Rebuilding Life (First Sunday in Advent)

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Although many of our holiday plans and traditions have been upended this year, there seem to be a large number of people who are really looking forward to New Year’s Eve.  And they’re looking forward to it not because they expect to have a big party.  Instead, they’re looking forward to simply being done with 2020! 

I’ve seen posts on Facebook that say things like, “Let’s be done with this year and never speak of it again!”  And the prayers that people say they’re going to pray as the new year arrives are prayers like: “Thank God this year is over!”; and “Please God, make 2020 just go away!”

The thing is, even as the calendar changes, most of the problems will still be with us.  Even with vaccinations hopefully beginning, we’ll still be in the midst of a pandemic.  Our economy will still be a mess.  And we’ll still be in the midst of a political transition with a lot of political nastiness.  But I understand the desire to pray, “Please God, just make it all go away!”  Sometimes, I pray that prayer, too.

Today is the First Sunday in Advent.  It’s the beginning of a new year in the church calendar.  And this new liturgical year also begins with that same prayer to God to just make it stop and go away!  Isaiah writes, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”  Really God, things are mess.  Can’t you just do what you did centuries ago and do something dramatic – you know, like when you parted the Red Sea or came down in a blazing fire on top of Mt. Sinai?

And Isaiah was indeed standing in the midst of a disastrous mess.  This section of the Book of Isaiah is written as the ancient Israelites had just been allowed to return home to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon.  Cyrus, the king of Persia, had defeated the Babylonians.  And in order to consolidate his vast empire, he figured that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  And so he let the captive peoples of the Babylonian Empire, including the Jews, return to their native lands and rebuild.

But when the people arrived in Jerusalem, it was a mess.  The city was ruin.  Much of the farm and grazing land hadn’t been tended in years.  And to many younger people who had only heard stories about this fantastic city from which their grandparents came, it must have been a huge disappointment.

How were they to rebuild not only the city but their society?  How could they clean up this mess?  How would life ever be OK again?  God, can’t you just tear open the heavens and come down and change all this?

Please God, make it stop!  Just fix this!  That’s the universal gut reaction of all people when faced with trauma.  And yet, Isaiah seems to know that that’s not usually how it works.  And as this prayer goes on, Isaiah lifts up the reality that what’s really needed is:

  • Patience – it is true that God did sometimes suddenly intervene in the history of Israel; but that was rare, and it’s why people remembered those events.  Always, however, God was present, working in and among the people.  The name “Israel”, after all, means the “one who wrestles with God”. And indeed, wrestling with God – and what God was calling the people to do and be – always required wrestling with the situation, and patience to live into the future to which God called them …
  • The willingness to live in new ways – in fact, Isaiah realizes they shouldn’t go back to living the way they did 70 years ago, even if that were possible.  The prophets interpreted the Babylonian exile as punishment for the people not living into the covenant that God had called them to.  And generally, that meant they had lived unjustly with one another; abused vulnerable groups like widows and orphans; and worshipped false gods; “we have all become like one who is unclean”, Isaiah says.  We need to rebuild both our city and our lives in different ways …
  • Confidence in God’s love – it’s always interesting to me that the reason the prophets feel that there’s hope is that God can be counted on; it’s never “Please God, give us one more chance and we’ll be fantastically better people!”  They’re realistic about who they are!  But they’re also confident in who God is – “you are our Father. We are the work of your hands. We can count on your love and faithfulness.” And that’s why they have hope …

So maybe as this new year of Advent begins – and as we anticipate a new calendar year on the horizon – the words of Isaiah are particularly appropriate for us.  Like those ancient people in Jerusalem, it’s perfectly understandable to want to ask God to just tear open the heavens and come down.  Make it stop!  And make life better again.

But it’s also the case for us that to live into the future that God has in mind for us, what we also need is:

  • Patience – and I’m the first person that needs to hear this! My other common prayer is: “Please God, give me patience and give it to me NOW!”  But often, the solutions we need take time.  As one person pointed out to me recently, “vaccines don’t end pandemics – vaccinations end pandemics” and some of the solutions that God has gifted us with are solutions which will take hard work and a bit of time – and that’s often the way God works in our lives …
  • The willingness to live in new ways – and like Isaiah, sometimes a disaster makes you consider new ways to live that you might not have thought about before… (I remember once reading about a congregation somewhere in the midwest whose building was wiped out by a tornado … they realized re-building exactly as before wasn’t the best plan…);

And as we’ve gone through this time, many of us have realized that a lot of things just can’t go back to the way they were.  Sometimes, that’s because we’ve realized that things weren’t working well for large groups of our fellow citizens.  Sometimes, that’s because we’ve realized that things can and should work differently in our own personal lives.  And maybe this is also a good time to reflect on whether we’ve spent too much time and energy worshipping the false gods… (the thing is, the people of ancient Jerusalem always officially worshipped the God of Israel; it’s just that they often covered their bases by worshipping the other gods of their neighbors as well; so maybe this a good time to ask whether we’ve spent too much time and energy in our lives worshipping the false gods of money, power, status or personal image?  How is God calling us to live in new ways in order for our lives to really get better…?

  • Confidence in God’s love in our lives – we live in a time and place where human beings have been able to do amazing things. Sometimes, we even feel invincible in the face of challenges; but that also means that it really shakes us up when we find ourselves in situations we can’t control.  So maybe this is a good time to re-consider whether our hope is in ourselves – or on our own ability to change and improve – or whether our hope really is based on a God who loves us and will never let us go.  As Isaiah knew, real hope is a powerful thing, because it drags us out of self-delusion and gives us courage to keep moving forward in spite of the messes we can’t quickly and easily fix…

So, as we begin this Advent Season, Happy New Year!  Really!  May this new time in all of our lives be an opportunity for us to patiently look for and wrestle with what God is doing in our lives, in spite of the messes we find ourselves in.

May this new time in all of our lives be an opportunity for us to learn to live in new ways that help us grow more fully into the people God calls us to become.

And may this new time in all of our lives be an opportunity to be renewed in the hope and confidence that God’s love and presence in our lives is more real and more powerful than any of the messes we’ll ever find ourselves in.