The First Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2017 – Isaiah 64:1-9 34:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Everybody knows about today’s American president. But who knows the 14th President of the United States? It was Franklin Pierce — not a household name. There something sad about Pierce, but also, alas, familiar to many people. He had three children, three sons; two of them died when they were young. And then Pierce got elected president — he was a senator from New Hampshire. And on the train to Washington after his election, there was an accident, a wreck or some kind. Pierce and his wife were unhurt; their remaining son was killed. They carried on anyway. And not long after, Pierce became, supposedly, the only President in American history not to allow a reading from the Bible at his inauguration.
I understand the feeling, I guess; don’t we all? God and tragedy don’t go together; God and confusion, God and failure, God and grief and disappointment. What have they to do with one another?
O that you wold tear open the heavens and come down!
Advent is, in a way, a time of dissatisfaction — with the purple and the wreathes and candles and the prophets all straining into the darkness, looking for some light. One might even say that Advent is a kind of celebration of dissatisfaction. And if our dissatisfactions are a kind of bridge to God, that would be a grace worth celebrating.
My wife Annette always likes to tell me that God calls to us through our deepest desires — how we can perceive what God wants of us in our lives as we attune ourselves to our own deep passions. But the emphasis here must be on the word “deep”; and such desires, when they’re really from the deep, show themselves less in clear and open apprehension — gee, I’d like be doing this, so God must be calling me to this. Rather, God calls out to us to follow, usually in desires that rumble about underneath our other wants, like an underground river, that from time to time pulls apart the foundations of things above that we have so carefully constructed. Truly deep desires are often the enemy of our more normal wants and attractions.
In this sense, I would say, God’s call to us for each of our lives comes to us out of our dissatisfactions, not out of our contentments, not out of our sense of what is right and fitting and working and humming along.
Just in this past week, I had the occasion to talk to several people: one about their problems with their job, several about the burden of the studies they are pursuing, another about their struggle with their spouse’s mental health. Something deep is not right with each of these persons. But I have no question but that in each case of dissatisfaction, it is God who is calling that person to something marvelous and deep. It’s important to understand this: because without this sense that God is actually calling us in our dissatisfactions, our tendency is simply to find the “fix” for our discomfort — any fix, and usually the least disruptive, or sometimes the opposite, the most complete and utterly destructive – quitting, running away, ending things in a spectacular mess.
The call of God comes to us as our feet become unsteady, and our gaze falters, and we wonder, and question.
It comes then, precisely because we are people who have pushed God away from us; people who, because of what we do and how we live, push ourselves forward to the detriment of God. If there were, in the Church — and in our lives — , no “season of our dissatisfaction”, no Advent, it would be because we were already perfect, enjoying the vision of God in heaven; or because we were damned, consigned to a world where God does not even have a name or a trace.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, to make your name known to your adversaries!” This cry of Isaiah marks the opening of Advent. For we are neither in heaven nor in hell. We are men and women who seek God on this earth, a God who does “awesome deeds”, and who “once”, yes “came down” to us; and yet we are men and women whose lives “fade like a leaf”, and whose “iniquities, like the wind, take us away” from the very One whom we yearn to meet face to face.
It is by the grace of God that God does not leave us alone in our contentments; it is by the grace of God that we remember who God is! It is by the hand of God, the life of God, the Spirit of God that we are pricked and pressed and disrupted and unnerved, so that our soul stirs within us, thirsting more and more, and finally crying out, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever!”, that is, “I do not have what I most deeply need; I hunger and thirst for you, O God!”. Listen, my friends: It is through God’s love, that He undermines our satisfactions. For this alone is how, within this world, He speaks to us still.
I urge you not to run away from your dissatisfactions, but to engage them with your prayer; I urge not to hide them from your heart, and from your heart’s encounter with God, but to dwell with them in His presence.
In the first place, you see, we must understand how each of us has built up around ourselves a wall of a sort, a fortress of protection, made up of the stones of our fears, of our angers, of our pride, of our mistrust and self-absorption. There is no one here of which this is not true! When we speak of “sin” in the Christian faith, we are not simply talking about this or that misdeed, this or that transgression of a Scriptural command — adultery, drunkenness, lying, disrespect, whatever. When Isaiah speaks of “iniquity” and sin today, he speaks of lives that have slowly, over time, constructed a character of distance from God, habits and conventions of self-oriented concerns and practices: ambition, distraction, busyiness, self-righteousness, disdain, arrogance, insecurity, cynicism… These are all stones of a large building each of us has constructed around our spirits, no matter who we are! And out of the doors of this building, come forth this or that misdeed. “For from within”, says Jesus, “from within, out of the heart of a human person, comes what is evil…” (Mark 7:21). I cannot presume to judge another person’s heart; but none of us can afford to assume the wholeness of our own heart.
