Sunday, 29 November 2020

Awesome Things We Did not Expect - Advent Sunday

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
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!
For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.  

How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.
Our sacred cities have become a desert; even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure? (Isa 64)

A Marylebone Street at dusk

It's been a bit of a year. 

You remember back at the start of 2020? We sang Auld Lang Syne and shook hands in that weird way you do. How long ago was that now? seven or eight years ago?

And we've gone through all sorts, haven't we? First there was a virus we assumed there was only a problem somewhere foreign. Then we realised it was also over here. And then we were told it would be sorted in 12 weeks. And then it was going to be nearly normal by Christmas. And now it isn't.

And now we get less sunlight, it's harder to get outside where the virus doesn't spread so much. 99% of the population of England will basically be in lockdown next week, when we officially come out of lockdown. It's going to be a grim winter and a very odd Christmas. But we're promised no more tiers by February.

The grown-up, hard, long-haul thing we need to face is that the best thing we can do, on the whole, is batten down the hatches and protect everyone we can until such time as the vaccines and/or therapeutics start to make life safer. This is not a nice story - it means we have to accept that the economy is going to be on the slide for a while. Pubs are closing and a lot will never open again. A lot. This virus is going to change the face of our country, forever. And short-term we're stuck with not going the pub, not going round our friends' and families' houses.

It's no wonder people look for simple answers. Wishing away the virus, or pretending to themselves that people have died "with" the virus, not "of" it. Ignoring 50,000 excess deaths already this year in the UK, to tell themselves a comforting story. Wittering on about Herd Immunity when it's clear no country is anywhere near it. People demonstrating against Lockdown, in London and around the world - effectively denying the seriousness of the situation. It's because they want to tell themselves a happier story. They want the easy way out. Unfortunately, it ain't true.

Then these words from the Prophecy of Isaiah ring down the ages. It's looking from the perspective of the Jewish Exiles who returned from Babylon. The country they return to is wrecked. The Babylonians have planted other nations into Judah. Jerusalem is in ruins. The Temple - that great achievement of Solomon - is destroyed, and all its treasures gone. 

Like 2020, this wasn't the thing they were looking forward to. Their great return is not a triumph. It's a let-down. They haven't got glory. They've got the hard, hard work of rebuilding - while fending off their enemies and dealing with their own infighting. And the prayer goes up to God and it's so down-to-earth, and yet so faithful.

First up, an appeal - if only God will act quickly and make things simple - "O that you would rend the heavens and come down."

Then they remind God who God is. The true God, who has acted in history and done great things: the God who was faithful to the faithful. The God who can break mountains and overturn history.

Then the reflection of where they are: the nation has sinned And God was angry. So how can they be saved? When they're unclean and they aren't prayerful. And there's a vicious circle going on - God doesn't act, so the people don't pray, so God doesn't listen.

And then they return to God's nature. And they appeal. We are the clay - you are the potter. We are your creation. Thing about an artist making a creation - they always put something of themselves into the work. God, you made us - maybe you can re-cast us, re-mould us - but whatever you do, don't forget us.

Then they move on to an appeal to God's nature in what he has done in the past for Israel and Judah. These are God's cities that are waste - this is the temple where God's Name was praised that has been destroyed.

And then they recognise that God is sovereign, and put it all into God's hands. "After all this - will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?" 

Which you could take as despair. Or you could see this as begging the answers - no, God will not hold back. No, God will not stay silent. No, God will not punish them beyond measure.

And so, in the ruins, of the city, in the wastes of their formerly great nation, the Jews will pick up spades and trowels - and swords - and start to rebuild. Their prayer has been dependent on God's faithfulness. And they won't chuck it at God and leave it - they'll start to work as if God will respond. They will trust in the God that did great things in the past, and they'll work as if he's working through them.

So here we are. Our churches are closed - but soon they will be open again in a specific and limited way. We stand in the tradition of those Jews that returned to Jerusalem - aware that the job ahead of us is huge, but God is faithful. We believe that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Moses and Elijah and Isaiah - is also the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who came to earth, and descended to the depths - and rose again. And if we believe in that Covenant God, that faithful God, that incarnate God - then while we know times are hard, while we face a future that is uncertain, we also know One who has been through the waters of death and has come out the other side. 

And we don't need the wishful thinking and the magical thinking, the miracle cures and the wishing-away and all the other ways there are to cope. We have a God who has faced the hardest things in the world and overcome them all.

So welcome to Advent. When we remember that life is not always easy. That there are no simple answers to our human condition. Life is a struggle - this year more than many. But God is faithful, we are his people - and Jesus is coming. Put your Christmas lights up early, if you like. Give yourself some cheer. Winter is swarming around us. But Spring won't be far behind. And a baby will be born, and laid in a manger, who is light to the world, who walks with us through the sadness, and brings us through a cross and resurrection to new life.

As a man waking in a dark night
runs to the window, and there afar 
sees the first gleam of dawn
and the morning star.

A woman struggling, now near her time,
feels the first birth-pangs, sure -  though fearing -
that through more pain to come
child-dawn is nearing.

And a world grown old in sin and blood
yearns for an answer and hopes so long
though all hopes fall to dust
hears an angel song.

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  1. Thanks - it's nice to put things in perspective

  2. Good to reflect on the Old Testament reading on Advent Sunday. Our Vicar preached on the Gospel reading, but alluded to the OT reading. New starts needed, but waiting and watching before we jump in both feet first.


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