I started and finished my sermon today, thanks to the pressure the holiday added to my week. I've been looking forward to Advent 1B, since it meant I got to pull out my first volume of Feasting on the Word, the new WJK lectionary commentary. I like it so far; just having all four texts with quality commentaries together in one relatively small volume is nice. But man, the texts for Advent 1B are anything but nice. Here's what I'll have to say on Sunday.
Last Sunday, during worship, in that potent moment of silence between the Lord’s Prayer and when Neil begins playing meditative communion music, Juliette let out a nice big holler. She was getting hungry, and she did exactly what a ten-month-old baby should do under such circumstances: she let us all know, in no uncertain terms, that she needed attention. Of course I had a classic twinge of “oops, that’s my baby interrupting the Lord’s Supper.” But then I got to thinking. (Sometimes I do my best thinking while the taste of the bread and juice are still on my tongue.) The capacity for a young child to wail is an awesome thing. We tend to think that grown-ups have the corner on self-expression. After all, we have words. We can be as precise in our meanings as our vocabularies will allow. We can go on for paragraphs about how we feel on a particular subject. When we’re angry, we can say, “I’m angry.” When we’re hungry, we can say, “When’s lunch?” A baby communicates without words, which leaves parents with some guesswork. That being said, I’ve never mistaken diaper cry for separation anxiety cry. The screaming panic of a baby who is experiencing the normal developmental stage of separation anxiety is enough to send the mountains quaking.
As we grow up, we’re taught to speak politely. No interrupting, no public weeping, and certainly no breaking the holy silence during Communion. If anybody but Juliette or L. made such a ruckus during worship, we’d have pretty significant concern for that person. Kirsten Linklater, a voice and acting teacher, explains the process like this. One day your two year old runs into the room and hollers, in his biggest outdoor voice, “I want a cookie!” You tell him he can have a cookie when he asks for it nicely. So he runs in again, and says in a slightly unnatural sounding voice, “May I have a cookie please?” He receives praise; he learned to say the right words and use the right tone. But the reason he sounded a little unnatural is because it was a little unnatural; he’s in the process of being socialized. Which isn’t a bad thing. Most parents consider it a very good thing when their children develop good language and etiquette.
So what do we lose in the process? There’s a trade-off, for sure. We gain a lot – the capacity to have conversations and express ourselves with greater clarity. In turn, our freedom to haul off and wail is history. We clip the full range of our voices to whatever is considered socially acceptable.
But what about when we need what we’ve lost? What about when we need to express joy, sorrow, or longing that is beyond our socially acceptable range of expression? I wonder if it’s even possible to reclaim the outer reaches of the voice we were born with, to weep and rejoice as completely as children do.
Advent season begins, this year, with a wail. Isaiah weeps, and even though he uses words to give voice to his longing, the sentiment he shares is certainly past what is socially acceptable for the holiday season. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”, he howls. “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!”
You see, Isaiah and his people were wracked with separation anxiety. Like an infant panicking when her father leaves the room, the Israelites keened in the absence of their Father. They knew the stories of God’s providential care, unrelenting mercy, and awesome deeds. But they knew the stories only by hearsay. They had not seen this God for themselves. They recognized that they had sinned against God. They had broken their covenant with him. And in turn, God had hidden his face from them. Or maybe it was the other way around. Isaiah can’t seem to think straight here. Was it God’s absence that drove the people to sin, or the peoples’ sin that chased God away? All he knows is sheer despair. All he wants is for God to come and save his people, to wrap them in his merciful embrace, to replace their filthy rags with robes of righteousness, to make it okay again.
It isn’t a polite speech. Our Advent prophet is fed up and freaked out. Our reading stopped at verse nine, perhaps to spare us from the worst of his rant. Eugene Peterson translates the climax of Isaiah’s diatribe like this: “In the face of all this, are you going to sit there unmoved, God? Aren't you going to say something? Haven't you made us miserable long enough?”
It’s not the kind of thing you can say in your indoor voice, is it?
The words of Jesus we heard today, though profoundly different than the words of Isaiah, share his fever pitch. Where Isaiah is consumed by God’s absence, Jesus embodies the presence of God. Isaiah longed for God to tear open the heavens and come down; well, here you go. In the flesh. And just as the mountains quaked at the presence of God in times past, the words of Jesus here could easily ignite fires and boil water. Our beloved soft-spoken healer is more like an alarm clock here, imploring us with the refrain: Keep awake, keep awake, keep awake.
And for what must we keep awake? For what does Jesus bid us watch, at the start of this Advent season? His glorious return. So let’s get this straight. On this first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of Christ, we begin with the cries of two impassioned, impolite prophets. One begs for the presence of God. His yearning would be sharpened into prayers for the Messiah, the anointed one of God who would bring reconciliation and restoration to Israel. The second prophecy is spoken by the One whom we believe is that Messiah. Yet he points to another time of separation, another period of waiting and hoping, and ultimately, at a day and hour no one knows, a second Advent.
If you’re wondering, as I have wondered, why this season begins with such jarring cries, consider this: “if the church cannot proclaim and look forward to the second Advent of Christ, then in all honesty there is precious little sense in making much ado about his first advent in Bethlehem" (Scott Hoezee). What began at that blessed nativity, when the hopes and fears of all of the years found a home in a squalling baby boy, is not yet finished. The words of Isaiah remind us how desperately we need our savior. And the words of Christ remind us that the work of salvation is yet unfolding.
The Advent work of waiting and watching is not for the faint-hearted. It means confessing with brutal honesty just how badly we need God. It means uncovering our shame and doubt and failures. It even means, sometimes, railing against a God who refuses to operate according to our fickle whims and wills. Our throats may go hoarse if we pray in the fever pitch of Isaiah’s prayers, yet I wonder if there is any other way to do it.
But take heart, you who long to be ready for Christ when he comes. Though we may need the fullness of our voices now to express the depth of our longing and lamentation, there will be a time, soon and very soon, to shout praises and alleluias with a fervor we’ve never before experienced. We will give voice to a purer joy than we’ve ever known. We tell it on the mountaintops and whisper it in babies’ ears and sing, and sing, and sing. May we lose our voices and give our lives for the one who will restore light and life to a darkened, dying world. Amen.