The other week on one of our walks through the neighborhood, Annie and Hazel and I passed by several houses that had their Christmas lights up, but not on yet. Christmas lights are one of those wonderfully uplifting parts of this time of year, but a lot of people still hold to the tradition of waiting until after Thanksgiving to turn them on. This walk was before Thanksgiving, but we still joked about how impatient we were to start seeing the lights come on. Especially, because Hazel would get to see them, and hopefully, she would start associating those lights with all the joyful anticipation of the season.
Because we all know that feeling, right? In this season, when carols start playing on the radio and classic movies start showing up on TV, when the tree goes up and the lights come on around the neighborhood, there’s a certain magic about it. Every year there’s this wonderful anticipation of something fantastic about to happen, something just around the corner that we’re so excited to see. I’m really looking forward to sharing that with Hazel as she gets older!
But this year, this year is different. This year our Christmas traditions are going to be tinged with some sadness. Things aren’t going to be quite the same. Hazel is getting to celebrate her second Advent, her second Christmas, but not with the traditions we want. Many of us are feeling that. We won’t get to greet family coming in from far away during the “most wonderful time of the year.” We won’t get to have the big family get-togethers. We won’t get to do the festival weekends or get pictures with Santa or do so many of the things we’re so used to doing. In many ways, we’ll have to put our traditions on hold this year because of the pandemic.
And this has been going on for so long. So many traditions, so many things we’ve been so used to doing, have been disrupted this year. Thanksgiving had to be celebrated without the huge get-togethers. Lutefisk Supper had to be switched to takeout. The Fair was cancelled. Vacations had to be changed. Reunions had to be postponed. Funerals had to be altered. Weddings had to be reshaped. So much about this year has been one long line of frustrations and disappointments, to the point that I think we are closer to understanding Isaiah’s heartfelt cry than we ever have before: “O that you, Lord, would tear open the heavens and come down!”
What a visual! Isaiah isn’t content to passively hope for God to come and make things right. He is actively begging God to tear up the veil between heaven and earth—that’s how desperate he is to see God’s righteousness established on earth. His people had just endured seventy years of disruption (and here we are, eight months into ours). They had been in exile in Babylon, their Temple destroyed, their homeland depopulated. They had lost ties to so many traditions that anchored their lives. And now, returning from exile, while they were trying to put their lives back together, they were surrounded by enemies actively working to see them fail. Isaiah was filled with anticipation, but not the kind that is still happy to wait.
So he called on the Lord. “O that you would tear the heavens apart and come down!” Nothing short of God’s own presence will make things right. Isaiah knows it. His people know it. But the thing is, when you are that insistent in what you ask for, it’s only because you know that you could get what you asked for. Isaiah knows that God is capable. Isaiah knows that God will show up. So he puts into words exactly how his people feel, and in that voice we can hear echoes of our own longing.
Because we know this is a done deal. We know, as surely as Jesus will be in the manger on Christmas, that God will save us from this pandemic, that our waiting will not be in vain, and that Christ will return with the clouds to make all things right. We know this. That’s why we hold this Advent space every year. It’s our Christian training to wait for the Lord. It’s okay to feel the extra urgency this year, because this is what we’ve been training for: to wait for God’s salvation. We are primed by Jesus to be patient in the midst of suffering. We are empowered by the Spirit to keep awake, even when the stars are falling. And God’s salvation is coming, as surely as the fig tree puts on leaves in the spring.
Therefore keep awake, Jesus tells us. Keep awake and alert, especially when trials come. We can be impatient. We can be frustrated. But when we are faced with the trials of waiting—whether it’s the disruption of exile as in Isaiah’s day or the unmooring of our traditions in this pandemic—Jesus calls on us to keep awake and keep alert. Don’t give up on the faith. Instead, let the disruption and trials help you trust even more fully in God’s timing. God’s “slow” does not mean God’s “no.”
And how do we keep awake and keep alert? Jesus isn’t being literal about keeping awake every hour from now until his return with the clouds. Instead, keeping awake looks like the lessons we’ve been hearing the past few weeks. It looks like throwing our energy into caring for our neighbor. It looks like using the incredible gifts God has given us to love the world into looking a little closer to the kingdom. It looks like loving our neighbor by feeding them when they’re hungry, protecting them when they’re sick, advocating for them when they are oppressed, and showing them the love that God first shows us.
Perhaps in this particular Advent, we are being invited to experience a new kind of waiting. God may be using this time to give us the opportunity to grow into more hopeful people, the kind of people who experience trials and tribulations and are made more faithful and hopeful in them. Let’s take this time in this season to really learn the discipline of waiting. Let’s take on the voice of Isaiah, crying for God to tear open the heavens and save us—but let’s also take Isaiah’s deep and abiding faith that knows that God could answer that plea at any moment.
Because even if we don’t know the day or the hour, we know that God is on the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.