Longing for God’s Presence

Written by Joel on December 2nd, 2011

Nov 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9 “That you would rend open the heavens”

Welcome to Advent. It is a time for us to prepare for Christmas. Here at church we have decorated our worship space with greens, the advent wreath, and a tree. We have lit the candles and we will count the days that lead up to Christmas, that glorious night which remember that God stepped down from all heavenly glory and entered this world as a baby. For the church in the modern day, this time of year is always an observance of two Advents. One, we remember long ago, in a little town of Bethlehem; and the Second, we away with hopeful anticipation for the coming of our Lord again as promised. It is this second Advent that the readings draw our attention to today. And, at least for me – I find the second advent a bit more difficult to wait for. We have been waiting a long time, and God seems so distant at times.

That is the plea of our Isaiah reading. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And the writer goes on to recount the glorious works of God throughout the ages, his righteousness, and his judgement. He puzzles over the obvious absence of God. We kept your word, but you were angry. We sinned, is that why you left? But maybe we sinned because you left?

This portion of Isaiah was written after a faithful rement of Israel returned home after years in exile. They spent many years in a foreign land where other gods were worshiped, and it was difficult to maintain their Jewish identity and roots. They got through the ordeal, and folks began to come home to the holy land of milk and honey, the promised land. Only…only it was not the promised land they remembered. The city was in ruins and the temple destroyed. Yes, they were home, but it was not home. At least not as they remember it. There where familiar reminders of what home once was, but they did not serve to give comfort, but rather the pain in recognizing what was lost. Could you imagine moving away from here for 50 years, and then return to find our church on the County like in ruins?

On a smaller scale, I wonder if that is similar to what it feels like when familiar Thanksgiving Dinner traditions are lost. I remember my first Thanksgiving dinner I spent away from my childhood home. I was in my early 20s, and up until that year it was just assumed that I would be home for the holidays. It was my first year in seminary, and we didn’t have any money for a plane ticket home – not for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. So did not come home. A lovely couple from the church I worshiped with invited me into their home for the Thanksgiving Dinner. I very graciously accepted. It was a happy dinner, and everything was delicious; but at the same time those familiar foods and atmosphere were just similar enough, and yet just different enough to what I remember about Thanksgiving Dinner, that I became very aware that I was not at home. Where I sat, how dinner was served, how it tasted, what we discussed – all similar, but all so obvious that it was different. And all so obvious that my family was 3000 miles away, and though I sat down at a familiar Thanksgiving, I was feeling kinda alone. I wonder if that might be a bit what the Israelites felt as they returned home to a temple that they could see but could not worship in, homes they remembered yet were destroyed, a land of promise which lay in ruin.

Yes, this holiday season seems to be a time of joy and sadness for many. For me, this was my first Thanksgiving, and will be my first Christmas without Granddad Coles. For many this time of year serves as a reminder of those loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate this oh so familiar season. God may seem so absent as we await for his coming in-between two Advents.

This communal cry from Isaiah seems to be an acknowledgement of something loss, and more painful than that, a recognition of the absence of God. The writer remembers those marvelous deeds which God preformed, and yet the calls goes up “That you would rip open the heavens and come down.” Implying that God is not here with us right now. Sometimes it feels like this plea from Isaiah is the plea of the church today. Yes, we find it just a bit easier to look back at the glorious acts of God in the past – his first coming as the babe Christ born in a manger, his miracles, life on earth, death or a cross, and resurrection from the grave. We remember the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost and how the Apostles went out with the power of the Holy Spirit and added numbers to the church each day. We look back and we remember, and sometimes it seems like we just don’t live in a world where God is active in the same way as he once was. “O, God, that you would just rip open the heavens and come down here.” That you would rip open the heavens and fix this mess of a world that we live in. That you would come down and let us know your presence again like our ancestors once did.

The church continues to cry aloud this plea from Isaiah. Last week at Sunday School, as we studied the work of God in his church recorded in the Book of Acts, we became quite aware that we just don’t talk about the Holy Spirit so much at this church, and sometimes He feels so far away. We just don’t see the Spirit at work in that way today. Wouldn’t that be something! Oh that You would rip open the heavens and come down!

We seem to approach Advent and the holidays with a similar longing for God’s presence. I have heard of your fond memories of Christmases long ago, of pageants and the Christmas play put on by children and the youth choir. We look around and see few children filling up our church, fewer people in general than in years past. We look ahead at this holiday season which is oh so familiar and yet oh so obvious that something has been different in recent years, something lost. And it is okay to mourn that loss; just as the Israelites mourned the loss of the promised land when they returned.

And yet…You Lord are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter, we are all your people. We stand between Advents; we look at the glorious Acts of God in ages past, and we look for his presence yet to come; and we wait. And we plead “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” It is in this interim that we remember our God is our Father, who does not abandon us, and he will fulfill his promise to return.

This hope part is hard. But I do hope that for us in this Advent season, as we learn again the Christian discipline of waiting in the midst of consumeristic fury; I hope that we can see glimmers of God presence. New friends are discovering the joy of this place, people are reading the word of God, we are serving our community. We proclaim Hope in a day and age that reamins quite dark.

Here, at the County Line, as we discover what it means to proclaim the truth of the Incarnation at Christmas, though times have changed, though we have grown older, and though loved ones are gone; Advent continues to be for us a time we proclaim and live in Hope. And Yet; despite all that has gone wrong in this world God remains, and always will be our Father. And we his people. I pray you have a spirit-led Advent.


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