Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means that we've started a new church year. Advent is the season including the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. I posted recently about "Why Advent" and my sermons throughout the season will expound upon that. I hope that you are all able to find a holy place of anticipation and grace this year as we await the coming of the Messiah.
This morning's scripture is Isaiah 64:1-9.
Well, that’s a strange passage to read when we’re waiting for a little baby King. Rend the heavens. Boil the water. Make the nations QUAKE before you! Oh, and we’re a mess but please don’t be angry, God!
Why do we read this stuff when we’re preparing our hearts for the joy of Christmas? I think it’s helpful if we back up a few steps. Let’s press the pause button on Isaiah 64 for a few minutes and come back to it. You may want to keep your finger on that page of your Bible so you can flip back to it, though.
I recently picked up Phyllis Tickle’s book of essays called, “What the Heart Already Knows.” It’s a collections of stories about Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I really enjoy her books and encourage each of you to look into some of them at some point. In the prologue to this book, Tickle says this:
The four Sundays which precede Christmas Day itself are the calendar by which we mark the passing of the Advent season and the approach of the Christmas one. These have traditionally been times of retreat and introspection for Christians. . . to consider with godly fear and joy the blending of our life into the divine process.
In the church’s scheme of things, Christmas as such begins, and Advent ends, with the birth of Our Lord. The Feast of the Nativity is usually celebrated by most Christians, of course, on Christmas Eve and the midnight service. . .
The twelve days of Christmas come to an end on January 6, and the season of epiphany begins. But Epiphany not only ends Christmas, it also fulfills it by celebrating the revelation of the Christ to the whole world. The coming of the incarnate God to all people, especially to those of us who are by race Gentiles, is the bridge from birth to life, the event that makes Easter possible for most of us. The light of the Epiphany illuminates the human races from whom the kings came.
Holy seasons, like holy days, were not so much invented by the church as they were invented by life itself, I think. By common consent we hold to and preserve that which living has shown us contains the truths of both humankind and God.
Advent is too holy to give it up, my friends. Christmas is too holy for us to give up the sacred bookends of Advent and Epiphany. Advent is not just the beginning of the church year or the lead up to the main event. It is a holy and sacred time of reflection, of anticipation, and of hope.
Now, if you go to the index or concordance in the back of your Bible, you’re unlikely to find the words, “Advent,” or “Epiphany,” or even “Christmas.” Some of us might think to turn to Luke 2 for the Christmas story and perhaps we can even hear Linus from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” reciting the passage in our heads, but figuring out where to look for Advent is a little more complicated. If Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and Advent is the time of reflection and waiting leading up to Christmas, where do we turn to in the Bible for Advent? (We’ll tackle Epiphany in January after Christmas.) Advent’s not really connected to a story, right?
Well. . . it’s not really connected to one specific story in the Bible as we generally think of them, but it certainly has a narrative. It’s connected to the whole story of the Bible. There are many many stories in the Bible, but it’s not just a collection of small stories and poetry. The Bible tells a larger story that runs from the beginning of time to the end of time.
I saw a really funny comic strip the other day. It was the Bible for those who decided it was too long to read. It went like this:
God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.
Adam & Eve: OK.
Satan: You should to the thing.
Adam & Eve: OK
God: What happened!?
Adam & Eve: We did the thing.
God: Guys. . .
THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.
People: We won’t do the things.
People: We did the things.
God: Guys. . .
It continues into the Gospels with God sending Jesus to love the people and live in them even though they keep doing “the things.” (By “the things,” the comic is referring generally to sin.) And the people accuse Jesus of doing “the things” and Jesus of course didn’t do the things, but they kill him anyway. And even after Jesus is raised from the dead and comes to dwell in each of us, we keep doing the things and he keeps loving us in spite of that.
Not only did this make my giggle like crazy, I thought it was a great example of highlighting the overall story of the Bible.
We keep doing “the things.” We can’t help it. And we know we did “the things.” We know we need God. The Israelites knew they were a wreck and they were in a terrible mess and they needed God. They needed a Messiah, a Savior to rescue them from exile and slavery, from war and oppression. That the part of the story we look to in Advent. That’s where we go in Scripture. We look at the story of waiting for the Messiah. We look at the story of “We did the things.”
