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First Sunday of Advent, Year B
3 December 2023

Isaiah 64:1-9 (expanded to Isaiah 63:7 – 64:12)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37


I have always liked Advent, not only because of candle light, the smell of evergreen boughs, and mulled apple that make their entrance in Advent. Mostly I have liked Advent for its honesty because Advent does not pretend that everything is alright.
Advent does not require of us to consent to happiness without lament for the sake of a private peace.
Rather, Advent is born of lament, is born of the knowledge that the world needs redeeming, and that we need redeeming.
I will admit that I often prefer Advent hymns to Christmas carols because Advent hymns are so filled with longing. The longing of Advent gives expression to my longing.

In a podcast earlier this week the two hosts spoke about the world today and the world three years ago. Covid was no fun, it brought isolation to many, especially hard hit were the young and the old. And then there was a sense of economic uncertainty. And yet for those of us whose employment continued and whose pensions continued to arrive in their bank accounts it was also a peaceful time, and – except for the rush on toilet paper – our lives were quieter. There was little traffic on the roads, and if we ventured outside we actually had more time for each other. I remember even feeling some optimism. In the early summer of 2020, when no one was travelling, I bought a new carry-on suitcase, certain that eventually things would return to normal. Besides, someone needed to get rid of inventory and the price was right.

I feel less optimistic today. I worry about many things. Divisive rhetoric is at the top of my list. Connected to it is the fracturing of communities and social order. Wars and climate change come next. In less than three years the world will have produced all the CO2 required for the planet to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius. The last time the David Suzuki Foundation called our house, they wanted money to help global warming not to exceed 2 degrees.

Advent means coming, it is about the One who comes. But Jesus wouldn’t need to come if the world didn’t need saving. And so I wonder whether it is possible to celebrate the birth of a Saviour without first expressing our need to be saved, including from ourselves. And could the experience of a celebration of Christmas as a happy but largely meaningless exercise be the result of not having first observed Advent with its lament and longing, andwithout knowing that we need saving?

Our reading from Isaiah is part of a psalm of lament and it has much in common with the psalms in the Book of Lamentations, even though it is found in Isaiah. It begins with the praise of God and of God’s faithfulness. It recounts God’s election of Israel with God saying,
Surely they are my people, …

The psalm then recounts that God
became their saviour
9in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

I hear nostalgia for a time when the relationship between God and God’s people was better, maybe was right. Yet a few verses later, after a brief verse stating that the rebellion of the people caused God to become the people’s enemy, we read of God’s seeming absence,
11Then they remembered the days of old,
of Moses his servant.
Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea
with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is the one who put within them
his holy spirit,
12who caused his glorious arm
to march at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
to make for himself an everlasting name,
13who led them through the depths?

The psalm laments the seeming absence of God.
This psalm is the attempt to make sense of the people’s situation. How can life be so hard, even though they have a God who loves them? There are times when we may feel the same. How can life be so hard, even though we have a God who loves us?

This part of the Book of Isaiah was written after the return of the exiles from Babylon. This is a new generation who had never lived in the land and had only heard of the land from their parents and grandparents. As they arrive in the land of their ancestors they find that while it may be the promised land, there does not seem to be much promise.
The temple, the centre of the cultic life, still lies in ruins, and how will the returnees and the group that had remained in the land organize their life together? Can they again be one people? Is there still validity to covenant God had made with David and his progeny? What should be the structures to safeguard their life together? They have come to the promised land but are doubtful of the promise.

History has seen many such times of disorder, at the end of Tsarist Russia, at the end of Hitler’s so-called Third Reich, in any period of upheaval and reordering, and maybe we live in such a time. When, after the Berlin Wall had fallen, East Germany joined West Germany, there was plenty of resentment for what was lost and for injustices that had been created. After unification unemployment in the East ran high.

There are a couple of verses in the psalm that make us wonder if we heard correctly. Does the psalmist really lay the blame for the people’s waywardness at God’s feet?
In verse 17 the psalmist prays,
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?”
And in verse five of our assigned reading, the psalmist exclaims,
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

The psalmist is not constructing a defense of the people, nor is the psalmist attempting to deliver a plausible explanation for the people’s actions. Rather, the psalmist is at his wits end and the only thing the psalmist is trying to do is to get God’s attention. The psalmist is saying, “God, do something!” It is a psalm of lament.

There is a 17th century Advent hymn we sung when I was young. It picks up the first verse of our reading, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”1

The hymn goes like this,

1. O Saviour, rend the heavens wide;
Come down, come down with mighty stride;
Unlock the gates, the doors break down;
Unbar the way to heaven’s crown.2. O Morning Star, O radiant Sun,
When will our hearts behold your dawn?
O Sun, arise; without your light
We grope in gloom and dark of night.3. Sin’s dreadful doom upon us lies;
Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.
Oh, come, lead us with mighty hand
From exile to our promised land.4. There shall we all our praises bring
Ever to you, our Saviour King;
There shall we laud you and adore
Forever and forevermore.

The hymn was written during the plague, witch trials, and the Thirty Years’ War. Its author was Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee. Spee was an outspoken opponent of witch trials and argued against the use of torture. Not surprisingly this impeded his career.2 Caring for wounded soldiers who suffered from the plague, he died of the plague at age 44.
The longing the hymn gives voice to is Spee’s own longing. Spee suffered deeply from the way the church he loved and served was inflicting suffering on others.

O Saviour, rend the heavens wide;
Come down, come down with mighty stride;
O Sun, arise; without your light
We grope in gloom and dark of night.

I wonder if at times we are afraid to admit our deepest longing, afraid to voice our lament, for if we did, we fear it may sabotage our happiness. And yet on this side of heaven it is not possible to experience true joy without not also acknowledging our longing for redemption and our need to be saved.

The thing with lament is that lament has an addressee and that addressee is God. Lament is a form of prayer. And because it is prayer it can only lead to hope. On the other hand, people unable to offer lament will fall into despair.

The psalmist expresses lament because he knows that our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. Lament turns despair into hope for it knows the God who saves. Advent is the season in which we express our deepest longing, not for gifts under the tree, but for us and the world to be saved.

The beautiful thing is that God longs with us. We are no alone, and we shall be redeemed.



1 Lutheran Book of Worship 38

Christoph Reiners

Pastor Christoph was ordained in Vancouver in 1994 and has served congregations in Winnipeg and Abbotsford before coming to Our Saviour in the fall of 2016.