This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship. On November 29, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is willing to break into human reality in surprising ways.
For our first Christmas as a married couple, Sharon and I set a spending limit. We agreed that we would spend no more than $30 on gifts, stocking stuffers, etc. We said we could afford a $30 Christmas.
Now, remember, this was a long time ago. When we got married, Ronald Reagan was president. The largest nation in the world was The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We we got married, there were only 2 Star Wars movies and Wheel of Fortune hadn’t been invented yet. When we got married there were only 23 letters in the alphabet.
OK, I made the last one up to see if you were paying attention. It was a long time ago. And because we didn’t have much money, we got creative. I remember picking an armoire out of the trash and refinishing it for her (we still have it, on the 3rd floor of our home). Once she got a sweater from the thrift store, and because I wanted her to wonder what was inside the box, I wrapped it with a mayonnaise jar half full of water – just so I could watch her shake it and try to guess what was inside that box. We had a lot of fun with that $30.
When we do it right, Advent is about expectation. And we need to be clear that it’s not only about “what am I expecting to get for Christmas”, but especially in Advent we are called to wonder, “Where will God show up next?”
In about 740 BC, the people of Judah were in a boatload of trouble. Believe it or not, in those days, Syria was a red hot mess (I know, it’s so calm now, right?). The king of Syria, Rezin, formed an alliance with the king of Israel, Pekah. Together, these nations sought to wage war against Ahaz, king of Judah in Jerusalem. Things were looking tough from the outside.
On the inside, it was no better. Ahaz, as it turns out, was a spectacularly bad king – in a nation that had had a lot of pretty bad kings. He was afraid to trust that God would deliver his people, and so Ahaz entered into a treaty with Tiglath Peleser III, the king of Assyria. The good news was that Judah was not overrun by the Syrian coalition. The bad news was that now Judah was a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria.
In this time of conflict, famine, intrigue, and fear, God calls Isaiah to be his prophet. And Isaiah presents himself to Ahaz and says, “Listen, you don’t have to worry. God will send a deliverer! It looks rough now, but soon, things will change. Expect something big.” You heard a part of his amazing words to Ahaz in the Old Testament reading this morning.
Not long after Isaiah uttered those words about a son being given on whose shoulders the government would rest, Ahaz and his wife had a baby, a little guy named Hezekiah. And, don’t you know, Hezekiah turned out to be a good king – a spectacularly good king. He spent about 30 years cleaning up his father’s messes. He restored the temple, he re-instituted the celebration of the Passover meal, and more.
Isaiah was proven to be a good prophet – God did indeed show up, a son was born, and he was wonderful. Hooray!
About 7 centuries later, believe it or not, the Middle East was a mess. Still? Again? This time, the Romans were in charge, having brought their troops in to “liberate” the folks in about 63 BC. The Empirical troops were scattered throughout Palestine, keeping the peace by throttling any moves toward freedom or self-rule. Jerusalem and its environs had a Jewish population that was ruled by a Roman governor who appointed a Jewish strongman named Herod the Great as “king in Judea”.
Whereas Ahaz was a spectacularly bad king, Herod the great was a remarkably, undeniably, amazingly bad king. Whatever the nation had gained during Hezekiah’s rule was certainly ancient history by then, and people of faith used to gather around the scroll of Isaiah and read his prophecies and say things like, “Wow, it’s too bad that God isn’t in the showing-up-around-here business anymore, because this is horrible. How cool would it be if God would intervene in our situation?”
In fact, the people of Judea were suffering from what historians call “Messianic fever” – the strident hope or belief that God would send a savior to Israel – one who would bring freedom to God’s people forever.
It is in this context that an old woman named Elizabeth shows a rather surprising home pregnancy test to her even older husband, Zechariah. While they were shocked, and in Zechariah’s case even speechless, about this news, they took it in stride and were overjoyed at the ways that God was speaking into their own personal circumstances.
Meanwhile, about sixty-three miles to the north, Elizabeth’s teenage cousin was reviewing the results of her pregnancy test with even greater shock, since she was a virgin. And if Elizabeth’s husband was surprised, you can imagine how Mary’s fiancé took the news.