That’s why Isaiah is such a popular book of the Bible this time of year. It’s certainly not popular because of how easy it is to understand. Isaiah by itself is difficult to process. But when you read it in light of the story, remembering the situation the people of Israel are in when Isaiah is writing, it starts to fall into place. And it’s place, for much of the book anyway, is Advent.
The people need God to come down! The end of the Old Testament is full of angst and longing and waiting for the Messiah that God promises. From our perspective, thousands of years later, it’s easy to say that the Messiah came – end of story. We’re saved. But we are still a mess. We’re still doing “the things.” Advent connects both to the ancient story of Israel and to the very modern story of each of our hearts. We’re still waiting for the fullness of redemption. We are redeemed because Jesus Christ came to us long ago in time and space, but we are also still waiting for Jesus to come again, because (and this is where the comic ends) until he comes again, we will keep submitting ourselves to Satan’s suggestion that we do “the things.”
There’s a real urgency to this passage in Isaiah. “As when fire sets blaze to twigs to boil water!” Fire is powerful and urgent. In Isaiah’s description here, the very sky is torn in half with the suddenness and power of God coming down. It strikes me as strange that Isaiah doesn’t just stop by saying “As when fire sets blaze to twigs.” That seems like a complete description of what’s happening. But there’s this silly pot of water over the twigs. It’s not just an unkempt forest fire. This fire has a distinct and clear purpose: to boil that water.
I’m sure most of you have heard the old saying, “ A watched pot never boils.” It’s a silly idiom, because a watched pot does boil, it’s just that it seems to take FOREVER. It’s like when you’re really hungry and the 3 minutes you set on the microwave to reheat the leftovers feels like it’s taking HOURS. The fire strikes quickly in Isaiah 64, but it still has to boil the water and boiling water takes time.
Scientifically speaking, it’s possible to make water boil instantly. There’s a Mythbusters episode in which they explore this idea. (If you’ve never watched the TV show Mythbusters, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It is science at both its most exciting and its absolute silliest.) The problem is, if you instantly boil water, it explodes. You have to let it boil naturally or you don’t wind up with any water in the pot or cup at all. Even more interestingly, the thing that makes water boils is that most water has imperfections. Perfectly distilled water in a controlled environment won’t boil, it will just superheat and get really really hot. Then when you drop impurities into it (like a sugar cube), it immediately boils and can no longer be contained by the cup it was in.
We can look at Advent as the time in which the water is boiling. The fire Isaiah prayed for has come, but the water is still boiling. And think about boiling water. It looks like it’s just sitting there in the pot, but it’s not really just sitting there in the pot. It’s moving! It’s active! The molecules of the water start to get excited! They start vibrating around and bumping into each other and just sort of generally going wild! It’s the motion that ultimately causes the bubbles and the change of the water from liquid to gas. The water doesn’t boil itself, it’s the heat from the fire that boils the water, but the motion of the molecules is important for the transformation that occurs.
Tickle ends the prologue to the book I quoted earlier with:
We live in a culture still too new to yet have defined itself and under a government so young that my own lifetime has spanned a quarter of its history. In such times and circumstances I have found, in the heritage of the church, a transcendent purpose and connectedness for my own part of creation.”
When we see ourselves not as the whole pot of water but as the molecules of water that are rattling around in the pot heating up, waiting to boil, shaking with the excitement of knowing that the boiling is coming, we can’t help but bump into the other molecules. We’re connected to them somehow. They are all waiting too. We experience the boiling together.
Advent is meant to be a time of reflection – both individually and as a community. It’s a time to be purposeful about spending time reading the Bible and exploring devotional books and praying with and for one another. Let it be a time to consider the whole story and to pray Isaiah’s words as if they were our own. As we’re going about our shopping and decorating in preparation for Christmas, let’s remember that preparation for Christmas is exactly what those things are. Christmas isn’t decorating and shopping. It’s way more than that. As we prepare our homes and offices and schools for Christmas, let’s remember to be preparing our hearts for that great day as well. Let every external preparation have with it an internal meditation or prayer or reflection on God’s great love revealed to us in Jesus Christ and daily renewed in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.