In the popular imagination, Advent is often depicted as the slow liturgical crescendo leading up to Christmas day.
Each day of the advent calendar presents waiting children with something sweet and delightful. In designing worship services, it can be enjoyable to ride this wave of enthusiasm and expectation, and to revel in the flourishes of the season: the advent candles, the steady influx of gifts in the mail, and welcoming the Baby Jesus to the local creche.
But in preparing for Advent we miss something crucial if we overlook the fact that at the heart of Advent is a deep wound: God’s groaning, limping creation still waits for its healer to appear in glory and bring into reality what Christians know through faith.1 To use the language of this week’s epistle, we “wait for the revealing [literally, apokalupsin] of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7). Advent is a time when we wait for the apocalypse. But 2020 feels apocalyptic enough that it just might work this year to explore the more wistful side of the season.
With these thoughts in mind, both Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalm 80 are suitable Old Testament texts for this week. Isaiah 64:1-9 is part of a larger lament that begins in 63:7 and runs all the way to 64:12. The lectionary segment (64:1-9) raises a exilic cry, and draws attention to the painful—but all too familiar—reality of unfulfilled promises:
O that you [Yhwh] would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence (64:1-3, NRSV).
The poet highlights two points of anguish. The first is God’s distance. God is “up there” in the heavens, aloof, distant, and unavailable to save God’s people (verse 1). The second source of anguish is the poet’s memory. Verse 3 refers to God’s world-shaking deeds in Israel’s past. The fact that Yhwh had acted on behalf of God’s people in the past (think of the Exodus or God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib in 701) is actually a source of pain and anguish, because these actions in the past stand in such stark contrast to God’s apparent lack of action in the present.
Psalm 80 has a similar spirit. Unlike other psalms of complaint, Psalm 80 never resolves with praise. It begins with imperatives:
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us! (Psalm 80:1-2).
And the psalm ends with imperatives, indicating that the earlier requests have yet to be fulfilled:
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved (Psalm 80:19).
Like the season of Advent itself, Psalm 80 exists in unresolved tension. The one whom it calls upon is assumed to be faithful, but that faithfulness remains hidden. Salvation is a hope but not a reality.
The remarkable events of 2020 demonstrate with stinging clarity our deep need to be rescued from the suffocating tentacles of sin. 2020 is our creation, plain and simple. But the fact that we made it, doesn’t mean we can get out of it. We may be so entrenched in our own mire that only the strongest of hands can pull us out.
But the situation is worse. The events of this year also draw attention to the profound contradiction between God’s promises and the brutal realities of life on this earth. Human beings are busy destroying one another and creation, but what makes matters worse is that God continues to permit it. To do a little bit of jazz with Mark 13, the tribulation is here but the Son of Man remains in the clouds (Mark 13:24-26).
The painful irony is that the stronger our faith in the God of Israel, the more deeply we feel this contradiction. Advent invites us to linger on these matters, not only on the expectation of Christ’s second advent but also on the disappointing fact that it hasn’t happened yet. When this is acknowledged, several poignant questions come to the fore:
- God, we celebrate your first coming but what of the second?
- Why must peace tarry so long?
- If Jesus truly is the “Prince of Peace,” then why do conflict, war, and aggression still prevail in this world?
- When will death finally be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:8)?
- How much longer must creation “groan” in expectation of your glory (Romans 8:22-23)?
- Will wickedness always prevail over vulnerability?
Advent takes the hard questions seriously. It defies any attempt to explain them away through trite answers and instead opens up liturgical space where they can exist in painful dialogical tension with Christ’s lavish promises.
- No one has explicated the suffering of God better than Terence Fretheim. His famous book, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) remains one of the most significant works of Old Testament theology. For my remembrance of Fretheim’s work, see https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/remembering-dr-terence-fretheim/