Mary and Elizabeth are vastly different people. One of them is still buying Clearasil and Neutrogena acne prevention while the other one is looking through the bins of Oil of Olay anti-wrinkle creams trying to find new batteries for her hearing aids. And yet our gospel reading for this morning records how each of them was able to recognize that amidst the upheaval of their world and their own lives, God was coming. The Messiah was on the way. Just like old Isaiah had promised, God was on the move. Again. Still.
Only when Jesus got here, he didn’t act like people thought that God’s deliverer should act. There was no kingly birth, and he did not play the part of the conquering hero at all. After decades of obscurity, he finally went public with his ministry, and for a couple of years seemed to be off to a promising start in terms of rallying the popular support behind his miracles and healing ministry.
But something happened, as it so often does, and the wheels apparently fell off of Jesus’ campaign to be the redeemer. He died in shame, crucified as an enemy of the state who had been rejected by his own people. It seemed as if it had all been a dream.
And then, as you probably know, things turned around in a hurry. God, in his wisdom, power, and strength demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus that he was, in fact, in the showing-up-around-here business in spades. His followers came to see that Jesus never intended to be a conquering hero characterized by military might and brute force. Instead, they remembered the birth of Jesus and the advent of his ministry as the time that God revealed himself in the power of love. The almighty came into our world cloaked as an infant. It was in sheer and utter vulnerability that the people came to see Immanuel – God With Us – had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And to us a son had been given. And he was wonderful. A counselor. He is the prince of peace, and of the increase of his government there will surely be no end.
Which brings us, dear friends, to you.
How did you end up here?
That’s a serious question. I figure this is as good a day as any to ask it, since we’re coming off a week when all but emergency workers and the unluckiest of retail clerks are given at least one day off and expected to be mildly reflective as to our life situations. How did we get to where we are professionally, or in terms of our education? How did we wind up being in relationship with our friends, lovers, children?
I’m pretty sure that the kid who wrapped up second-hand sweaters and used mayonnaise jars could not have looked ahead and seen me coming down the road… did you see this coming?
How did you get here? And what do you want? Again, I’m not asking what you hope your beloved will dig out of the trash and put on your third floor. I’m asking whether you ever think about God breaking into your life, your reality, your situation. Do you have a desire for God to change something in our world? Like the Judeans of Isaiah’s time, like Elizabeth and Mary, do you hope for God to intervene somehow, somewhere?
Are you waiting for God to change someone in our world?
Are you waiting for God to change something in you?
What do you expect this Advent?
You have done all the things that people do when they hope. You lit candles. You prayed, “O come, o come Immanuel”.
If the scriptures teach us anything about God’s relationship with his people and his creation, it’s that he’s still in the showing-up-around-here business. Our God is surprising.
So this morning, beloved – this first Sunday of Advent – I implore you: don’t just mutter a few prayers and go about your business. Don’t just say that you hope something is different and then go back to business as usual.
It’s Advent, and we are called to pray these prayers of hope. So by all means, let’s do so. But then let’s act hopeful. Let’s behave as those who are expecting that something will happen, something will change, someone will come.
This week, look around you for signs of God’s reign and power and love. Watch out as the God who spoke through Isaiah and came to us in Jesus and lives in our community is active in the people and places around you. And for his sake, keep up with him as he moves in the quiet, dark places and shows up in the most unlikely ways.
I’d like to close, not with my own words, but with some from a message that Pope John Paul II shared 2002:
… Advent… helps us to understand fully the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, it is necessary to understand that our whole life should be an advent, in the vigilant expectation of Christ’s final coming. To prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, will come one day to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize his presence in the events of daily life. Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s wait. Now! For the One who has come, is coming, and will come again. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 General Audience at the Vatican, given on December 18, 2002 https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20021218.html
Some of the basic framework for this message was developed from thought I encountered in Under Wraps: The Gift We Never Expected, a series of Advent studies published by Abingdon Press.