In our home, it begins the day after Thanksgiving. The red and green storage bins are retrieved from the basement. Ornaments and decorations are unboxed, unwrapped and laid out in the staging area on the dining room table just out of reach of the littlest hands in the home. The perfect tree is found, usually after reaching a compromise between Jenny’s ideal of how full and fat it should be and the reality of how much space we actually have. Over the course of a weekend, the space is prepared.
It happens in churches, too, though rather than the commercial red and green it’s the liturgical blue and purple that adorn our space – colors of preparation and repentance. With banners and flowers, candles and greens, in stages throughout Advent, our sacred space begins to reflect the themes and images of this season.
At my previous church, this included the nativity or crèche that was placed on the altar table each year. The elements were always set in phases so that the manger stayed empty until Christmas Eve, when the figurine of Jesus was retrieved from storage and set in swaddling clothes. Throughout the Sundays of Advent, the manger bed was empty, which prompted my then 2 yr old to ask persistently, week after week: “Where’s Jesus?”
It’s the question that we all ask in some way here at the start of another Advent. Jesus, where are you? Who knows where you are, Jesus? Who can go retrieve you and present you to the rest of us? How and when and where will the Messiah be made known?
It’s the question behind the persistent Advent prayer, “O Come, O Come.” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” we sing in this season, for the word “Advent” derives from a Latin word that means “coming.” In Advent, we are waiting for a promised coming, which can often seem more distant than the Christmas Eve already plotted on calendars a few weeks away. So persistent was this hope for the earliest Christians, that many would greet one another with the Aramaic expression “maranatha” – meaning “Come, Lord Jesus.” When they gathered together or parted ways, they didn’t say hello or goodbye but “Come, Lord Jesus,” because this hope of the Messiah shaped their entire relationship as Christian community and they wanted to live with alertness and readiness for the one who was coming to them.
This Advent, we’re making it our communal prayer: “O Come, O Come.” The Carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is based on an early worship tradition of the Church. In the last week of Advent leading up to Christmas, seven different prayers were chanted, asking Messiah to come. Seven different names were used, reflecting different ways we know the coming of Christ, and expressing the waiting – the yearning – of these early Christians, that Christ might come to them. We’re remembering these statements and echoing them in worship this Advent, including today as we sing “O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of Might.”
But where is this Lord of might? Where’s Jesus?
This messianic hope of a coming Lord of strength and might is rooted in a name we hear throughout the Hebrew scriptures – one of the primary spoken names for God: “Adonai.” It means Lord, sovereign one, leader, the one who appeared to Moses in a bush and led the Israelites to freedom. So too, Lord we pray, come and deliver us with your outstretched arm.
It’s the one to whom the ancient prophet Isaiah cries in our passage today, his yearning welling up almost with frustration or lamentation, “God, how we wish you would break open the heavens and come down…how we wish the mountains would quake…how we wish you would make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to tremble.”
Where is this Lord of might? How I wish we could unbox this Lord anew each Advent. I wish we could know where Adonai is found. I wish we could unwrap and lay out on the table all the evidence of God’s awesome deeds, the great spectacle and display, for that’s a God we can always see. I wish we could hear the quakes and thunder, or that’s a God we can always hear. Where is that Lord found?
As it is, God comes to us with far more vulnerability, fragility than that. This year, amidst the unrestrained joy of our family decorating day, with four adorable flannel pajama-clad kids running around, Jenny and I realized that the odds are stacked against our keepsakes and breakables. Frankly, they don’t stand a chance. Within 90 secs we lost a glass taxi cab with a Santa hat that was special to us from our first New York City Christmas (and replaceable on ebay for a mere $45). Then down went a sand dollar painted with my name by one of my aunts in the early 80s. Then it was the hallmark ornament we bought our first Christmas as a married couple. The poor glass ornaments never saw it coming.
With the sound of each crash I was reminded me of my excitement as a child, and how careful my mother urged my sister and me to be as we unboxed and unwrapped the ceramic figurines from our family nativity set, evenly distributing the pieces. But amidst our enthusiasm one year, we became careless and there was that sound of broken clay. The manger, with infant baby, slid right off the table and broke. And I remember my mother tearing up as she held it in two pieces in her hands.
Because maybe it wasn’t just a figurine that was broken.
We read Isaiah in Advent, and remember that sometimes thing in us get broken. Isaiah says, “You, O Lord, are the clay and we are the potter… we are all the work of your hand.” We are created by a sovereign God. We are molded by God’s loving design and put on earth for God’s purpose. But pottery gets broken. And Isaiah is saying that we get broken, too.
Isaiah is sometimes called “the prophet of Advent” because he knows so well the brokenness of this world, and the longing that Messiah will come and repair it. And he is so important to us in our own Advent, because we know both of those things, too.
