Rev. Don Beyers
If you would like to download a copy of today’s sermon, you may do so here.
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” -Isaiah 64:1
The opening line of our first lesson today, a reading from the Prophet Isaiah, resonates within me. It speaks to my own yearning and longing for God to come. Lately I’ve found myself pleading to God to come, come and save the people who put their trust in you.
Over a week ago, while getting a haircut, I heard our premier’s announcement that we would go into lockdown once again. My heart felt heavy as I heard those words. While I knew the premier was right to impose public health measures in order to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, I wasn’t sure I could tolerate another lockdown. I miss sharing meals with friends. I miss seeing so many of you and sharing Eucharist with our whole assembly rather than with a few. I felt an incredible weight come upon me as I further considered the countless women and men who once again face uncertainty about their jobs, their businesses, and their livelihoods.
As I walked from the barbershop in downtown Toronto, I passed a number of homeless persons gathered in a city park. I wondered what their lives must be like in this time. If it wasn’t awful enough to be without a job and a home, how much more terrible it must be to live in fear of the very places that are to provide care and support. It’s no wonder so many homeless opt for tents in parks rather than seek refuge in shelters. The very places that once offered a small relief from cold and dark nights now serve as potential epicentres for the virus to spread and kill. Despite that, the city of Toronto continues to tear down their camps and any community effort to provide warm shelter outdoors. Rather than support community initiatives to provide warmer shelter instead of flimsy tents, city leaders have opted to sue individuals who construct mini-shelters in parks and ravines.
The more I pondered these things, the more I found myself crying out to God, “come Lord, come!”
Isaiah’s appeal to God to come down and be among us echoes throughout our other texts as well today. The Psalmist calls upon God to “Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80) Perhaps hearing the people’s cry for justice and righteousness, Jesus assures his disciples that after the great days of suffering and torment, “the Son of Man will come with great power and glory” (Mark 13) “Keep awake,” Jesus tells his disciples, “for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13)
The prophet’s cry for God to come, the psalmist’s plea to God to save his people, and the people’s supplication to Jesus to come echoes throughout the ages. My cry to God is only one of millions of cries over the centuries.
In response to the people’s cry for God to come, St. Augustine, the great Father of the Church, once reminded his congregation in a sermon that “Our God will come openly; our God will come and will not keep silent.” The renowned Anglican priest and early father of Methodism, Charles Wesley, composed a hymn, now much beloved by Christians throughout the world, resounding the centuries-old yearning for God to come and be with his people. “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” is a hymn that still is sung in the early days of Advent. It’s words are worth pondering:
Lo! he comes with clouds descending,
once for favoured sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
God appears on earth to reign.
Ev’ry eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.
Ev’ry island, sea, and mountain,
heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
all who hate him must, confounded,
hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment, come away!
Now Redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear!
All his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air.
See the day of God appear!
Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the pow’r and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
O come quickly, O come quickly;
alleluia! come, Lord, come.
While Wesley’s hymn echoes the centuries-old refrain “come, Lord, come,” it also interweaves in between the various petitions for God to come reminders of God’s presence and action in human history. The God who is to come is the same one who was “once for favoured sinners slain.” The hymn sustains the tension ever-present in the Christian experience of a God who seemingly appears distant, yet who is ever so near. So, too, today’s scripture lessons. Isaiah not only cries out to God make his name known, he recalls the marvellous works of God in ages past: “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” (Isaiah 64). Our pleas for God’s quick return are always tempered by our remembrance of God’s work in ages past.
In a sense, this is precisely the meaning of the season of Advent. Advent is a liminal season. It is a time of year when we mindfully rest and remain present in the “in-between” times. Advent isn’t merely a season by which we prepare for the celebration of the feast of Jesus’ first coming as a humble babe in Bethlehem; it is also a time for us to look ahead to the day when he shall come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Playing off of this theme, St. Augustine, in the same sermon quoted above, writes ‘When Jesus came in obscurity, it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge.” He further relates that Jesus was “silent when accused, he will not be silent as judge.” Offering a word of consolation, Augustine finally tells us that “he is not silent now.”
Augustine’s words are a firm reminder that although our cries for God to come again and restore us, Jesus is firmly acting in the present moment. The contemporary Episcopal priest and insightful preacher Fleming Rutledge further emphasizes Augustine’s point and stresses the hopefulness of Advent in her collection of Advent sermons published a few years ago. Rutledge writes “In spite of God’s apparent hiddenness, the memory of what God has done in the past continues to activate hope for what he will do in the future. This is the movement of the Advent season. The God who hides himself is still the God of the covenant. He is absent and present at the same time (Deus absconditus atque praesens).”
Indeed, this is the movement of the Advent season. God made flesh in Jesus so long ago is living and active today. We remember his coming in ages past, we proclaim the Good News of his work among us, and we joyfully await the coming of Jesus again in glory. Therefore, we proclaim each Sunday in the Eucharistic Prayer: “we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
That is the hope of Advent. That the God who has dwelt among us is the same God breathing new life into our world, as he reminded Isaiah so long ago: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)
Yet for new life to flourish, there must be judgement. Just as a gardener prunes her garden and removes the weeds that strangle the new growth, so too will God tend to us and creation. While to us this may sound foreboding and unsettle us deep within, the judgement of God is not the same as human judgement. Instead, the judgement of God is good news, for it is the action of God making right all that is wrong. As Rutledge writes,
The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness. All the references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness—not just his being righteous (noun) but his “making right” (verb) all that has been wrong. Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgment.
Judgement, in other words, is God’s response to our cries for him to come quickly and to save us from all that wounds and harms us.
As we begin our Advent journey of hope, I invite you to take pause each day, to pray and to commit to doing acts of justice and peace each day. Cast aside, as today’s collect says, the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Be a light of God to all those you meet and make God’s saving presence known to all. Amen.