O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Isaiah 64: 1-9
It’s an odd choice for an Advent lectionary. The first Sunday of Advent is traditionally associated with the theme of hope and Israel’s long wait for the Messiah. There’s no direct reference anywhere to the Messiah or any clear indication that the passage is in reference to the Messiah at all. On top of that, at first glance the message of this scripture from Isaiah doesn’t seem entirely hopeful. On the contrary it talks about catastrophes, “nations trembling”, and iniquities. The writer addresses God as someone who has been long absent and as a result few people on earth even know God anymore. It’s not the hopeful message of Christmas cards and holiday tv movies. It’s not the type of hope we’re used to because its hope that comes out of real pain. It’s hope that doesn’t come to give us holiday cheer, but rather comes to keep us going. It’s the kind of hope Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis who are fighting ISIL need to get through each day. The kind of hope mothers in Nigeria who had their daughters taken by Boko Haram cling to. The kind of hope pastors in Ferguson were preaching earlier last week. Real hope, strong hope always finds expression in the presence of pain and trouble, not the absence.
It’s also a hope that manages to be comforting without letting us remain comfortable. Isaiah talks about injustice and wickedness. He talks about a world that exists as if there is no God and people who act as if it is so. In a society where someone can be arrested for feeding the homeless in public, are we that far removed from the kind of society Isaiah finds himself in? We live in society that will execute even a schizophrenic man who has no idea why he is being executed. Every day we live as if there is no God. Every day we treat each other not as brothers and sisters, but enemies and strangers. Every day we find new ways to deny each other’s shared humanity and status as God’s children. Yes, Isaiah’s words are unfortunately still very relevant to us today.
Whether Isaiah is waiting for a Messiah here or not, he is waiting for God to reveal God’s self. He’s waiting for a world-changing event. As Christians this text speaks to us because we recognize Jesus as the ultimate revelation and world-changing event. We recognize him as the answer to all our pains and hurts. We understand him as the one by whose names we can move mountains.
Those of us who find ourselves comfortable in the current order of things, may not get too excited about the hope Jesus offers. It’s a hope that comes much easier to those in discomfort, those who are more acutely aware of their need for it. If we see Christmas as one big party, then we’re living on the wrong kind of hope. If we think we have to be just a little more friendly or charitable this time of year, then can go back to our usual apathetic routine, then we’re living on the wrong kind of hope. If we think Christmas is event we celebrate every year without inviting the poor (shepherds) and the stranger (Magi) who were there when it all began, we’re living on the wrong kind of hope.
Isaiah is hoping for a different Messiah than Santa Clause who comes with a big bag of toys and only wants milk and cookies in return. Jesus is the thief in the night, the guy who disrupts our day to day lives with his wild ideas and antics. He eats with sinners. He calls out hypocrisy. He turns lives upside-down. Just ask his disciples. His coming means things are going to get crazy and Isaiah wouldn’t have it any other way.
But even Isaiah doesn’t fully grasp what it will be like when Messiah comes. Sure he’s ready to get behind a Jesus who turns the money-changers’ tables over and call out the religious leaders on their hypocrisy. He knows the Messiah’s coming will change things, but doesn’t quite see how. Isaiah talks of earthquakes and boiling seas, all those supernatural events he’s read about Abraham and Moses experiencing. He’s talking of nations being humbled and adversaries brought low. He’s expecting God to bring down Jericho’s walls again or part the seas. He expects one big glorious moment when all the world will know the score. But Isaiah’s in for a surprise too. There’s no newspaper headline when the Messiah comes. No natural disasters, no violent revolutions, no looting, no rioting.
Then Jesus goes on to live a life so seemingly uneventful by the standards of his days that it will be barely be acknowledged or remembered by any except his followers. Instead of conquering enemies and establishing a new nation of Israel, Jesus spends most of his relatively short life preaching to the poor, healing the sick, and teaching these bizarre moral lessons called parables. Jesus’ life occurs and passes by unnoticed by most of the world and not commented on by any until sometime later. No one seemed to know what had really happened. None could imagine what it would mean when God came to us in the fresh. What it would mean that we mere creatures now shared common flesh with the divine. Even Isaiah’s impressive poetry falls terribly short of conveying the miracle.
The hope of Christmas is the promise that God is with us and the call to see God in each other. The joy it offers is as limitless as the challenge it presents us with is daunting. We are given comfort without be left comfortable. As we use this time of Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, we need to let go off old expectations and comforts from yesteryears and welcome God into our world by living like God is with us. We know what that means. Jesus devotes the entire Sermon on the Mount to explaining it. That’s the right kind of hope to live on.