Right now, many of us are praying: “Lord, Have Mercy.” We’re praying for 2020 to end so we can finally move into 2021. This year has been so challenging that the numbers “2020″ have become the newest “swear word.” Surely 2021 will be a much better year!
The good news is that the first Sunday of Advent signals the beginning of a new liturgical year. It invites us to wait patiently, but with anticipation, for Jesus’ return in glory to set up the realm of God. We’re trying to symbolize this feeling of anticipation by the way we’re setting the Table. We’re starting out with a rather simple layout with just one candle, the candle of hope, sitting on the Table. Over the coming weeks, we’ll add more elements to the Table as we build toward the revealing of Emmanuel, God with Us, on Christmas Eve.
While Advent helps us prepare for Christmas, the Scriptures and hymns of the season remind us that Advent is a forward-looking season. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem serves as the foundation for this story, but our hope is to be found not in the past but in the future. As the word from Isaiah reminds us, God “works for those who wait for him” (Is. 64:4).
We begin each Advent season singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” In the reading from Isaiah 64, a post-exilic prophet speaks to a community that has returned home only to find the holy city and Temple lying in ruins, and with neighbors who treat them with disrespect. So, the prophet cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” Yes, won’t you end your absence and come and shake things up?
We hear something similar from Jesus in this week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mk. 13:26-27). But, since no one knows the timing of this apocalyptic event, Jesus calls on those with ears to hear: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mk. 13:32-33).
While the prophet pleads with God to intervene by tearing open the heavens and making the mountains quake, he also confesses the sin of the nation, which makes God’s absence understandable. In other words, the prophet calls out to God: “Lord, have mercy on us.”
The prophet’s prayer of confession reminds us that Advent is traditionally understood to be a penitential season. It invites us to look inward to discern where we’ve fallen short in our walk with God. It also asks us to consider again the ethical dimensions of God’s covenant. As Rabbi Barry Schwartz points out, for Isaiah and for Israel, this “is the only way to move forward—the only path of light in a dark world, the only hope in an age of travail” [Path of the Prophets, p. 211].
This reading may seem a bit foreboding, but it does offer a word of hope. The prophet declares: “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” So, with Isaiah, we can ask God to forget our iniquity forever and remember that we are God’s people.
This message of hope is symbolized in the first Advent candle we lit and the opening verse of Brian Wren’s hymn, which declares: “Hope is a star that shines in the night, leading us on till the morning is bright.” [“When God Is a Child“].
We’ve been living through very dark times over the past nine months. Millions have been infected by the COVID virus, while tens of thousands have died in the United States alone. Those numbers are surging as we move past this Thanksgiving weekend. Nevertheless, we can see just a bit of light out ahead of us at the end of the tunnel. We’ve heard good news that several vaccines appear to be very effective and may be available at least to some Americans in the next few weeks. But, here’s the rub: At least 70 percent of us have to get vaccinated if we’re going to leave behind this pandemic. So be prepared to receive the vaccine!
It’s with these realities on our hearts that we begin our journey through Advent by confessing our sins and professing our faith in God. As we do this, we can join together in praying: “O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind, bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the world with heaven’s peace.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
November 29, 2020
Image Attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. A potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56317 [retrieved November 28, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.