Come Down Already!

+ A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 29, 2020 +

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37


Way back in March, I wrote a letter to our congregation announcing that we would be canceling in-person worship until further notice. I remember expressing my hope and anticipation as I wrote that letter that we would be back in our sanctuary within a few weeks to celebrate Easter Sunday together. Honestly, if you had told me then that come the end of November we would still be worshiping online, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. And yet, here we are. After celebrating a Thanksgiving like none before, here we are on the first Sunday of a new Church year still gathering exclusively online. And as we begin today the season of Advent, a season defined by waiting, I must admit that I am tired of waiting. Because really, it sure seems like we have moved seamlessly from what some have called the longest Lenten season ever to what now feels like the longest Advent season ever. And I’m not even sure when that shift happened—when we moved from the gloomy and introspective season so focused on sin and mortality to the season of eager and impatient anticipation. And while the recent news of vaccine developments paints a color of future hope, we still don’t know when this Advent will end. We don’t have a cute calendar filled with chocolates or a ring of candles to tell us when we will finally celebrate Christ’s incarnation and worship together in person again.

Maybe that’s why I really appreciate the Prophet’s lamentations this morning: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Because that cry seems to echo my own: “Where are you God? Why don’t you show up and do something?” Remember all those times you actually showed up and acted? Like when you rescued your people from slavery in Egypt and led them into freedom? Or when you anointed prophets and judges and kings? Or when you were born to teach us your ways? So, come on down, God! Because we could sure use some of that right now. Yes, I must admit that the Prophet’s longing and anticipation seems to match my own this morning. I’m tired of waiting and I’m ready for God to finally show up.

Now I admit, as the world around us quickly shifts to holiday jubilation, these may seem like strange readings as we prepare ourselves and our congregation for the coming of Christmas. Even as I put my Christmas tree up this weekend trying to gin up some cheer, these texts seem more despairing than joyous. But in some ways, that’s a gift of Advent—it’s an intentional time of honesty and taking stock of ourselves and our world and realizing that we can’t do it on our own. That all our efforts, all our self-improvement schemes, all our pleas to listen to science have come up short and we are at the end of our rope. That we need God to come among us again and save us from ourselves. Because we are surrounded by suffering, by evil, by disease and despair and we are ready to demand that our Savior rend the heavens and come down to be with us.

So perhaps it makes sense that my prayers of late have seemed as urgent, as pleading, as Isaiah’s demand. Maybe yours have too, in this year of all years when Advent seems to stretch on and on. For the past nine months, it seems like we are making the same kind of petitions the Prophet did: O God, come now and end this pandemic. Strengthen healthcare workers. Guard the vulnerable. Support the homeless and hungry and unemployed. End institutionalized racism. Protect the protestors and the innocent. Fix our political system. Heal this wounded world. And save us, O God, from our flawed and hurting and self-destructive selves. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, God, and fix it all. Make the mountains quake at your power. Make the nations tremble in your awesome presence. Show us what you can do. That’s the Advent we’re longing for, isn’t it?

And it sure seems to be the Advent that we hear foretold in Mark’s gospel when Jesus describes his glorious return. He tells of a day when all things will change and the whole world will turn upside down. The sun and moon will be darkened, powers and rulers will be shaken, even the stars will seem to be falling from the sky. This second coming, this salvation from our God is so extraordinary that it strains our comprehension. This isn’t just some change of administration, some minor shift in power that still maintains the systems and institutions of the status quo, this is God ripping open the heavens and bringing down the Kingdom of God—a new reality so foreign to us that its coming may sound terrible and awesome; so far beyond what we expect that we cannot anticipate its joy and justice and perfection. But more than just looking forward to Jesus’ glorious return, our Lord urges us to stay vigilant; to keep awake to God’s presence here and now.

In Mark’s telling of the gospel, Jesus is talking to his disciples immediately before the last days of his earthly life. And did you hear those time markers that Jesus mentioned? “Keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” I think that’s more than just urging constant vigilance, it’s highlighting the unexpected and mysterious ways that we experience God among us. Because in the next two chapters of Mark, we would hear about how Jesus gathered with his disciples in the evening, to sit at table and tell them that this bread is Christ’s body and this cup is the blood of the new covenant. Then how around midnight he was betrayed and arrested. How he was denied by Peter at cockcrow. And how he was sentenced to death at dawn. And Mark tells us that when Jesus was crucified, darkness covered the earth and the curtain in the temple was torn apart, removing any separation from God and God’s people.

So, when will God tear open the heavens and come down? When will God’s power be made known in the world? When will we see our God finally revealed? Not just on that last day when we see our Lord coming in glory, but also, strangely, at the cross—in the hidden, unexpected, paradoxical revealing of God’s greatest work. And it’s so easy to overlook. The religious authorities mocked it. The oppressive powers claimed victory. Even the disciples missed it. But if you look closely, you might just glimpse how in that lonely, broken, maligned figure on the cross, God was at work tearing down any division between God and the world, proclaiming God’s glory in the last way that we would expect. You might just see how in our deepest despair and seemingly unrequited anticipations, God is revealing God’s presence among us, ushering in hope and promising to be with us and for us and in us forever. You might just behold how, even when all things seem to be ending and death appears to have the final word, God is breaking through and unveiling a new beginning and a new life for the whole creation.

I admit, this is not the God we expect—and maybe not the God we, like Isaiah, are longing for. But this strange revealing of God’s glory is quite telling as we start our annual pilgrimage toward the end of this Advent wreath, to that night when we will see God’s face among us not in a terrible and awesome vision of the heavens rending open, but in the cries of a little baby born to two poor and terrified parents in a backwater town. The revealing that will remind us again how God keeps coming among us in small, unexpected, and mysterious ways even now. The promise that assures us of God’s presence with us always, even when we feel alone or despairing. And the urging to keep alert for the inbreaking of God’s reign in our world so we can be part of its coming. That we have a role to play in preparing ourselves and our world for God’s revealing. That each time we reach out to each other in love, we are bearers of Christ’s presence in a time when our neighbors are crying out for God to finally come and be with us. That each time we join Christ in ministry, we rip the curtains of the heavens open just a little more, loosening every barrier until the flood of God’s Kingdom breaks through to overwhelm the powers and systems that surround us, filling the whole creation with God’s own transformative and radical love and grace.

As we enter this season of waiting, this season of anticipation, this season where we are told to be patient and prepare, I know that I am feeling the urgency of the Prophet’s cries more than ever before. But even as we are anxiously awaiting Christ’s coming among us, I wonder if God isn’t waiting too. Waiting for us to partner with God in bringing down the Kingdom of God from heaven. Waiting for us to tear down the barriers that keep us from living into God’s reign now. Waiting for us to realize there’s nothing holding us back. Waiting for us to pay attention to where God is present among us now.

So even as we justifiably cry out, ‘Where are you God?’ I hope we can hear this season the still, small, and startling reply: “I am here. I am coming. And it’s time to get ready.”

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