From Our Archives
Liz Milner, Poetry From Prison: Advent Hope (2017); Debie Thomas, Hard Gifts (2014); Dan Clendenin, Advent Agitations: "How Then Can We Be Saved?" (2011); and Dan Clendenin, "Awesome Things That We Did Not Expect" (2008).
For Sunday December 3, 2023
The First Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
This Week's Essay
By Debie Thomas, former JWJ staff writer (2014 to 2022), slightly edited from its original posting on November 22, 2020.
The relentless war in Ukraine. Unspeakable violence in Israel and Gaza. Blistering wildfires in western Australia. The ongoing shadows of poverty, political brokenness, racism, Covid, and climate change. As we approach our next liturgical season and a new Church year, we find ourselves, once again, in a world that threatens to overwhelm us. Many of us are bewildered, grieving, fearful, and exhausted. Haunted (if we’re honest), by the question “good Christians” are often afraid to ask: Where is God?
Luckily for us, the Biblical writers we meet in the lectionary this week do not share our reticence about naming and lamenting God’s hiddenness. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," cries Isaiah in our Old Testament reading for this first Sunday of the season. "Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved," pleads the Psalmist. "The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken," says Jesus in Mark's Gospel, describing a state of godless catastrophe I wish I didn't recognize in the world around me.
What an odd way to usher in Advent. What a bizarre way to shout, “Happy New Year, Church!” Is this really where we’re supposed to begin? By naming the elephant in the room so explicitly? So baldly?
Like some of you, I didn't grow up observing Advent. Since my childhood church didn't follow the liturgical calendar, my family went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and "Jingle Bells" — one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next. It’s only in the past few years that I have come to value what Nora Gallagher calls the "counterweight" of liturgical time. "One time set against another." It’s only recently that I have embraced the stark, hard-edged gifts Advent provides. As ever, I believe we need these gifts desperately.
According to the week's readings, we enter this first season of the Christian New Year — if we dare enter it at all — in lamentation. Eschewing all forms of denial, polite piety, and cheap cheer, we allow the radical honesty of Scripture to make us honest, too. "How long will you be angry with your people's prayers?" asks the Psalmist in desperation. "Because you hid yourself, we transgressed," cries Isaiah. During Advent, we stop posturing and pretending. We quit trying to make God’s hiddenness okay. We shed our greeting card assumptions about the Divine. We get real.
"Our world is not okay," is what these Advent readings declare in stark, unflinching terms. God's apparent absence is not fine — it hurts. It hurts so much we can barely breathe from the agony of it. We are surrounded by evil and suffering, we're not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day, and though we long for a Savior to rend the heavens and come down, the very ferocity of that longing is wearying our souls. Hope itself has become a grind.
The first gift of Advent is the permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. We are invited to describe life "on earth as it is," and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. Into our surrounding cultures of denial and spin, apathy and hedonism, we are called to speak the whole truth: we need God. We need God to show up. We need God to stay. We need God to love, hold, deliver, and restore us. We were created for intimacy with a just, gracious, and profoundly compassionate Savior, and when that intimacy is missing, we suffer.
The second gift of the season is less a "gift" than a discipline. It is the discipline of waiting. During Advent, we live with quiet anticipation in the "not yet." We stop rushing, and decide to call sacred what is yet in-process and unformed. As Paul puts it in this week's reading from 1st Corinthians, we "wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."
This is no easy task in today’s world, which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey or odd way station. Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life "a long obedience in the same direction," and I don't think we can get more counter-cultural than that. If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that necessary things — things worth waiting for — happen in the soft, fertile dark. Next spring's seeds break open in dark winter soil. God's Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb.
I wonder if years or decades from now, when we look back on the cataclysms of our time, we might see how God’s grace allowed us to grow and learn and rise, even amidst the bleakest hardships. What might we come to know as a result of these days, that we don’t know right now?
Learning to wait for God is akin to learning a new form of physical exercise. Waiting is a muscle, and it has to be worked, toned, sculpted, and shaped over a sustained period of time. To sit and wait for God — not in bitterness, not with cynicism, not in fake and frozen piety — is serious spiritual work. But it is the invitation of Advent. To wait.
Thirdly, Advent prepares us for the God who is coming — a God who will turn out to be very different from the one we expect and maybe even hope to find.
I am always struck by the difference between the Biblical passages we read during Advent, and the ones we shift to when Christmas finally arrives. This week, Isaiah longs for a Very Big God to do Very Big Things. Recalling the history of the Exodus, he asks God to once again do "awesome deeds" — deeds that will make the mountains quake and the nations tremble. Come to us as fire, he pleads. Fire that kindles and burns, fire that sets the world boiling. Who among us has not prayed such prayers? Bring an end to the war in Israel and Gaza. Protect the refugees. Spare the children. Save the world!
But why stop there? Why not go further? Eradicate all illness. End world hunger. Root out corruption. Destroy systemic racism. Thwart corporate greed. Protect this wounded planet before we ravage it past saving, and most of all shield us, O Lord, from our sinful, self-destructive selves. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!"
I don't believe I can — or should — stop praying these prayers. God is big, and when I come to God in prayer, dreaming of a just and wholly redeemed world, I know I'm dreaming a tiny version of God's own dream. But during Advent, I am asked to prepare myself for something else. Someone else. Someone so unexpected and so small, I'm tempted to either laugh or cry at the thought of him. The world is falling apart, my heart is exhausted, people are dying, and God chooses to send me … a baby?
In his sermon entitled, "The Face in the Sky," Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God:
"Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant's child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too."
What are we to make of this? The God who is limitless chooses limits: one womb, one backwater town, one bygone century, one brief life, one agonizing death. The salvation we long for is not the salvation he brings. These are not easy or comfortable truths to accept; they're truths to wrestle with hard and long. Truths to weep over. Truths to receive with gentleness and care.
Come Christmas, I want to be ready to receive God as God is. Not as I might wish God to be, or insist God become. Advent is my time to prepare for the Savior who is.
So. Here we are. Exactly where we need to be. Here we are, wrestling with the brokenness of the world and the hiddenness of our God. Here we are, voicing our laments and registering our yearnings. Here we are, waiting. Here we are, preparing ourselves for the God who is coming.
“Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down.” This is an honest prayer, and we need not fear it. It's okay to pray into the silence, the hiddenness, and the absence. It's okay to struggle with Advent and its complicated gifts.
So pray and wait. Wait and pray. As much as you can, be patient. Be still. Hope fiercely. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender is forming. Something beautiful — something for the world's saving — waits to be born.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
U.A. Fanthorpe (1929–2009)
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009) graduated from Oxford University, after which she taught at Cheltenham Ladies' College for sixteen years. She later worked as a clerk and receptionist at a psychiatric hospital. In 1994, she was the first woman to be nominated to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Fanthorpe published some twenty books of poetry, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com