By Delmer Chilton
One time when we were in college, my then girlfriend/now wife and I went from Chapel Hill, N.C., over to downtown Durham to the art-house movie theater to see some European movie with subtitles. We got lost several times and then had trouble finding parking and finally we rushed in and got a seat.
By the time we settled in, the movie had already started. It was strange – the actors were really terrible and the dialog – such as it was – was in English, not Italian. We looked at each other with puzzled faces and then, almost at exactly the same moment, it dawned on us that we were in the wrong place and how really wrong that place was. We got up and got out quickly and went for pizza instead.
Sometimes the First Sunday in Advent can have a similarly jarring effect on folks. We have just finished the family warmth of Thanksgiving dinner and parades and football. In many congregations children are already practicing the Christmas pageant, and the choir is working on a cantata and calendars are full of open houses and Christmas parties and such. At home we’re getting decorations out and putting up the tree and getting the cards signed and sent out, etc.
And then we come into worship and the lector gets up and the first words we hear during this warm and cozy season are: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and more about things like mountains quaking and water boiling. We think, “Well, that’s a prophet, that’s the ‘Old Testament.’ What do you expect? Wait for the Gospel.” But the Gospel lesson is worse: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Are we in the right place? It’s less than a month before Christmas; what is this all about?”
Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came. The lessons and hymns during Advent were carefully created to help avoid rushing through December to Christmas Day without taking the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives and what we must do to be ready.
The text from Isaiah, which begins with those frightful words “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” was written in the midst of Israel’s exile in Babylon and the early days of their return to the devastated and destroyed promised land. As they look at the destruction around them, the children of Israel are profoundly aware that they brought this on themselves. Their behavior, as individuals and as a nation, led to their destruction. And they are sorry. They remember the good things God did for them in the past. They remember how God led them and provided for them. As verse 4 says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
They remember the bad they have done, which has led to their current predicament, and they remember the good that God did for them in the past. And they repent. They are deeply sorrowful for what they have done – not sorrow as a feeling, as a sentiment, as an emotion – but sorrow as an action, sorrow as a positive move in a new direction, sorrow as repentance, sorrow as the act of turning from going their own way and turning to go in the way of God.
And in verse 8, the prophet asks God to not only to forgive the people but also to restore, renew and remake them. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Advent is a time when we look at ourselves and at our world and recognize that we need God. It is also a time for deep and serious reflection upon the way in which we live our lives, the ways in which our actions are either supportive of God’s will and way in the world or are hindrances to it. It is a time for repentance in the sense of reorientation, of redirecting our lives to be more in line with the way God would have us go.
Advent is a time to wait for God to come. But this is not a hopeless and helpless waiting, alternating wishfulness with moments of despair. No, Advent waiting is, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, a matter of being “alert,” and “awake,” watching not the sky, but the world, paying attention to the times and places where opportunities for mission and ministry to present themselves.
Advent is a time to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God of all our tomorrows has a new and exciting future in store for us. Rather than looking forward with fear, let us look to the future with faith and hope, spending our days serving “the least of these,” always on the lookout for more needs to fill and more people to love.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.