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First Sunday of Advent – November 30, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 64:1-9 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 I Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37

First Sunday of Advent

By Bruce Epperly

This lectionary commentary was first published on November 23, 2008.

The passages for the First Sunday of Advent are particularly apt for our current economic and global context. They reflect the stark wintry spirit which leads us to believe that our best days are behind us and that all we have to look forward to is the diminishment and destruction of the realities that have sustained us through the years. As I pondered this week’s texts, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ words from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—when we are oppressed by powers beyond—or within – ourselves, “it must always be winter and never Christmas.” The scriptures speak of the dynamic interplay of absence and presence, and the call to look for God’s coming regardless of the spiritual or historical season in which we find ourselves.

Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80 describe what Martin Marty has described as the “cry of absence.” Isaiah begs God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” The God who delivered the people in the past with unexpected and awesome deeds is profoundly absent, and perhaps even powerless to save. God’s anger toward the people burns, drawing them into deeper sinfulness. God’s absence inspires further transgressions among those who once worshipped God.

Isaiah 64 joins the apophatic and the kataphatic, the via negativa and the via positivia, approaches to the divineIronically, the absent God consumes the prophet’s attention. The God who is hidden was once so present, and Isaiah cries out for the return of the liberating God. The God who withholds God’s care was once actively at work in saving the people. Psalm 80 pleads for God to return dramatically in glory and light to save the people from despair and destruction. The present God who we can never fully discern and cannot control always takes us into the unknown and unexpected.

To use the language of Walter Brueggemann, the Psalmist cries out in “disorientation,” hoping against hope that God will provide a new spiritual and political orientation for the people. The god who was once everywhere, breathing within all creation (Psalm 150), is nowhere, and the Psalmist feels suffocated by feelings of persecution and abandonment. When will God’s light shine on us?  When will we find our way again?

God is absent, hiding Godself from the people, the prophet Isaiah asserts. Perhaps, Isaiah and the people are experiencing what the prophet Amos described as a famine of hearing the word of God. (Amos 6:11-12)  The nation’s injustice and infidelity has led to a divine withdrawal; but is it truly a withdrawal and will it last forever?  As we read these words, we can recognize that the Psalmist and prophet still hope in God’s return as they pray to a God who seems angry, absent, and even apathetic. The hidden God seems profoundly present within their cries of absence. Could their cries be a revelation of God’s “sighs too deep for words” in the deepest chambers of their being?  Could God be crying in their prayers, inspiring the people to be faithful, despite their experiences of depression, hopelessness, and abandonment?  Could there cries be witness to presence in the midst of feelings of abandonment?

The challenge for kataphatic theologies that emphasize divine omnipresence and omni-activity is how to explain the experience of divine absence in a world in which the earth and human life is said to be ontologically and spiritually filled with God’s glory. Process theologians assert that God is present in each moment as the source of adventure, possibility, and creativity. But, the ubiquitous God is also variable in God’s presence. Not all moments are equally inspirational and life-transforming; most are ordinary and all to many moments are tragic.

God has a vision and an aim at beauty, but that vision is relational and the quality and intensity of God’s vision is profoundly connected to our openness to God’s vision and our willingness to follow God’s vision as creative companions and co-workers. When we turn away from God, we close the door to certain divine possibilities. Habitual turning from God may deaden our experience of the holy in such a way that our experiences of God reflect judgment and limitation. While God is always calling, the intensity and nature of God’s call is variable and related to the quality of our own and our community’s previous responses to God.

In the wake of the ongoing economic recession, many persons will feel a divine absence during Advent and Christmas. They may not hang Christmas lights, send cards, or buy expensive gifts. For some, it will feel like winter, with no Christmas in sight. Having identified God with consumerism and prosperity, economic scarcity may appear to be a sign of God’s judgment, withdrawal, or the loss of jolly, materialistic Christmas spirit. Insightful preachers may choose to remind their congregants that the experience of divine absence, painful as it is, can inspire a quest for new and more authentic experiences of God. God’s “hide and go seek” can inspire us to value what is truly important during the Christmas season—relationships, simplicity of heart, care for the least of these, awareness of God locally and globally.

The passage from Mark joins absence and presence in ways that inspire the listener to stay awake in turbulent times. These passages join hope and fear in a world turned upside down, spiritually, economically, and cosmically. When the familiar world is collapsing, we are tempted to circle the wagons, narrow the scope of our ethical consideration, and deny the threats that assail us. Such denial not only deadens the spirit, but leaves us unprepared to face the novelties, both positive and negative, of our place and time. In the worst of times, when the seasons seem unbalanced and chaos reigns supreme, our calling is to become persons of “size” and “stature”, to use the language of one of my teachers Bernard Loomer. Despite environmental threat, persons of statue embrace and hold in creative contrast experiences of fear and hope, negativity and possibility, and death and resurrection.

“Stay awake. Keep alert.” No one knows when the kairos moment will come. No one knows the final hour. When I was a child, I often attended revival meetings and evangelistic crusades, where I heard evangelists proclaim that now was day of both salvation and damnation. Virtually every evangelist presented his congregation with the call to decision, “Today, you could be killed in accident on your way home. Are you right with God?  Are you saved?  The choice is yours. What is your decision, because today could be the day?” While progressive and process theologians are, for the most part, soteriological universalists, either in their affirmation that we will all be saved or that death is the end for all of us, thus nullifying any threats of eternal punishment, still progressive and process theologians need to affirm the critical nature of each moment of life. This is not a threat nor should it be burdensome, but rather a hopeful call to mindfulness and God/self-awareness. God is in this moment in all its complexity. “Stay awake. Open to God’s call for this moment. Carpe diem! Don’t let this day or moment pass you by.”

One of my spiritual practices is to wake up well before sunrise with an affirmation and a question: “This is the day that God has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it!” and “What adventure will God bring into my life today?” In the spirit of Advent, these words call us to awaken and embrace the vocation of each moment and each day. Just a minute ago, my wife called out me, “Look outside. There are three deer munching on bushes in the woods at the edge of our yard.” By the time I safely positioned my laptop and got out of my recliner chair, they had returned again to the woods. Carpe diem! Seize the day! Embrace the moment, not as an opportunity to get the best sale price, but to experience God’s vision for your life today, and for your role in healing the world.

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of God’s presence in the evolving of our spiritual lives. Although he recognizes the moral, theological, and liturgical challenges of this early Christian community, Paul reminds them that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While God is never fully revealed in our world, “God is faithful” and we can build a “house for hope” (Will Beardslee)  upon God’s fidelity even in times of absence and chaos that will inspire us to acts of courage, kindness, and reconciliation in troubled times. The Corinthians can let go of habitual behaviors, economic and theological divisions, and even the need to be right because God has faithfully given them all they need to flourish.

Today’s passages call us to turn from the temptation to self-preoccupation as we face our own crises in order to glimpse God’s redemptive presence in the world. They call us to look deeper and think on a larger scale than our particular needs. The experience of divine absence is real as we struggle with preserving retirement plans; face the challenges of aging, chronic or life-threatening illness; personal depression; the perils of climate change; and the eclipse of the American empire. These experiences of absence should not be denied. The cry of absence is essential to spiritual integrity. But, within the cry of absence, there is another voice; the cry is an act of hope on our part, and possibly even revelation of God’s future that embraces both darkness and light. As Corinthians notes, we are stronger than we believe; we have the spiritual gifts in our personal and community lives that will enable us to live faithfully and lovingly even when we struggle to experience God’s presence.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.