An Isaiah Advent
The other day I was watching a webinar by my favourite contemporary theologians: Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon.They were discussing how preachers should approach Advent. In particular, in view of everything that has been happening in this last year, how preachers should approach this Advent. They said that in Advent we are presented with a choice: Either we can have the sharpness of John the Baptist, or we can have the comfort of the prophet Isaiah. The choice, they suggested, is between John’s bitingly clear call to repentance, and Isaiah’s promise of God’s rescue. In view of where we are now, and what has been happening, they concluded, what we need this year is an Isaiah Advent.
Isaiah lived through critical, even catastrophic times in the history of Israel. He saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon. He experience the end of the independence of the people of Israel, and went through the times in which there was a real risk in which they would lose their identity as God’s people. By the time he spoke the words which we have just heard, he was at least back in Jerusalem. The people were struggling to re-establish national life, begin again their witness as God’s people. But even here things didn’t seem to be going right. Isaiah cries out:
O that you would tear open the heavens.
Is this despair, or is it hope? Isaiah reaches a point where all he can do is cry out: “Oh God!”
In the past year, every time we have put on the television news we have perhaps found reason to gasp, “Oh God!” As if being threatened with environmental collapse were not enough, or that divided and ill tempered politics weren’t sufficient, we are living through a global pandemic. Which not only has destroyed lives but is also destroying livelihoods which sustain lives. And in the midst of all that, once more racial injustice has also been brought back into sharper focus. “Oh God! Is this not enough?”
Perhaps it is desperation. Isaiah calls out to God when there is no one else left to turn to. Isaiah is hardly unusual in this respect. I suspect that more or less everyone, even those who claim not to believe, pray in this way. Even when it looks and sounds like a profanity, I wonder also if it is not a completely sincere prayer. There are some situations which are so desperate, some crises that are so threatening, that God is indeed the only place to turn.
But in Isaiah’s case I think it is more than despair. It is hope. He trusts that God will act. God will break down the barrier that exists between human beings and God. God will intervene to rescue his people, who place their trust in him.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things for modern people to accept and to believe is the idea that God acts. We find it hard sometimes to believe that God would or even could intervene. Our understanding of the world leads us to believe that we live in a closed system of cause and effect. There are the laws of nature and they cannot be broken. Yet looking back over our lives many of us, in hindsight, could identify moments of grace. There have been times when all we could do was trust in the goodness of God, and our trust was not disappointed.
Isaiah looked back over his own life and the history of his people and arrived at a similar conclusion:
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who works wonders for those who wait for him.
Looking into the past, and previous experiences of God’s grace and God’s goodness to him and his people, Isaiah is able to conclude that God does indeed act, even within the laws of nature and the closed systems of cause and effect.
Isaiah is the New Testament’s book of the Hebrew Bible. Christians have a particular way of reading Isaiah and the other prophets. We see what Isaiah and the other spoke about God fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The hope which Isaiah expresses become an especially clear reality in Jesus. And especially in the image of the heavens being torn open.
Today is the first Sunday of a new lectionary year which we means that we begin reading a different Gospel today, this year the Gospel is Mark. It is no accident that the ministry of Jesus described in Mark’s Gospel begins and ends with the tearing open of the boundary between humans and God. At his baptism Jesus does see the heavens torn open. And the Holy Spirit descends upon him, marking his ministry as God intervening and active in our world. As Jesus dies on the cross, the curtain in the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom, marking the end of that boundary that separates humans from God. Isaiah looks back and gains confidence for the future when he sees God has done in the past. Christians likewise have hope, even in an Advent like this one, because they can look back to the ministry of Jesus and see what God has already done.
But it is not that Isaiah is all comfort, without any of the sharpness of John the Baptist! Isaiah recognises that he and his people have responsibility in the circumstances they find themselves in. Perhaps the same could be said of us now. Sometimes it can be very difficult to disentangle the degrees of responsibility we as a the human race and as individuals must bear for the circumstances we find ourselves in. How much of what we have seen in the last year just the accidents of history, have they just happen to have happened? And how much is down to us? And how much of that blame rests on the human race as a whole? How much on certain individuals within our race? And how much do we have to blame ourselves as individuals?
The ruin of the earth’s environment does look like it’s “our” fault? The human race as a whole is to blame. But how much impact individuals are actually having is difficult to say. It’s too easy to shift the blame onto everyone, when no one has been given much choice about how they are able to live. On the other hand most of the damage to the environment is being done by a relatively small number of corporations. These organisations are run by individuals who make the decisions, and as the environmental movement points out, these individuals have names and they have addresses.
Covid perhaps does look like one of those things that happen to have happened. Except that the destruction of the environment has a role in the transmission of diseases found among animals into human populations. Covid follows on from swine flu and bird flu. And Covid’s spread has been slowed or accelerated by the choices which societies, governments have made.
Our fractious politics and racial justice look like they are beyond our control. Yet whether we like it or not we are part of those systems that we have benefited from or been victim of. We are so tangled up in the mess that the world is in that we cannot be sure that even our best effort to do what is right and what Is good are not some how corrupted. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed of the burden of guilt that it is being held responsible for things we couldn’t have taken responsibility for.
Isaiah feels the same conflicted sense of reproach and guilt. He knows that he and his people have failed. Individually and collectively they are to blame. But at the same time he also recognises that there is much in their situation that was out of their control. Typical of a Psalm – since that is what Isaiah has given us here – typical of a Psalm, Isaiah’s words are not afraid to reproach God. Isaiah voice his sorrow and anger and frustration and directs them towards God:
But you were angry and we sinned, because you hid yourself we transgressed.
No more than we can, Isaiah cannot disentangle the different layers of responsibility for the crisis he was living through. But he does acknowledge that he and his neighbours do have to carry some of the blame themselves. The sharpness of John cannot be altogether avoided in Advent, with his call to confession and repentance. Isaiah offers God his confession:
We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
Advent is a time of looking forward. We take it as a time to look forward to the celebration of Christmas. But in reality it is more profound season of looking forward. It is about looking beyond our current circumstances towards a future which God is promising. We long for the current crises to be brought to end. We want an answer to the crisis in the environment to be found. We long for a vaccine and a reliable cure to Covid be developed, so that our normal live can be restored. And as Christians we must seek reconciliation and demand justice. All of this weighs heavy on us now so that we might cry out:
O that you would tear open the heavens.
Isaiah knows that is a prayer that will be answered. He is confident in God. But he also knows that anyone who prays to God like that must be prepared to wait. Because he knows that God can be relied upon to act when least expected. His confidence grows out not just from what he has already seen God do, but from who those actions show God to be:
Yet O Lord you are our Father.
As followers of Jesus we have greater grounds for confidence than Isaiah that that is true. God is our Father, he has made us all and hates nothing that he has made. God works only good for those who trust him and wait for him. That is the kind of Advent we need this year.
An Isaiah Advent by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0