The single book we have in our Old Testament – Isaiah – is generally understood to have three parts, written around various periods and experiences of exile. The first part was written before the people of Jerusalem were conquered and taken into exile for 70 years. The second part was written from the perspective of people in exile. And the third part was drafted amidst return to the Holy City and the anticipation of new life and promised redemption. Isaiah 64 is part of that third portion – after exile – amidst return and the expectation that all will be repaired and fixed, only to find that so much is still broken. Jerusalem devastated, rubble where there had once been glory, far from the memories that had sustained the people through their waiting. And through it all there is a God whom they can’t seem to see, can’t seem to hear: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,”
The theologian Walter Bouman once compared this ancient prayer to words he found in his favorite book – not a heavy, scholarly tome, but a little volume: Children’s Letters to God. Bouman used to say that you can find every major theological question and every major theological issue somewhere in those letters:
Like this letter from Joyce: “Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.”
There’s this one from Larry: “Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own room. It works with my brother.”
And then there’s this urgent message fro Harriet Anne: “Dear God, Are you real? Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you’d better do something quick. Love, Harriet Anne.”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down to make your name known.”
I feel I cry that prayer, or something like it, everyday. Like the Israelites, who should have been happy and fulfilled with dreams realized and Promised Land recreated, I know the reality that sometimes when it seems like we have everything we’ve ever wanted, God can still seem far away.
I don’t know about you, but there are those times when I’ve bowed my head to pray and I felt nothing. Sensed nothing happening. The words couldn’t come. And who knows where they went when I spoke them, but certainly no higher than the ceiling.
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I wanted to say the right thing to the person lost or grieving, and I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t reach it.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched helplessly as the wicked prosper and innocents suffer. I’ve become discouraged that justice and peace and compassion seem so weak and so pitiful in the face of the realities of this world with its pervasive greed and selfishness and violence.
I’ve prayed that prayer for loved ones, dear friends, struggling with challenge or critical illness, and sensing the absence of the one in whom they’ve placed their trust.
“Show us something God… tear open the heavens and come down… do something, quick”
We get broken. And we need Advent, because we are broken and despite our best efforts, there are some things in life that we can’t fix on our own. We need Advent, because we have to name what’s broken. What in my life, in my relationships, in my actions is broken? What in my spiritual life or emotional life is broken? What in my neighborhood, my nation, my world is broken? In Advent we name those things. And we need Advent, to remember the promise of the one who is with us. Amidst our brokenness, Isaiah prays that God will come to us and heal us. Paul says this happens by God sending Christ to dwell among us.
That is why we need Advent. We know that our healing – our restoration – happens though the life and gospel of Jesus Christ. And so we wait and we watch, saying “O Come, O Come”
It was Advent season, 2001, and my friend David was broken. A lawyer in Manhattan, David had worked not far from the World Trade Center and he and his family – his wife and two children – had lived just a few blocks away from the site of the towers. Immediately after September 11, 2001, David and his family moved across the river to Queens, and his office relocated, but something continued to compel David back to the site of so much tragedy and loss. He found that multiple nights a week as he left the office, he would walk over to the site – at that time simply a hole, a work zone – and walking amidst all that loss, David would cry out to God in his own way, praying for all those he loved who had lost so much more than him, dealing with his own trauma, praying for our world and nation hysterical with its grief and anger and headlong toward war and conflict ahead.
He would walk around the perimeter of the safety fencing, praying and lamenting, and one night as he walked he saw a fanatical street preacher. The man was shouting in dramatic apocalyptic language and drawing on the imagery of the scene. God was tearing things open, he said. The end was near. To accentuate his message, the man was draped in a sandwich board sign that had written on both sides in red letters: Jesus is coming.
David was incensed at the man. He could barely process his anger at the man’s opportunism, and his desolation of this site with his warped theology and his proclamation of an angry and wrathful God. And then David realized what above all else made him so angry. The sign said “Jesus is coming.” But David realized that Jesus was already there.
“Tear open the heavens and come down,” we pray. “Show up” we cry. “Do something, quick.” And amidst our waiting and wandering this year, around the perimeter of it all, somewhere deep in your heart and mine we come to understand that God has heard our cry. In the birth of a child on the backside of an inn, God did something. With that child’s growth and eventual appearance in the wilderness and baptism by John in the presence of so many in the disenfranchised mass, God opened the heavens and said “this is my son, the beloved.” As he healed, and welcomed and dwelled among us, and taught about another WAY, and modeled greatness in service and power in weakness, God did come down.
And as Jesus died, dwelled in the darkness of the tomb, and then on the third day, when death could not contain him and the love and power of God defeated the powers of sin, violence and injustice, and that child born in Bethlehem rose up and walked into the early light of a Jerusalem morning, God definitively, once and for all, answered that prayer, “God, do something, quick.”
So let us be watchful and waiting, just as Jesus urged his friends to be. If we’re not, we might miss God’s redeeming, healing, and restoring love appearing in the middle of life. We might look in the wrong places, or expect the wrong kind of appearance. We might expect a Lord of might to rip open the heavens with grand display, when instead God sneaks into a barn on the backside of an inn. We might end up like the wise ones drawn to a royal palace, instead of stable near where shepherds tend sheep. We might prove to be like the preoccupied travelers, who don’t ever notice what is happening around the edges of the story out behind the inn. We might expect a Lord of might, forgetting that Christ is known most clearly in vulnerability and weakness. We might pull the ceramic baby Jesus out of the box, unwrap it from the paper and set it on the table, without even noticing the crack that runs right down the middle.
Christ was broken. But Christ did not stay broken. And as we wait this Advent, that same love promises to come and make us whole again.