Isaiah 64:1-9 (NIV)
1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? 6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7 No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.
8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.
Mark 13:24-37 New International Version (NIV)
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
What a strange way to start Advent. Today’s texts are obviously from the Lectionary because I would never choose these passages as a way to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. These passages talk about pain, suffering, and the end of the world as we know it. Merry Christmas? But I am glad that someone chose these passages because I think that these passages will help us as we prepare for the birth of our Lord by reminding us why we need him in the first place.
Our passage from Isaiah 64 is one that we paraphrase often in the church, especially verse 8, You are the potter, we are the clay. We are the work of your hand. What beautiful imagery of a gentle God who shapes us, molds us, and forms us into the people that he wants us to be. But to understand this passage we must back up and look at what has brought Isaiah to say these things and turn his life over to God’s formative hand. So, a quick overview of the book of Isaiah for you on this first Sunday of Advent.
The book of Isaiah spans a long period of time. It speaks of the Israelites going into exile and then returning 70(ish) years later. In Isaiah 40 we find God speaking to his people through the prophet Isaiah saying that their time in exile is over; they have paid the price for their sins. And now God is speaking words of comfort to them. They will be able to return to the Promised Land.
Isaiah 40-55 is this good news about God’s blessing of his people once again and God’s promises of how he will be with his people, moving among them, protecting them, delivering them, and providing for them. But the tone of Isaiah changes by chapter 56. Some time has passed and the blessings described in chapters 40-55 just don’t seem to be panning out in the way that the Israelites had expected. They were back in the Promised Land, but they weren’t thriving. They were surviving…barely. This just isn’t the way it is supposed to be and Isaiah seems to know why. The people are rebellious, living for themselves, not for God.
This is what prompts Isaiah to plead with God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Do something great, Lord! Make the mountains shake, set the trees ablaze, make the water boil, whatever it takes, just make yourself known! Do this, and the people will know that you are God and they will turn from their ways and worship you.
Isaiah remembers. Perhaps he remembers stories, or maybe he remembers events that he witnessed first-hand. Either way, he remembers. He remembers when God did awesome things that the people did not expect. And he wants God to do it again.
Our theme for Advent this year comes from this passage. Our theme is “Awesome Deeds We Do Not Expect.” We know what it is like to want God to do something awesome. Whether we are hoping for something awesome to happen in our lives to help us out of a difficult situation, or like Isaiah we are hoping for something awesome to call God’s people back to him, we want to see something awesome. We long to see God do something, because like the Israelites, we know that things just aren’t right. God, break into our world and reveal yourself to us once again.
We move forward about 530 years and we find Jesus already well into his ministry on earth. He is going from town to town, building up quite a reputation for himself, and stepping on some toes as he does it. At the beginning of chapter 13 Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and some of his disciples ask him when it will happen. And Jesus sees this as an opportunity to not only talk about the destruction of the temple, but the end of the world as we know it, the apocalypse.
I know that some people get excited about apocalyptic literature, but I am not one of them. There is a lot of symbolism being used in our text for today, and I could try to explain what these things might represent, but I would only be guessing and it would probably not mean anything to us anyway. But the point that we can take with us from this text from Mark is that Jesus entered into this world once, and he will do it again. As we celebrate the first Advent at this time of year, we know that there will be a second advent. We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but Jesus will come back and set the world right.
I know that apocalyptic literature can be scary to read with all of the symbolic language that it uses, but I don’t think it should be scary for us. It isn’t meant to scare us. As the people of God we should not fear this day. It is the day when the plea of Isaiah will be answered once again. Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down! He did rend the heavens and come down as Jesus. And he will come again. God will break into this world once again; we should expect awesome deeds.
