First Sunday of Advent
Happy New Year!
The ancient church set this time of year as the beginning of the liturgical cycle, the beginning of each new year. And here at the beginning, we get the most important devotional practice. If we get nothing from the rest of the year, we must get this Advent practice down. And so we read the words of Jesus: “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” What time, you ask? The time of the Lord’s second coming. “And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds.”
You see, during Advent, we don’t just wait for the coming of a baby at Christmas. We also watch for the second coming of the man who once was that baby. We know that Christmas is in exactly four weeks. But we do not know when the final day of judgment will come. We must not simply wait. We must take heed and watch. Watching is what we do when we are waiting for something to happen any moment. Watching is waiting eagerly and expectantly. Watching is making sure that everything is in order in our hearts. The fact is that this watching is not merely for the end of time. We must also watch for the action of God to prepare us for that day.
We find ourselves in something of the same position as the prophet Isaiah, the same position as St. Paul. Isaiah looks back to the stories of God’s presence in the Torah, when the mountains shook at the presence of the Lord. He knows that God’s coming is something that is frightening in its power. God’s presence is like fire, and if we come into it, we must be prepared to burn and boil away. And yet Isaiah says, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”! He watches.
The prophet sees all around him that the Holy People of God are not holy. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Even the good that we do is not good the way God is good. Our sin is like an infection that corrupts and destroys the whole body. We are like leaves that have ceased to receive life from the tree. And so we will dry up and wither, and we will be at the mercy of our sins, which will blow us away like the winter wind.
Isaiah also sees that there is no one left who even wants to overcome all of this. The only one who has the power to help in this situation is God. But “there is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee”. Our forefather Jacob grasped and wrestled with God, because he knew that without God’s blessing, he was lost. But there is no one left in Israel who will do that. And in his frustration, Isaiah realizes that even that is because God has willed it for some mysterious reason. “For thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”
And so Isaiah cries out to God on behalf of his people. He longs for God’s frightening and refining presence, because he knows that ultimately, God’s presence, no matter how difficult it is to face, is vastly superior to God’s absence, where we are left to our own puny devices in the winter gales of our sin. God is one “who works for those who wait for him.” “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand.” And so, longingly, we wait for you to turn back the fire of your presence upon us. Make us endure you, so that we may “remember thee in thy ways”, and joyfully work righteousness, and be saved.
St. Paul is in a similar situation. He writes his first letter to the Corinthians precisely because he has heard report of unholy activity in the Corinthian church. And yet, he begins by characterizing them as “those [made holy] in Christ Jesus, called to be [holy ones] together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. And here we are again. Just like the ancient Israelites, we are made holy, and we are called to become holy.
But St. Paul puts it right back in the same context that Isaiah put it. He writes to them “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”. They and we still wait for Jesus to reveal himself in power, just as Isaiah waited. And we watch, because we know that he will do what he promised to do. We know that, in Christ, God has already given us grace. And we know that he is already working in us. That is why St. Paul gives thanks. “God is faithful,” he says, “by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” And God in Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And so we wait; not only for some far off day, when the sun and moon are extinguished, and the stars fall, and the heavens are shaken; but we also watch for God’s burning presence to reveal itself in us, as Christ sustains us, and purifies us, and makes us finally guiltless.
We watch for the man who, beyond hope, won for us the victory over death and sin. We watch for the Son of Man, who is the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. We watch for him who is the awesome and awful presence of God. We watch for the frightening, burning presence of God right among the tinder and kindling of our own miserable souls. And the most terrifying thing of all should be to think that he might come and find me asleep rather than watching for him. That he might find me ignoring his presence in my life and unprepared to meet him at all. That he might find me a withered leaf on the tree, ripe for the winter winds.
We watch, because it is him and him alone that can bring true life into our lives. Only he can burn out of us what is unholy. Only he can turn our abject misery into joy.