by Jason Micheli
Isaiah 64.1-9 (click to see Scripture text)
The year 2020 is no exception.
Every year Advent begins in the dark.
Every year Advent begins with John the Baptist wailing in the wilderness about the imminent winnowing fork of God’s wrath.
“You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist always kicks off the most wonderful time of the year. “Even now the ax is at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!”
Every year Advent begins with Jesus of Nazareth preaching apocalyptically about the end times.
”In those days…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,” Jesus preaches every Advent, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…about that day or hour no one knows…Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the Master of the house will come.”
And every year Advent begins with prophets like Isaiah forsaking any hope that we can improve our situation and pleading to the God who appears to be absent in our world.
This year is no exception.
Every year Advent begins in the dark.
Here’s an Advent story—
Zachary Koehn is the now thirty-year-old father who was found guilty of murder by an Iowa jury. after less than an hour of deliberation.
His four-month-old son, Sterling, had been found dead in a motorized swing.
Sterling’s father, Zachary Koehn, was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death.
On Aug. 30, 2017, authorities arrived at the home of Zachary Koehn and twenty-one-year-old Cheyanne Harris where they discovered the lifeless body of their son, Sterling Koehn, in the swing.
Autopsy results report that medical examiners found “maggots in various stages of development” in the boy’s “clothing and on his skin.”
The baby, who weighed less than five pounds at death, was left in the baby swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time.
The county sheriff told jurors he found maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child.
The prosecutor distilled the shock in his opening statement:
“He died of diaper rash.”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” laments the prophet Isaiah today, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence and the nations might tremble! We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
The Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs argues in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah that this communal complaint in chapter sixty-four is not original to Isaiah, but rather is a Psalm of lament that predates Isaiah.
The prophet borrows from this preexisting corporate lament, Childs suggests, in order to speak to Israel’s despair and hopelessness as exiles in an evil and unrighteous world.
In other words, this collective, rage-filled indictment leveled at the state of the world and our complicity with it is not original to Isaiah’s time and place, but is an indictment relevant to every time and place— and will continue to be so until the Lord does, indeed, tear open the heavens and come again to judge the quick and the dead.
Outside the Church, it’s still the Thanksgiving holiday.
A time to give thanks.
For all our many blessings, we say.
Inside the Church, it’s a new liturgical year.
Advent is the season of the second coming.
You heard that right— Advent is the season of the second coming.
Don’t let the decorations fool you.
In Advent, we do not— as popularly misunderstood— prepare ourselves for the rehearsal of Christ’s first coming; no, in Advent we rehearse the righteous rage of the prophets who augured Christ’s first coming in order to long for his promised coming again.
We are waiting in Advent not for the eve of his arrival to Mary and Joseph.
We are waiting for his return “in great power and glory.”
Advent is not the season when we anticipate his first coming.
Advent is the season when we anticipate his coming again.
This is why the Church in the Middles Ages spent the Sundays of Advent reflecting upon the four last things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell). So before you complain about this sermon, give thanks that you’re not a medieval Christian.
Advent is the season of the second coming.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the Advent hymns:
Sleepers, wake!” The watch cry pealeth,
While slumber deep each eyelid sealeth:
Awake, Jerusalem, awake!
Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling,
And seraph-notes are onward rolling;
They call on us our part to take.
Come forth, ye virgins wise:
The Bridegroom comes, arise!
Alleluia! Each lamp be bright with ready light
To grace the marriage feast tonight.
— “Sleepers, Wake!”
Lo! he comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
God appears, on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.
Yea, Amen! let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory:
Claim the kingdom for thine own:
O come quickly!
Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!
— “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”
The Sundays of Advent run backwards, the movement of the season is from the seconding coming to the first coming, starting with the eschaton and concluding with the incarnation.
This makes Advent unlike all the other seasons of the liturgical year. Whereas, the every other feast day of the church year— Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost— celebrate the mighty acts of God in history, Advent looks beyond history altogether and awaits the return of Christ our Lord.
That Advent— as scripture does— beckons us to look for redemption from beyond another sphere entirely is a frank and sober assessment of our human situation.
Advent points us beyond history so that we might recognize that human progress is a deception, or as St. Gregory of Nyssa summarizes the takeaway of Advent, “Any apparent progress forward in history is really, underneath it all, nothing more than the futile washing in and washing out of waves on a beach.”
