“O That You Would Come Down”
I admit, I’ve been so busy preparing–preparing my new apartment with unpacking and organizing and moving things around; preparing for the new Advent liturgy and the new music/the hanging of the greens; preparing to decorate the church (and baking cookies for the Christmas party); preparing for my own Christmas (at this point mostly by trying to find all of my Christmas decorations scattered through various boxes around my apartment and getting them at least in one unified pile)–I’ve been so busy with all these other preparations that I found myself sitting down to write this sermon this morning. This is something I do sometimes, that I totally hate. Sermon writing should be something I approach with more respect than a Sunday morning rush allows.
We’re in the season of Advent now, the season of preparation. To be fair, we’re also weeks away from Christmas, making it a time of preparation on a whole other level: baking cookies, buying or making Christmas cards and then mailing them out, putting up the tree, buying presents, planning holiday travel or a Christmas dinner, hanging up lights. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things.
But Advent is also a time of waiting, as we wait for Christmas and Christ’s return, just as in this hemisphere we wait for the days to get longer and more full of light again. We wait for God’s justice in the midst of our own sin and the world’s, as we see all around us broken systems and death and hunger and pain.
That is why we join Isaiah in praying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” We long for Christ’s return; we long to feel and know God’s presence in the midst of our pain and grief, in the midst of our busy-ness and stress. It’s a beautiful prayer, deep and full.
But we also can’t take it out of context. Isaiah was fully aware of the power and danger of God’s presence and God’s return: God’s presence, he says, is like “when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil”–essentially, a forest fire so ragingly hot that it boils away streams and rivers. Even in the prayer for God’s presence, Isaiah talks about God “tearing the heavens” to reach earth, and how “the mountains would quake.” That’s a full-on earthquake. I know it sounds poetic and wonderful, a beautiful illustration of God’s power, but being in an actual earthquake is, by all accounts, an utterly terrifying experience. How many people really expect the earth, our solid ground, to suddenly become unstable, to move beneath our feet so violently that it disrupts our balance and destroys buildings and reroutes rivers? Our foundation, the one thing we depend on, suddenly becomes completely untrustworthy.
And that’s just God’s presence. That doesn’t even take into account what Isaiah continues to point out, which is that we are utterly unworthy of God’s presence anyway: that even when we try to do good, try to follow God and worship well and do all those things we know we should do–even then, “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth, …. and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Advent is a time of preparation, because we are not ready.
And this isn’t preparation we can do ourselves. Sure, we can read Scripture and pray, light candles and read a devotional–we can participate in the preparation–but ultimately, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Paul says the same thing to his fellow Christians in Corinthia: God “will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful.”
That is, the work of our preparation is ultimately God’s.
We can participate–we can pray, and listen, and act–but the grace and strength for our participation comes from God. The words on where to go and where to stay come from God. This day we are preparing for, the day of justice and peace and joy and healing–and of God’s full, overwhelming, destructive presence–is all made possible and fulfilled through God alone.
And so I’d like to end by saying: I know there’s a lot of pressure about how to prepare for Christmas, about how to do Advent, about having to do it all perfectly according to some unattainable standard. I know. But God is the one who prepares us. God is the one who prepared for Christ’s birth, just as God is the one who is preparing us all for Christ’s return. You don’t have to worry about it; you don’t have to strive for perfection with all the desperation of finding your worth in that perfection, for it is God who perfects and prepares us. Instead, let God prepare you. Listen. Find God’s grace in all of your mistakes through the seasons, all of the unfinished and imperfect tasks. And take hope. God is preparing us, and God is preparing the world.