And God cannot speak to us, therefore, in any straightforward manner, because our hearts cannot hear such clear words — “do this, don’t do that!” For there is a “hiddenness” about God in the face of our hearts, Isaiah says today, that is, we have, each of us, “all of us” as a people even, in his words, been “taken away”, distanced ourselves from the clear speech of the Lord. That is why “no human being will be justified on the basis of the law”, as St. Paul writes (Rom.3:20): it is the very status of our hearts, not our deeds, that is at issue in the first instance.
So, of course, God must get at us in another way. And we have to look for God in the right place. People wonder, “why can’t God just tell me what to do? Just be clear? “. Because we cannot hear him “just telling us” this or that. How many of us how many times hear the Scriptures read, or hear people talk about this or that aspect of the faith — and it simply makes no difference?!? Right over our head! Zoom! It doesn’t register on our radar: people who are arrogant; people who are selfish; people who are stingy; people who can’t forgive… people like us! I often despair of “getting through” to folk with the Gospel; as I’m sure they do me: we just don’t hear it. When we face a problem we can’t seem to solve, that’s a sign, not that we haven’t got the right solution; it’s a sign that our hearts are in a knot, and that we simply cannot hear.
So, God must get under our skin, get under our flesh, get under our very heart and spirit, and somehow stir us up, reorient us, reclaim us. And it’s not letters, words and commands that do this – “the right solution”: this is the realm of spirit, of “deep speaking to deep” (Psalm 42:7), of desire welling up, and yes, in our deep-seated alienation from God, this is the realm of dissatisfaction yearning to find its end. If we are not dissatisfied, then we are probably dead. Because only here, in this deep place of our spirit’s sense of what is right and wrong, what is not present though sought after, only here can God come into our lives. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”. That is the cry of the human being alive still to God.
So, in the second place, don’t run away from that hole in your center; don’t run away from the moments in the middle of the night when you lie awake and wonder if you’ve simply missed the boat of your whole life; don’t run away from feeling confused, and even low and lost.
That’s God “tearing something open” in your gut, tearing open the heavens, so that your soul might grasp His presence “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” [Psa 56:8 ESV]
I want to say something that mental health professionals will probably cringe over: it’s OK to get depressed sometimes, as long as you walk through that “lonesome valley” looking for God.
It’s OK even to be depressed, over time, as long as it hasn’t silenced altogether your cry “O that you would… my God, that you would do something!”. It’s OK, because even there, just there, in sorrow, heaviness of soul, maybe day after day, God is doing what you most deeply desire and what only God can do — coming close to your heart, speaking to you, not in words, but in the only place we can hear: our cries of incapacity and dissatisfaction. Of course we can’t and shouldn’t stay there all of our lives. But those Christians – and they are only mimicking the culture of our day — who say that spiritual health is about feelings of happiness, have missed the very instrument of their converse with God: those who say, like the misguided Corinthians, “already I am satisfied! already I live in abundance!” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:8) they simply don’t understand the “hidden wisdom” of God whom “no one” has “heard or seen or perceived” except those who “wait”, who long, who yearn, who seek, (cf. Is. 64:4 and 1 Cor. 2:7-10). “O Israel, wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 130:7). “Wait”, which also is translated as “hope”. To wait, willing to remain in longing, this is to hope. We care not banish God from our hard yearning, as Franklin Pierce did. I even think that some depressed people are bearing the vocation of others, sharing, in some deep way, the painful yearnings that so many people have hidden in the hearts, but so blithely ignore. They look at the world’s suffering; they gaze upon the broken political landscape in tears; they watch individuals they know or simply pass by, struggling to find a path though the thickets of existence; their hearts tighten as they watch young people desperately trying to discover why God has made them, in a world that refuses to let them know. We all feel this deep down, though we turn our heads. Perhaps some of us are simply called to give it flesh.
Perhaps even the Christian Church. Does it make sense to invite us to immerse ourselves in our deepest dissatisfactions? Yet, for 4 weeks in Advent, this is exactly what we do as a people.
While all around us, the lights, the bells, the “good cheer”, telling us to feel happy and spend money; all is well with the economy and with us. But for 4 weeks, as a Christian people, we say, “in our souls we know better: it is not well with us”.
And in this dissatisfaction, “we shall be calling, and the Lord will be answering; we shall be crying, and he will be saying ‘Here I am'” (Is. 59:9). And when, what we call Christmas, arrives, we will understand how the grace of God comes to us — we will begin to understand this, how God comes to us in our own flesh, in our own death, in our own hungering and thirsting — “blessed are the hungry and the thirsty” — in our Christmas, we will grasp how God’s love tears open the heavens, comes down, finds, and satisfies us. I invite you all to a blessed Advent.