The season of the second coming points us beyond history in order to compel us into the acknowledgment that “nothing that is possible can save us.”
During Advent, therefore, we do not pretend— as many believe— that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, during Advent, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing it and naming it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Christ’s final, victorious return.
This is why we do not mark Advent with the color of Christmas— white— but with the same purple paraments that accompany us to Good Friday. To grasp the scope of God’s great redemptive work in Jesus Christ— a work whose completion we still await— we must plumb the depths of the human predicament. Otherwise our faith is nothing more than sentimentality, and the promise of the Gospel is not a comfort, but a shallow idea. Grace is not amazing until you have apprehended the wretchedness of our state.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees, “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true; and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive. Our religion does all this: Vere tu Deus absconditus.”
“Truly, you are a God who hidest thyself.”
We need look no further than Advent to establish the truth of Christianity on Pascal’s terms. Even the prophet Isaiah today reverses the typical understanding of the problem of sin. Notice, Isaiah does not say that God has hidden himself from us because we sinned— as a punishment. Isaiah flips it and concludes that we sin, because God has hidden himself from us.
God’s hiddenness in our world is not the outcome of our sin; our sin is the outcome of God’s hiddenness in our world. “Because you hid yourself,” Isaiah laments today, “we transgressed.”
We sin, in other words, because it does not appear to us that anyone is watching.
Here’s another Advent story—
Tyson Foods Inc. produces over a fifth of all the beef, pork, and chicken consumed in the U.S..
The family of a deceased employee had already filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods for “fraudulent misrepresentations, gross negligence, and incorrigible, willful and wanton disregard for worker safety at its pork processing facility in Waterloo, Iowa.”
Then last week Tyson Foods was forced to suspend many of the managers at their Waterloo plant, because it had come to light that those managers had organized a betting pool— placing wagers on how many of the employees under their care would become ill with COVID-19.
As of May about 4,600 cases of the disease and 18 deaths have been linked to Tyson Foods, according to Business Insider.
Court documents report that company supervisors were instructed by Tyson Foods to falsely deny the existence of “confirmed cases” or “positive tests” within the Waterloo facility as early as March.
The top brass also allegedly told workers “they had a responsibility to keep working in order to ensure Americans [like you] don’t go hungry.”
Between March and mid-April Tyson leaders declined to shut down the plant despite multiple pleas from county officials, including Sheriff Tony Thompson who said conditions at the facility “shook [him] to the core. ”
Shook him to the core.
During this same time, while they were forcing infected employees to work without providing them the necessary personnel protective equipment or following social distancing guidelines, the plant manager of the Waterloo facility organized a cash buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager on how many of their employees would test positive for COVID-19.”
And how many would get sick.
And how many would die.
“They were literally gambling with our lives,” one plant worker told NPR in Spanglish.
“Because you hide yourself, we transgress,” Isaiah says, before ending in verse eleven not with resolution but with a still more disquieting question the lectionary seeks to protect you from, “Wilt thou restrain yourself at these, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent?”
The Church’s life in Advent, Karl Barth says, is like that of the horseman drawn by Albrecht Durer who must ride between death and the devil.
He rides confidently, knowing his defensive and offensive strength; nevertheless, Barth says, he must make this perilous passage.
We make this perilous Advent passage, riding between death on one side of us and the devil on the other, by taking a grim and bracing look at the world as we have made it and demanding that God in his “goodness” come back here— as promised— and make right all the wrong we have wrought in his absence.
Here’s another Advent story—
Not long before the pandemic, I was flying back from a speaking gig and on my flight— sitting in first class and sipping a martini— was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
As the McCarrick Report commissioned by the Vatican made clear last week, Cardinal McCarrick was not only, for decades, a serial sex abuser, protected by the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy, but Cardinal McCarrick was himself a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who protected other serial sex abusers.
Even Saint John Paul the Great turned a blind eye.
