We have arrived. We have turned the page and have begun a new liturgical year. The colors have changed from the green or ordinary time to the purple of repentance and kingly majesty. We see the greens around the church and the Advent wreath with the expectant waiting of the four candles to be lit over these next four weeks. Yes, we have arrived at the season of Advent, the season of hope, love, joy, and peace.
I have given this message the title, “Our Shocking Hope” because we begin today not at the cradle of the newborn baby but rather with Isaiah the Prophet, praying a prayer that is a lamentive plea that the God of Sinai will come down with righteous power and stun the enemies of Israel with his presence, bringing shock and awe to his adversaries.
God’s people had sinned and felt that God had hidden his face from them. They were in exile, spiritually and physically, and despite all of this, they still believed they were clay in the hands of the creator and ready to do whatever was asked of them.
It is easy to understand this plea of Isaiah considering what is happening in the Middle East. Earlier this week, there was a glimmer of hope with the temporary cease-fire and hostage exchange. Families tragically separated by war on both sides were being united. Necessary aid began to flow again in Gaza and the surrounding area, and it seemed, at least for a moment, that peace had been restored. But it would not last.
This prayer from the Prophet shows that he is no proponent of a sentimental theology of easy grace. Isaiah shows us a God who is angry and silent, one who hides God’s face from a people who have rejected God’s righteous ways. For us, our path leading from repentance to redemption involves an appeal to a different God, or at least a different perspective of God. We need to be reminded that the healing of ourselves and nations depends upon this notion that we are all the people of this incredible God: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
This is an extraordinary way to begin this Advent season with tales of weeping and lament. It is unusual, I will grant you that.
But it is also powerful. We need to begin with this idea of repentance; we need to be reminded that we need to rely on God for things like forgiveness and reconciliation. I know it is not fashionable to talk about sinning and all the rest, but it is the reality that we are sinners. We have all fallen short, missed the mark, whatever you want to call it, and we all need the grace freely given by God to lead us back home to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Advent rocks the church from its complacency of Ordinary Time with the news that it is time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness. Peace, the peace of shalom and salaam, is at the very heart of this promise that is born during this Advent Season. But it is difficult to get to the end safely without becoming vulnerable along the way. It is challenging to start this journey of Advent without repentance and forgiveness.
History is unclear when Christians first began to mark the season we now call Advent. There are some writings which put that dates around 480 C.E. and some that fix the date to the Council of Tours in 567 C.E. One this is certain; Advent began as a penitential season and required a strict fast often called the Nativity Fast. Eating minimal meals three times a week reminded the faithful that Advent was also a preparation period, such as Lent, just before Easter. Thankfully for us in the West, this tradition died off and is extinct now.
However, the penitential nature of Advent continues. We see a remnant of that with the color used to adorn the sanctuary. Gone are the bright colors of previous liturgical seasons, replaced with purple, which I mentioned at the start, is the color of repentance but also of kingly majesty. Yes, we must repent, but at the same time, we must remember that the King will soon arrive.
Over the next four weeks, our themes will be hope, love, joy, and peace. We begin with Hope because, without hope, all is lost. We see the first candle of our wreath, the hope candle, which will be the shortest candle by the end of our Advent Journey. This candle reminds us that hope burns the longest, and when we feel that all hope is gone, there is still a flicker of light that keeps us going. But hope lights all of the other candles, and by the end, the brightness of our faith shines for all to see.
In his plea to God, Isaiah calls upon God to come down with vengeance and restore his people. But rather than send an army, God sent a tiny baby, born of humble means, in a backwater, almost forgotten portion of the Roman Empire. This baby was born not to Kings but to the poorest of the poor who had no place to stay. This baby was not born in a palace surrounded by servants but rather, this baby was born in a place where animals fed and spent the night.
Isaiah was praying and hoping for a strong military that would free them of their earthly bondage and restore them to the people they were called to be. But God had other plans. God sent a dark-skinned man to show them a different way. This way may not free them from their earth shackles, but it would free them and us from the spiritual ones.
At Advent, we summon the courage to remember that the holy breaks into the daily. This enables us to open our hearts to the healing grace of God, who opens the way of peace. This healing grace comes like a mighty river rushing through the valleys of our pride, fear, and self-righteousness. This is not a season for passive watching and waiting; this is the season where we open our lives and souls with active anticipation and renewed hope.
We cannot lose heart; we must live with our hearts broken open so that compassion, caring, and God’s reckless, unquestioned, unchanging love can find its way into our hearts and the hearts of the world. To paraphrase the Prophet, make straight in our hearts a highway for the possibility of peace. Amen.