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Our Advent journey this morning begins in exile. Or rather, it begins with the beginning of the end of exile. It’s a strange place to begin, I know. Why can’t we just get to Christmas already?
Like any family, ours has its own kind of shorthand composed of bits of old movie dialogue. For example, whenever someone is getting a little long-winded in telling some kind of story, one of us will invoke that classic line from The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdink snaps at the priest officiating his rather hasty wedding, saying, “skip to the end,” in an effort to get to the point of the story. It’s only the first Sunday of Advent, and already everyone around us already seems to have skipped to the end, skipped to Christmas. But not us. Not here. Not as a people who are called to wait. Not as a people who understand that the coming of God into our world is more than a past event, it is a future promise that changes the way we see our present.
In a way Advent reminds me of another bit of literary wisdom, from Edward Albee’s play The Zoo Story in which one of his characters observes, “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” That is where exile comes in. Historically speaking, exile is what happened when the Babylonian empire of King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and took the people of Judah captive, carrying them hundred of miles away from their home to Babylon. As these things go, Babylon gave way to Persia and after a generation spent in exile, God’s people were finally given permission to return to their ruined city to pick up the pieces. The people of God are taken a very long distance out of their way- 70 years out of their way- to come back the comparatively short distance to their city correctly. That’s the history. But of course, exile isn’t just ancient history. It is our present reality. Exile is what happens when the world as you’ve known it, the world as you’ve come to expect it, gets swept out from under your feet. It’s the thin envelope of rejection that announces you won’t be moving into the future you thought you would be. It’s the meeting at work informing employees that quarterly earnings were below projections and that layoffs will be effective immediately. It’s those dreaded words, “we need to talk,” from a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, that mean the end of your friendship, relationship, or marriage. It’s the lump that you discover, or the affair that gets revealed, or the habit that’s become an addiction that takes everything from you. It’s every sucker punch that life can throw our way that drops us to our knees and has us gasping for breath, not knowing if we can get back up. To a world that wants to put on a happy face and pretend like everything is just fine, this is a strange place for the season of Advent to begin.
It reminds me of something that happened about ten years ago, as our family was moving from Tennessee to Iowa. It was just after Christmas and we had stopped along the way to stay with family. One afternoon, looking for something to do with two small kids, we ventured to the local movie theater to catch whatever kids movie happened to be playing. When the movie was over a family member came to pick us up in their car. It was what would we come to call “the witching hour” in our home; that time in the late afternoon when children are known to have complete meltdowns. Well, that happened, in the car. It was loud, and persistent. And the family member who had come to get us was completely and utterly unprepared for this onslaught of weeping and gnashing of teeth, so to speak. Her solution was to pop her CD of Christmas music into the car stereo and crank up the volume in an effort to drown out the sound of unhappiness coming from the back seat. Now, I wasn’t any happier about the meltdown we were experiencing than she was, but more noise was definitely NOT the solution. Sometimes, the best thing to do, instead of ignoring or trying to pretend things aren’t what they are, instead of cranking up the volume and adding to the noise; sometimes the best thing to do is to be honest about what’s going on and name our despair.
That’s why we cannot simply skip to the end. Because if we do, it just becomes one big cacophony of noise; holly jolly ho ho ho’s over the sobs and moans of a people who look around and know that just under all the pretense of tinsel and lights trying to dress everything up, we are melting down. The end of exile begins when we take stock of the situation, recognize the fix we are in and cry out to the only one who can save us.
We want God to do something, and not just anything. We want God to do something big, something impressive. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” we cry with Isaiah, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence… to make your name known…so that the nations tremble…” We want God to come down and announce God’s presence with authority. We want God to get to work fixing this hot mess that we find ourselves with. You see the beginning of the end of exile doesn’t come with manufactured joy, it comes in the moment of truth when we cry out for the justice that only God can render. We may not like these words of the prophet, “we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” We flinch at that kind of language that names our guilt. We don’t like guilt, because too many times it is used to make us feel ashamed. Scolded like a bad dog who’s made a mess on the rug. But here’s the thing- we have made a mess of things. Look around. We’ve been given a miraculous planet filled with an abundance of life and we are doing our level best to ignore the evidence while we barrel headlong toward self-destruction by destroying the very gift that God has made to sustain our lives. We’ve been given each other. Human beings are less biologically equipped to live in isolation than bees. We are made for each other, to help and encourage, to defend and support one another; when it is necessary, to carry each other. And yet we are finally beginning to pull back the curtain on the ways in which we have systematically treated half the human population as disposable objects for male dominance and gratification. We sort ourselves into factions, undermining and attacking one another. Instead of seeing our neighbor as necessary to our own survival, we train ourselves to see them as a threat- takers who are going to steal our piece of the pie. Everyone wants justice, but we are reluctant to tell the truth. Because to render justice, for God to rend the heavens and come down means naming what is broken, what isn’t working. And inevitably that means coming to terms with all the ways in which we are complicit in the brokenness, all the ways in which we profit at the expense of our planet and our neighbors in need. We are happy to cry out for justice when we think it means God putting someone else in time-out, when it means making God’s name known to our adversaries. But what do we do about all the ways in which we have made ourselves adversaries to the work and the will of God? It’s enough to make us wonder if it isn’t somehow God’s fault that the rug has been pulled out from under us.
I mean, we could try blaming God for all this. Plenty of people do. That’s certainly what it sounds like Isaiah is doing. While we’re on our knees gasping for breath, we ask why God would allow things to get so bad. We accuse God of hiding from us, and then attribute our misfortune to God’s absence. It isn’t our fault that God has dropped the ball. It isn’t our fault that the people have forgotten God. It’s God’s fault. Sure, you gave us life, and everything that sustains us and makes life worth living comes from you, but honestly- what have you done for us lately?
Now, if we were to leave it there, we might be inclined to just throw in the towel and walk away from this whole God business. We could make the best of our bad situation by pulling out the lights, and cranking up the volume and drowning ourselves in holiday cheer. But that is not what the prophet does. When it comes down to it, the moment of truth that marks the beginning of the end of exile isn’t about our guilt, or God’s perceived absence. Rather, the moment of truth that marks the beginning of the end of exile, the judgment that is ultimately rendered that allows us to move toward the promise of something better is found in a single word- yet.
We cry out for justice. We confess our part in the mess the we’ve made of things. We call God to account for taking God’s hands off the wheel. And then with a word we remember the source of our hope. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;” meaning we are God’s family. And has the Hawaiian word for family, ohana, goes- that means no one gets left behind. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand,” which means we are dependent on God to not only shape us, but the reshape us when our lives get off center and begin to go wonky. The short distance it takes to return correctly to God after wandering a long distance out of the way is composed of those three letters, y-e-t. Yet. Advent begins with the unflinching judgement rendered by God, and by us, that while things may not as they should be, that when we have lost the plot and find ourselves wondering if God even cares, yet God will come to us to set things right. Not through quaking mountains and raging fires- we’ve had quite enough of those things, don’t you think? No, God will come to as- as God often does- in the most unexpected way, through the least likely of people. We just have to turn down the volume a little, tune out the distractions, and watch for it.
Because, friends, God is not done with us… yet.