Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27
Worst. Year. Ever. Right? We’re on the countdown to the end of 2020 now, and that end cannot come soon enough for most people. We’ve seen things this year we all hope never to see again.
It’s been mob-led riots interrupting peaceful protests and destroying businesses. Health care workers weeping from exhaustion and grief, even as they save lives heroically. Store employees who face yet another tough day of guarding the door, keeping unmasked people from entering. Lines of people at food banks; lines of people in cars waiting for COVID tests.
A lot of people are praying for this to be over, just like Isaiah did long ago. In his own time of historically acute anxiety the prophet called God out of the heavens - come down like you did in the old days! We’ll take fire and rumbling quaking earth, because at least then we knew you were around. Just please, don’t be gone from our view. Don’t hide! We feel so alone.
Isaiah even made a confession on behalf of all God’s people. We sinned. We took on unclean ways; things we knew would offend you, God. Even the occasional right things we did, were tarnished because we did them for our own purposes – trying to look good in public, rather than being faithful to your covenant. People are afraid even to call on your name, God. No one looks for you. We’re getting what we deserve, we know it.
The long book of Isaiah gives a narrative of Israel’s life with God over the course of nearly two hundred years. During that time the people experienced everything from defeat, displacement and disease, to restoration, return, and rebuilding. Still, it wasn’t a clear path from good to bad and back to good again. In fact, this sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah was written when what should have been a good time, turned sour.
God’s great city Zion wasn’t the place of hope and gladness that it was meant to be. There was corruption and terrible inequity. People returning after exile in Babylon failed to see their hard work as a fundamentally spiritual enterprise, and things were not going well.
So in this chapter, Isaiah is really saying, God, can we have a do-over? Isaiah was aware that a positive spiritual life informs public life positively. The answer to widespread misery in public life was a return to spiritual integrity.
But Isaiah remembered an important thing – God saves. We do not save ourselves. So the first step is to let God be God. We place ourselves into God’s hands so that we can be re-made. We’re clay, right? God formed us in the beginning and God can take our sin-shattered selves and make something beautiful out of the mess we’ve made. Isaiah believed this, and lived it as the whole truth of his life.
God’s saving instinct is what Paul depended upon in his own life. It’s why he kept invoking God’s grace, first in himself, and then in the people who joined the Way of Jesus. Paul didn’t just believe in the possibility of do-overs with God. He counted himself as one of God’s more spectacular revisions. The Corinthian Christians also would be counted among the blameless at Jesus’s return because they had received God’s grace. They let God reshape their lives through the cross and the love of Jesus.
Now, despite Isaiah’s ultimate conviction that God will come through, and all this cheery stuff from Paul, we still have a tough gospel to deal with. “Tis the season to be jolly” according to all the ads in the media. But in the church we’ve got to get through Advent first.
I know, I know. I want to sing the carols of Christmas too. So why do we get Mark’s dark foreboding voice today? It‘s all, the great gathering-in is coming, and soon!
What are we watching for anyway? Are we in it now? Is 2020 just a foretaste of God’s wrath? A lot of very religious people think so. There’s the suffering Jesus talks about. The darkened sun and moon that will follow. Stars falling from heaven, and heavenly powers themselves shaken up. It is the end of everything as we know it. We will be getting what we deserve.
But wait. What is it really, that God is determined to bring upon the earth? Today’s reading comes near the end of Mark’s gospel. It is Mark’s witness to what is about to happen, in Jesus’s own words. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
This is Jesus’s farewell message to the disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew as it turns out. It was just before his passion. Jesus was actually talking about the events to come in short order. At his death, heaven and earth were shaken. At his resurrection the angels appeared at the tomb. And with the message “He is risen!” Jesus appeared and drew near to his followers.
The resurrection of Christ is God’s great do-over. The new gathering-in of God’s people began at that moment. It came to pass, as Jesus fore-told, just at the peak of springtime. And those who heard Jesus speak that day in Jerusalem became witnesses to it all.
It was this very thing that Jesus did not want his dearest disciples – or anyone to miss. The Son of Man did not know himself the day or hour of his end and God’s new beginning. No one does. This is why Jesus said, “And what I say to you, I say to all: keep awake.”
So. The message is: believe in do-overs with God. If you want evidence of it, just look at the story that is written in the frame of the earth - fossils of old life give way to new forms of life. Look at the history we ourselves have written. 2020 will go down as hard. But perhaps not harder than 536 CE when an Icelandic volcano eruption led to eighteen months of an atmosphere that dimmed the sun and brought about a catastrophic global cold spell. And perhaps not harder than 1918 when there was no vaccine on the horizon.
Advent is do-over time. Keep awake to whatever God is preparing for us. Look! God has come in cloud and fire. God has come in a burning bush. God has come as a child born in Bethlehem and a man alive from the grave. Always God comes, to waiting hearts with saving grace. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.