But why the waiting? Why not break in and make things right, right now? I come back to that imagery offered to us by Isaiah. We are the clay and God is the potter. God is forming us for something, presumably to use us. When Isaiah uttered these words, I believe that he was contemplating the reasons for the current suffering of the people with hopes that it would not be in vain. Isaiah does not give a reason for the suffering, but rather trusts that the suffering is forming them into the people that God wants them to be. God the potter is forming them into something, though we aren’t told what. The point seems to be that there is a point. We are moving toward something. There is a goal, there is a telos, there is a plan for all of this. We are moving toward God breaking into this world once again. Expect the unexpected.
This week I got a few surprises that I think will help us better understand how we are to expect the unexpected. I have been working on a little project on our home since July (I know, it is almost December, and I am not anywhere close to done). I had been planning on designating a lot of time this week to working on this project, particularly the exterior of the project. I had ordered a manufactured stone veneer for our home’s exterior and I received a phone call the Friday before last that it had arrived and could be delivered to my home at a time convenient for me. And that day was Tuesday.
I can be like a little kid in a toy store when I am expecting a delivery, and I was watching for the delivery truck all morning on Tuesday, just waiting for my stone veneer to arrive. And then finally, the moment came when the truck pulled up to my house. My excitement was contagious and I got my little boy in his coat so he could come outside and see the big truck with our special delivery. We went outside and the delivery guy was getting the pallet down off the truck with a forklift and bringing it up my driveway. He brought it straight to my back door, got off his forklift, opened up the box and asked me, “Is this what you were expecting?”
I was expecting a shipment of concrete stones; however, what was there before me was four boxes of vinyl soffit. I don’t usually try to be a jerk, but sometimes it just happens. I just shook my head at the delivery guy and told him, “Not even close!” I might have said it a little too sarcastically. That’s story #1.
Story #2 took place on Wednesday at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. I took my wife and son to the airport to send them to Nebraska for the Thanksgiving holiday. And airports are kind of cool places, especially when you are not the one traveling and carrying all of those heavy bags. So after I got Sonya and Paxton through security, I decided to do what any 31-year-old, ordained, minister of the word of God would do when left alone in an airport. I played on the escalators and moving sidewalks.
You know what the moving sidewalk is, right? It is that conveyor belt that you can walk or stand on to move you and your baggage along at a faster, easier rate. And I had the next week or so all to myself without much to do, because I didn’t get my stone veneer, so I decided it would be a good time to do some research on things like how fast I could run on the moving sidewalk, walking the wrong way, and how long a man with no luggage and no ticket could play at the airport until security would ask him to leave. The answer is 27 minutes.
Here is the weird thing about the moving sidewalk: no matter how prepared I was for the end, it always jarred me. I was very aware that the sidewalk was coming to an end; I could see the end, I could hear the recording saying, “Warning, the sidewalk is coming to an end.” I would try to adjust my rate of travel and just walk normal off the end, but each time, it caused me to at least change my momentum and I wouldn’t be quite ready for the end of the sidewalk.
My thoughts on our texts for this week are reflected in these two stories. The more we think we know exactly what is coming, the more likely we are to be disappointed when it comes, or to miss it when it comes altogether. Isaiah wanted God to break into the world and for the mountains to tremble and the trees to burst into flames. On Christmas day about 2,000 years ago, God did break into this world. But he didn’t come in a mountain-shaking, tree-blazing, water-boiling manner. God came into this world as a baby, born in a manger to unmarried, common people. When we think we know exactly how something should happen, we are often disappointed, and we sometimes miss it altogether, just as many people likely have missed God entering this world through Jesus. They were expecting stone veneer, and they got vinyl soffit. Vinyl soffit is great, but the people were looking for something else and they missed it.
And even though we know that the end of the sidewalk is coming, or the world as we know it is coming to an end, we cannot fully know what to expect. It may be jarring, it may cause us to stumble. But we know it is coming, and we should be ready, lest we trip and fall. Being as ready as possible might be the difference between simply noticing that shift in momentum and stumbling and falling down.
This Advent season, I invite you to be ready because God moves in unexpected ways. And though we might not always be able to anticipate how God will move, we can be confident in knowing that God is active, moving, and about to do a great thing. God will do great things for us, and God will do great things through us. Expect the unexpected.