Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, Year B
December 3, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

This part of Isaiah was probably written at the time of the Babylonian exile – much later than the first half, which scholars date to the time of the Assyrian invasion that destroyed the Northern Kingdom.

I wonder if the same line in the Isaiah passage caught your ear as caught mine?  “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.”

That’s not the usual perspective on the relationship between God and humanity, is it?  Usually, we hear, “we sinned and you were angry.”  Not “You hid and we sinned.”

The Judeans felt that God had abandoned them, otherwise they would not have been taken into exile.  And being bereft of everything they thought defined them was almost more than they could bear.  During the exile, they spent a lot of time considering their history and the Covenant – all the stories we read in Genesis, the Book of Judges, stories like Ruth and even the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers and other texts were written down in these years, some for the first time; other traditions were re-worked and re-shaped.  The two stories of Noah were blended; the two stories of creation were blended, and so on.

I suspect that this work was seen as necessary and crucial for them to retain their sense of identity and community and belonging.  And of their relationship with God, their creator, their teacher, their savior, and the source of all that they were and understood about themselves and the world around them.

And one of the voices they recorded and we hear even today, across nearly 3 millennia, is the voice that says, “Because you hid, we sinned.”

Because you abandoned us, we fell.

I do not think this was a way of saying, “God, it’s your fault we sinned.”  Instead, I think it is a way of saying, “Without you, O God, we are nothing.”

This passage also recognizes that we put up barriers between God and ourselves.  Otherwise, Isaiah would not have to say, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence … to make your name known to your adversaries….”

Isaiah asks God, prays God to break in, to knock down the walls, to breach the divide between God and humanity once more.

There is a prayer poem (Holy Sonnet 14) by John Donne that essentially says the same thing, but on a personal level – “Batter my heart” … “o’er throw me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new…”[1] 

It is a poem heavily reliant on language of violence, just as Isaiah’s plea to God seeks God’s strong power to tear open the heavens and make the mountains quake.

I suspect Dr Donne must have read Isaiah. 

God’s absence caused the people to forget God; now God must return to remind the people who and whose they are, before they are lost forever.

Without you, we are nothing, I am nothing.  Without you, we can do nothing right, I can do nothing right.  Do whatever it takes to make us – or me – whole for we can never be whole until you do.

This language, this plea, this prostration of self before God, is from the deepest part of the human heart, where the fear of annihilation roots itself.  It is a prayer of despair and desperation and need beyond any other need we might think we know or possess.

It is the plea of a single human soul ready to tear out that heart from her own body, if that’s the only way for God to come in again.  It is a self-emptying prayer, it is the prayer of the Holy Spirit, as Paul described it in his letter to the Romans when he wrote:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 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, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.[2]

And this cri-de-couer, this cry of the heart, is what Isaiah makes, what John Donne makes, in asking God to break and tear and shake and remake us as the people God wills and desires and yearns for us to be – faithful, trusting, loving, and in harmony with God and one another.

And this desire of God is unremitting; it never comes to an end.

And how does God break and tear and shake and remake us? 

I think you know the answer – God comes to us in the form of a slave, leaving heaven and all its glories behind, to spend time with us, to speak with us, to teach and cure and love us as only God can, and to show us we, too, can teach and cure and love – perhaps not perfectly, but, with the grace of God, better than we might suppose ourselves capable of.

And God’s not finished yet.  Yes, Jesus came.  And Jesus died and rose again, and returned to the throne of God.  And then the Holy Spirit came to be with us as we await the ultimate return of the “Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory” – just as our hearts cry out for him to do, not simply because he promised it, but because our need is that great, and he knows it.

For we are nothing without him.  But with him? 

Simply this:  The deepest prayers of our hearts will be answered.

We shall be restored.  And it will be enough and more than enough. 

Praise be.  Amen.


[1] Holy Sonnets XIV. 14.php.  Accessed December 2, 2017.

[2] Romans 8:18-23. NRSV.

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