As Dr. Larry Chapp, a Catholic Professor of Theology, wrote in Macrina Magazine this weekend,
“I [became aware of McCarrick while he was a bishop in New Jersey and I was a seminarian] left the seminary and moved on with my career as an academic, but I always kept one eye on the rise of McCarrick to high office. And when he was made Archbishop of Washington, and then later a Cardinal, I just could not fathom, in my naivete, why somebody had not blown the whistle on the guy. I could not get my mind around how such a manifest sexual deviant and drunken ecclesiastical party boy, had gotten so far. And I worried that the entire thing was a train wreck waiting to happen—a fear that was deepened when in 2002 while I was a guest on Fox News for a segment on priestly sex abuse, off-camera a journalist told me that they were investigating a leading American Cardinal for sexually inappropriate behavior with adults. I said to him, “You mean McCarrick.” He just grinned from ear to ear, leaned back in his chair and replied, “have a safe trip home Dr. Chapp.” But nothing ever came of their investigation and so I can only surmise that they ran into the same problem that everyone else had. Namely, that you could not get anyone to go on the record and that McCarrick was being protected by some powerful American prelates who were masters of deflection.”
Chapp goes on in his article to conclude, “My claim is actually shocking—some would even say “dark.” My claim is that the concrete actions taken with regard to McCarrick in particular, and the entire sexual abuse issue in general, tells us that many if not most of our priests and bishops are de facto atheists. They may overtly give public statements of faith, perform the Sacraments, kneel dutifully before the Blessed Sacrament, all the while living as though there is not a God who sees.”
Cardinal McCarrick held forth on our flight home to DC, charming the other passengers and regaling them with stories. His valet, a young, ruffled priest, sat in coach behind me and carried his bags for him. Later, after we’d landed, as we waited at the baggage claim carousel, Cardinal McCarrick posed for selfies with admirers and signed autographs with impunity.
He appeared to have suffered no shame or disgrace.He was not chastened, in the slightest, by the specter of judgment.
“Because you hid yourself, we transgressed.”
“But O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
The final book of the Christian Old Testament is the Book of Malachi, which ends by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned up on Judgment Day.
The Christian Bible turns, in other words, on the longing for a redeemer to rectify not only us in our sin, but a creation captive to the Power of Sin.
The turning of the Christian year mimics the turning of our scripture.
Advent is when the Church takes an honest, unblinking look at ourselves and the world we’ve made in our own image and we call due the IOU sworn by the Lord who has promised to come again in power and glory.
Advent is when the Church acknowledges the lack in us, an emptiness which pours out into the darkness of our world.
Advent is when we remind ourselves— or try to convince ourselves— that God does care, after all.
Even before Advent the assigned lectionary scriptures take a turn to the apocalyptic.
Just last Sunday, Jesus was warning about the day when the Son of Man would return to separate the sheep from the goats.
The Sunday before it was the the Master who returns to throw his fearful servant into the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And often for the first Sunday of Advent the assigned Gospel text to pair with the prophets is Jesus warning about the coming of the end: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”
This must take place, Jesus says, as though he, too, had read that story about little Sterling Koehn left to rot and then to die in his swing.
Every year Advent begins in the dark because every year Advent begins in a world with men like Zachary Koehn, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the managers at Tysons, Waterloo in it.
Every year Advent begins in the dark, because every year Advent begins in a world with wrongs so wrong only Christ Jesus, when he comes again in glory, can make them right.
Every year Advent begins in the dark because forgiveness does not go far enough in describing the promise of the Gospel.
Here’s another, final Advent story—
I recently binged the first season of True Detective on HBO. In the final scene, Marty and Rust, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey respectively, are outside in a hospital parking lot late at night.
They’re both wounded from their work and haunted by the evil they’ve seen in the world.
And Rust says,
“I tell you Marty I been up in that hospital room looking out those windows every night up at the night sky here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”
“What story is that?” asks Marty.
“Light versus dark.”
“Well, it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory,” Marty says.
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
A few minutes pass and then Rust replies,“You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”
“How’s that?” Marty asks.
“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
Mary and Rust—
They’re not just an Advent story.
They are the Church at Advent.
Every Advent Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Christ himself force us to look out and survey the territory held by the darkness; so that, we might grasp the scope of the promise of the Word of God: that the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
To live by faith alone— and not by sight— is to look out at the night sky of our world and dare to proclaim, “You ask me, the light’s winning.”
Nevertheless, we are still waiting for the light to win.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
“Savior, take the power and glory/Claim the kingdom for thine own/O come quickly/Come, Lord, come!”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
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.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
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