Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 11:1-10 / Advent 1B / 27 November 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Come on down, Lord! Come on down! Tear open those heavens and come down and make the mountains shake. Kindle the fire, boil the water, make those heathen quake in their boots at the sound of your name! Do like you used to do back in the good old days when you used to shake things up in a big way! Show yourself for who you are, God, and come down to save us!
Don’t you feel like talking like that sometimes? Don’t you feel like having an Isaiah 64 moment and look to heaven and say, “Come on down, Lord, and stir up some trouble!”
It’s Advent, in case you can’t tell. The season before The Season, though judging by the sales figures over the weekend, the season has already begun. But Advent is different from December madness. Advent is edgy, sober, watchful, expectant, hopeful, longing. Today the mood is urgent. The King is coming. Will you be ready? And how do you get ready?
Isaiah serves as our teacher for our Advent preparations. “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” There are echoes of “Do this in remembrance of me” in that verse. To “work righteousness” and to “remember the Lord in His ways” is a matter of faith. The one who believes, who trusts that he or she stands righteous before God for Christ’s sake is the one who “does righteousness.” And he is the one who remembers the Lord in His ways.
Advent is really a celebration of three kinds of advents, comings of our Lord. It’s a backward glance at His first advent in humility, coming by way of the Virgin, the manger, and the cross. That’s why we hear the Palm Sunday Gospel again on this first Sunday in Advent. This is the King you are waiting for. The One who rode into Jerusalem atop a borrowed colt, whose throne was a cross and whose crown was made of thorns. This is the King who wages war on behalf of His people, yes, even on behalf of His enemies! The world have never known such a king or any such leader. One who literally lays down His life to save the world.
As glorious and triumphant as the Palm Sunday advent was, it was an advent of humility and weakness. This King had come to His city to die, to be crucified at the hands of religious and political men. This King was willingly going to battle alone to conquer our sin by becoming our Sin, to conquer our death by going into Death.
Whatever we have to say about Jesus’ last day advent, and His coming again with glory to judge the living and the dead needs to be lensed through this advent. Jesus came to do justice to God’s law. To do the righteousness of God for us. To establish the way of salvation that is through faith in Him and not in works of our own which do not and cannot work the righteousness of God.
Isaiah admits as much and confesses it. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Even our most stellar good works, our greatest acts of charity and self-sacrifice, our most noble altruism, our greatest religious works, all of these are like a filthy, soiled garment, says the prophet. Here is the true heart of confession and contrition. It’s not simply about feeling sorry for yourself, feeling bad about what you’ve done, feeling guilty, or really feeling anything it all. It’s recognizing that everything you do is so tainted with Sin that even what appears to the eyes as a “righteous deeds” is like a horribly soiled garment when held under the light of God’s Law.
Think of the Law as a kind of “black light,” a UV light that reveals the hidden stain of Sin and shows our righteousness to be more contaminated than we ever could imagine. It shows our lives to be the crime scenes that they really are. We are like a fading leaf in fall, blown away by our iniquities. We are in the same boat with all of humanity in that no one naturally calls upon the Name of the Lord, no one rises up to take hold of the Lord. It’s simply not in us, not since the Fall.
God hides His face from us. He refuses to look at our filth, He turns away from Sin and leaves us to “melt in the hot hand of our iniquities.” What an image that is! And it points directly to the cross of Jesus, to His forsakenness, to His taking the heat of the Law in our place, to His melting in the hand of our iniquities.
To recognize the depths of our sin, to confess the inadequacy of our righteousness, is only the prelude to advent preparation. It is also a plea, a cry for mercy, a renewed call of faith’s trust in the mercy and promise of God. “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” Isaiah teaches us to plead the mercy of Christ over and against our Sin. Yes we have iniquities and sin beyond measure. Yes, our righteousness is like filthy rags in dire need of laundering. “Don’t remember it, Lord.” “Forgive our iniquities and remember our sins no more, as you have promised.” We are your people. We are baptized. You have claimed us with your Name. You have marked us as your own possession. Now don’t forget us.”
