheery decorations the world is a broken place that injures and oppresses. We are called as a church to not be fooled, or lulled to sleep, by the prevailing culture of consumerism and false prophets. We proclaim a kingdom of equality and justice and we stand up to the powers of the world that maintain the status quo for their own self interest. Our battle will seem bleak. Our faith is that no matter how bleak it becomes in the hour of our greatest need God will act on our behalf and the kingdom will come. Our worship should encourage us to stay alert, and be ready. In worship we should hear the apocalyptic counter narrative. In worship we should be reminded that we are given all we need by the Holy Spirit to wait with success.