A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky., on November 27, 2011.
Today, we begin our journey through Advent, a season of anticipation and preparation for Christmas. I like Dr. Bill Self’s description of Advent. He says it is like the hush in the theater just before the curtain rises.
For the next four weeks, we’ll look forward to and prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth on Christmas Day. All of our services and programs will be designed with this in mind. I look forward to making this journey with you and appreciate all who will lead us.
A few years ago, I attended a conference led by Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, where he talked about Advent. I was struck by his simple, yet profound, description of the season we embark on today. “Advent is about God coming out of hiding,” he told us.
We’re not very comfortable talking about the elusive nature of God. The ancient Israelites, however, had no problem doing this, and Psalm 64 is one of those places where they did.
“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” Isaiah 64:7.
It appears the people felt God to be so aloof and distant that they had quit praying and seeking His presence. As a result, they did not ask, but demanded that God intervene in their lives, just as God had done years before when He called Moses at the burning bush, delivered their ancestors from Egypt by parting the Red Sea, and gave them the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
According to Brueggemann, Isaiah plays hard ball with God in this text. He reminded God that He was their Father, and needed to act like a loving and responsible parent by entering into their struggles and helping them.
This was a strong message meant to stir the heart of God. It was written out of a time of frustration, anger and grief, and delivered with a great sense of urgency. Why? The people were hurting and needed God’s help. Their survival depended upon it. So, it was time for God to come to their aid and work again on their behalf.
Just what did they need God to help them do? They needed God’s help rebuilding their lives after returning to Jerusalem from fifty years of exile in Babylon.
You recall that many Jews were taken into captivity after the Babylonians invaded Judah in 597 and again in 587 B.C. When the Persians overthrew the Babylonians in 539 B.C., Cyrus allowed the deported Israelites to return to Jerusalem where they could resume the practice of their religious observances.
When they returned from their long and difficult exile, however, they were not prepared for what they encountered. Solomon’s temple, along with their personal property, lay in ruins. Life as they had known it was gone.
Rebuilding Jerusalem, the temple and their lives would be a daunting task. As a matter of fact, it was too much for them. Their spirits were crushed, and their will depleted. Without God’s help, they would not succeed, and to this point, their cries for help had fallen on what appeared to be deaf ears. God was silent, and they felt abandoned.
They also needed God’s help to overcome temptation. They were not treating one another very well. God’s perceived absence brought the worst out in them. As Brueggemann said, “When God was hidden, they were destructive.” They could not be gracious neighbors without God’s help, just as they could not rebuild their lives.
With this in mind, Isaiah appeals to God and demands that He be a caring Father. He pleads with God to listen to their cries for help, forgive them of their sins and walk closely with them along their journey.
At times, faith is a struggle, isn’t it? We all go through dry spells when God seems to be far away.
I don’t think this is abnormal. If the ancient Israelites felt this way, what makes us think we won’t?
What do you do when you don’t feel God near you? Don’t be alarmed. Even Mother Teresa confessed to enduring some dark nights of the soul when she felt estranged from God. What you are feeling is not unique, or a sign something is wrong with you.
Voice how you feel, as the narrator of our text did. Don’t be shy about expressing your confusion, anxiety, frustration, anger and despair. God can handle your honesty and boldness.
Some of my Jewish friends tell me that Christians are too nice to God. “At times, we take the gloves off and don’t pull any punches,” they confess. “When we are confused, upset, disappointed, frustrated or angry, we let God know it and don’t hesitate to tell God what we need from Him. This is what the prophets did, and we follow their lead.” Perhaps we should, too.
Don’t lose heart and give up, though. Don’t let your struggles have the final word in your life. Allow God time to work behind the scenes on your behalf, as God has done countless times before.
As important as Isaiah 64 is, it is not the end of the story. The temple was rebuilt under the direction of Zerubbabel around 515 B.C. Under Nehemiah’s leadership seventy years later, Jerusalem was reconstructed and repopulated.
This indicates to me that God entered into their struggle and helped them along their journey. This task of rebuilding the temple, their beloved city and their lives could never have been accomplished without divine help.
In the manger in Bethlehem, though, we see God’s most vivid and dramatic response to humanity’s need. “The maiden will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means, God with us” the messenger from God told Joseph in a dream. The incarnation invites us, in the words of theologian Dr. Colin Harris, “to think about a God who comes to us, as distinct from a God who is ‘Wholly Other’ and unapproachable.”
Is your life a mess now? Has your world been turned upside down? Are you struggling with some powerful temptations? Has adversity brought the worst out in you?
Be patient. I assure you God cares and wants to help you. Actually, I am confident God is already working on your behalf.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair, and it is no good trying to reach the joy without the despair.”
Advent is about more than God coming out of hiding, however. I think it is also about believers coming out of hiding and making hope visible.
It is about followers of Jesus being engaged in the lives of those who are struggling. It is about hearing others’ pleas for help, walking alongside them on their journey, sharing resources with them, forgiving them for the mistakes they have made and helping them rebuild their lives. It is about believers rolling their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty. It is about God’s people becoming the presence of Christ in a hurting world by opening their hearts, lives, pocketbooks and homes to those others turn away.
Who needs your help and wonders if you care? Who among you is trying to survive in these tough times or attempting to rebuild his or her life? Who has suffered the death of a mate, failure of a marriage, loss of a job, the devastating effects of an illness or the humiliation of a moral lapse? What will your response be?
What do you need to do during Advent to let someone know you care and want to help them? What do you have to offer? Companionship. Encouragement. Advice. Hope. Money. Prayers. Are you offering these?
What would Isaiah say to you today? Perhaps he would say something similar to what he said to God. “You call yourself a believer, well, act like it! Be a loving and responsible neighbor. Enter the world of the hurting and walk beside them on their journey.”
Who did this for you? Who entered your world during one of the most difficult times in your life and saved you? Who heard your cries for help and responded? Where would you be today without them?
Come out of hiding during Advent this year. Open your eyes and heart to those around you who are struggling to rebuild their lives and help them. I can think of nothing you can do which would prepare you better for the celebration of Christmas!