God remembers us, but He chooses for Jesus’ sake to remember not our sins. That’s the deal, and it’s the only deal the Lord makes. Our Sin for Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was not a victory lap. It wasn’t the conquering King coming home in triumph after defeating His enemies on the battlefield. It was not a ceremonial parade. It was “to fulfill all righteousness.” The King of righteousness had come to do justice to our sin once and for all. And while the crowd of disciples were correct in shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, they really had no idea what this meant or why He had come. They would by week’s end, and it would take a bit longer for the importance to finally sink in.
That was Jesus’ first advent in humility, being humbled under the Law to redeem humanity under the Law.
What sustains us is Jesus’ second advent, the advent of His coming in hidden glory. This is the advent of His sacramental coming by Word and sacrament, an advent sometimes tragically overlooked. We sometimes think and act as though Jesus had come and gone and will come again one day. And as we watch and wait in Advent anticipation, we sometimes look to the world much like Linus waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. And the world, much like skeptical Lucy, laughs at the silliness of waiting for Jesus to return.
But the notion of “return” doesn’t really do justice to Jesus’ presence. He has withdrawn His visible presence, but not in a way that makes Him absent. He is more fully and completely “with us” as He was with His first band of disciples. He is “with us” by His Word in all its sacramental forms – in Baptism, in the Supper, in the spoken Word of forgiveness in His Name. He is with us as He has promised, “I will be with you always until the end of the ages.” And so Jesus hasn’t really gone anywhere in going to heaven. Rather, He’s returned to His former glory at the right hand of the Father in order that He might be “all in all” and “fill all things in every way.” That means the One we are waiting for is the One who is already here. The kingdom we are waiting for is the kingdom that has already come. The glory we are waiting for is the glory that is already here, now in a humble and hidden way, but still very much here.
That’s how to understand our epistle this morning, the opening paragraph of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregation. He says, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There were those in Corinth who thought they were lacking the necessary spiritual gifts to survive. And there were those in Corinth who thought they were overflowing with gifts. And Paul assures them that they are not lacking anything, for where the Word is preached, where the Body and Blood of Christ are, where there is Baptism, there is every spiritual gift needed to prepare the way of the Lord.
You may not always feel Advent ready. You may not always feel “spiritual.” I have to smile at those who say they are “spiritual but not religious” people. I sometimes say that I am “religious but not terribly spiritual.” I say that because most of the time I don’t feel terribly spiritual, nor do I feel “close to God,” nor do I experience faith as any kind of emotional thing. What most people call “spiritual” is a sense of the transcendent or the numinous or some vague notion of inner peace. I’m too much of a skeptic to be swayed by any of that.
Those things are not to be confused with saving, justifying faith. Faith is trust in a promise of things to come. It is a certainty of things not yet seen. Advent is a time of faith. Looking into the darkness and seeing the Light. Looking at the end and seeing the beginning of a new creation. Looking at the humility of water and human words and bread and wine and seeing through faith the power of God to save you and sustain you to the end.
Whether you feel it or not, you lack nothing, spiritually speaking. You have every spiritual gift you need, because you have Christ. His Baptism, His Body and Blood, His Word prepare you for His Day.
That day is the third Advent. The coming of our Lord in great glory to judge the living and the dead. The day of Resurrection and Life. The day when faith is vindicated. Jesus gave a little preview of that Day on the Mt. of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John in attendance. And He gives us a foretaste of the Feast to come in His Supper.
There is a coming Day, when sin is no more, when Death is finally ended, when Life reigns, when the Lordship of Jesus is made visible to all. That’s what Advent is really all about. Not shopping days until Christmas. Not preparing for the holidays. Not cooking and baking and eating. Though we do all these things, and there is nothing wrong with any of those things, there is something more going on. The Day is coming. The Light has dawned. Get ready. The One who came in humility and who comes by Word and Sacrament will come in glory. Get ready. The Day is coming.
God is faithful, by whom you were called in the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. He is faithful. He will sustain and keep you. Trust Him.
May He grant each of you a joyous and watchful Advent.
In the name of Jesus,