Sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, November 30th, 2014. Text for this sermon was Isaiah 64:1-9. Also take a look at Habbakuk 3:16-19.
A Dirge With Rose-Colored Glasses
On certain ranches, if say you’re sipping lemonade and watching the sun go down, you might notice something unusual. Yellow flowers blossoming in the evening air. You would look across the field one moment and see nothing but green. But then a few minutes later, as the sun dips below the horizon, you’d notice the field dotted with little yellow flowers.
The flowers are called evening primrose. Not related to true primroses, their blooms stay closed during the day. They open when the sun goes down, and then bloom throughout the night. Unlike other flowers, in darkness these flowers find their beauty, and in the darkest parts of the night they fill the world with their brilliance.
Evening Primrose is a surprisingly hardy plant. It is drought resistant, which means that it blooms even when things get hard. It is a primary colonizer, which means after a disaster it is one of the first plants to return and begin rebuilding an ecosystem. All of these things come together to make the evening primrose a good symbol for the season of Advent. Advent is a time of hope in darkness. The nights grow long and cold, but we are told that our Lord came down on a long, cold night. And so in the darkness we take the time to reflect and prepare ourselves for Christmas, the birth of the light of the world. The world will not always be dark, we proclaim. And soon good things will happen to those who wait.
Though we begin our preparations for Christmas this Sunday, the first two Sundays in Advent always have us a long time and a long way away from the manger. Our Gospel reading comes from the book of Mark, where Jesus warns the listener to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Lord. Our Old Testament Passage hails from the book of Isaiah, and it is a lament, a song of sadness and mourning.
The last 10 chapters of the book of Isaiah are known as Trito-Isaiah. They were written sometime after the Israelites returned from their exile in Babylon. Coming home to Judea was supposed to be this great thing for the exiles. The return from exile would be an end to their shame and misfortune and begin a new era of God’s favor. But things didn’t really go that way. Their problems multiplied. New threats arose. The unity in prosperity and mission gave way to bickering and frustration. They had been chasing a light at the end of a tunnel, but now their future seemed dark indeed.
The passage from Isaiah expresses some of their frustration at the darkness that seemed to surround them. It is a lament in which the author begs and pleads for God to come down and set things right. Some might say it is depressing to hear the words of Isaiah’s lament right when we’re gearing up to celebrate Christmas. But I love that during a time when so many people are forcing themselves to seem happy, Isaiah’s words are deeply honest. And Isaiah’s honesty is a challenge to us, that as we prepare ourselves for Christmas we might be honest with ourselves about what we want to receive this Christmas and what we need to receive.
The author of the lament is honest about the state of the world. “Things aren’t right here,” he seems to be saying. Things aren’t going the way they should. And so he begs God to come down. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Make yourself known among the nations and among our adversaries. Isaiah isn’t pretending that everything will be okay. He’s being honest about the depth of the world’s need for salvation and redemption.
The author of the lament is also honest about the state of the people. He takes the time to reflect about what the people have done wrong. He says that our righteousness is like a filthy cloth (literally a menstrual cloth), that our sins are being carried away. The author isn’t afraid to take responsibility before God. The world is not as it should be, and we are part of the reason for that. We are also not as we should be.
We think of this time of year as a time for children, a time of magic and make-believe for them, to pretend and imagine. But it’s also a time of make-believe for adults too. We pretend that the Christmas specials are real, and that if we paper over our wounds with tinsel and lights they will disappear. We pretend that a new rain gauge or a new TV is will give us fulfillment, and that a white Christmas could wash away our troubles. But then the bill comes in January and we are the same as before, but a little bit poorer.
But the prophet refuses to pretend, he holds us here, to reflect penitently on who it is we truly are and what it is we truly need. That’s why when everywhere else is screaming Christmas all the time the church clings to Advent. Because we dare not greet the Redeemer until we take some time to admit that we do need redemption. In the words of William Willimon, “Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We’ve tried that before.”
As C.S. Lewis puts it, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
The words of Isaiah demand that we be honest, so that we don’t find ourselves chasing after empty promises or false reassurance. But Isaiah’s lament is also a song of hope. It expresses the hope of redemption and the hope of transformation. Isaiah calls for God to come down, and reminds us that God has come down before, and could not be denied. The prophet proclaims to God that “You are the potter, we are the clay, we are the work of your hand.” He asks that God shape us and mold us into someone better than we are. The canticle of Isaiah is a lament, but it is a lament colored with hope, a dirge in rose-colored glasses.
That’s what Advent is all about. In the season of advent we sit in darkness and we wait for the coming of the light. But we do not wait in despair. We wait in the knowledge that our redemption is coming and has already come. We prepare ourselves by taking time to reflect and repent and be honest with ourselves so that we can be ready for the Lord’s coming. And we stay ready by hanging on to hope.
So we hold ourselves as we hear from the prophet Habakkuk, who tells us to continue to rejoice in the Lord, even as we wait in darkness. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, still I will rejoice in the Lord.” he says. Though the produce of the olives fails and the fields produce no food, still I will rejoice in the Lord. It is a declaration of hope in the face of the darkness, a proclamation that as dark as it may seem in our world and in our lives, we know that light is coming to us.
So let us hold ourselves as the evening primrose this advent. Let us bloom in the darkness. Let our darkness be tinged with hope this advent. Let us reckon honestly with ourselves and let us beg for God to come into the world. But let us be reminded that God is coming and has already come, to heal and redeem, to bring hope and light into our world. And they call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
 Willimon, William. “Going Against the Stream” The Christian Century, Dec. 19-26, 1984, p.1192. Accessed online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1445