God’s plan of salvation and healing is working; we just need to go back to see what that plan really is, and how we are called to be a part of it.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The First Sunday of Advent, year B
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1,700 years before Jesus was born, God started a plan of salvation.
Calling Abraham and Sarah, God began a path to bring this earth back into relationship with God. Three thousand, seven hundred years ago. That’s a long time.
Roughly 1,200 years later, the third prophet writing in the book of Isaiah impatiently cried, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” After the exile, in a destroyed homeland, the prophet wondered if God’s plan would ever happen. Two thousand, six hundred years ago. That’s a long time.
600 years later, a baby was born to a poor couple in Palestine. That baby grew up, gathered followers, taught of God’s love and God’s reign, was killed on a cross, and rose from the dead. His Church grew out of the sending of the Holy Spirit. God’s salvation spread. Two thousand years ago. That’s a long time.
But the world’s still a mess. Optimism about the planet’s future, let alone humanity, is dim. We’re destroying the climate, risking that this earth will be uninhabitable for our children; millions suffer from hunger and poverty; war rages endlessly; there is prejudice and abuse between genders and between races; our politics are toxic and impotent. Isaiah today speaks perfectly for today, and also for the seventeenth century, when a German used Isaiah’s cry in a great Advent hymn: “O Savior, rend the heavens wide; come down, come down with mighty stride.” (LBW no. 38)
It’s nearly 4,000 years since God began this, 2,000 since God came in person. How long will this take? When will we see signs of the world improving? Ors that hymn sings, “When will our hearts behold your dawn?”
Given the world’s situation, maybe we’ve misunderstood God’s plan. Or maybe God isn’t actually doing it.
But if God is who we believe God to be, the Triune God who made all things, who in Christ Jesus died and rose from the dead, whose love for the world is proven in that death and resurrection, whose Spirit moves and breathes and fills all people, if this God is true, then the second thing can’t be. God will keep all promises.
So that means we’ve misunderstood God’s plan.
This year, Advent could be a season to practice waiting for God on God’s terms, waiting for what God has actually promised to do, waiting for the healing that God’s Scriptures actually say God cares about. Rather than complaining that God isn’t doing anything, we could learn to watch and wait for what God is actually doing.
So what is God doing?
Sometimes our frustration at the world’s state leads us to assume God’s plan doesn’t involve anything more than rescuing us. Christians sometimes act as if God’s salvation is an evacuation plan from a condemned world, and the Church is a lifeboat off a sinking ship, and salvation is rescuing Christians from this life. The Church has taught that too long.
But that’s not what the Scriptures say. It’s not even what Jesus, God’s Son, says. But when he rose from the dead, the early believers saw a new thing. In Christ’s resurrection, they realized God’s healing extended after death. That was a great joy; for us, too. God promises in Christ that we will have life after we die. The problem is, for at least a millennium now the Church has too often acted as if that’s all God plans to do.
But the Bible is clear that God’s whole plan was restoring the creation, and all creatures, including human beings, back into relationship with God and each other. That’s what Jesus taught and lived. That’s what the prophets called for. That’s what God’s law revealed.
We know this, too. Our anxiety at a broken world wouldn’t exist if all we cared about was getting to heaven when we die. We care about so much more because we’ve read the Scriptures. We’ve heard God’s dreams. We’ve dreamed them ourselves. All the promises of restoring the creation, of all people living in peace and harmony, of all having enough, we’ve read and longed for.
But we need to learn how God will accomplish this plan. Because it’s not going to be by power and might.
The problem with crying out “tear open the heavens” is that it doesn’t take seriously how the Scriptures say God will accomplish this restoration and healing. That is, through us.
That’s the witness of Scripture over and over: we are called to learn love of God and neighbor. We are called to care for those who are poor so there are no more who are poor. We are given charge of this earth, to care for it, nurture it.
And at the height of God’s plan, coming among us as one of us, what did the Christ do? Say, “I’ve got this, I’ll fix everything”? No. He taught people about God’s love, about caring for this creation, about loving each other. He anointed followers, made us literally “Christ”, to keep this work going.
God’s vision of salvation can’t happen through God’s action alone or it’s not salvation as God desires. God’s way is the only way: through us.
You see, if God dreams of all creatures living together in a non-violent world, God can’t accomplish that with violence and rending the heavens.
How will God get the people of the world to live and embrace non-violence? By killing them? By urging them to kill each other? It’s utter nonsense.
God put this into the first declaration of the law: you shall not kill. Generations have ignored it, parsed it, pretended it wasn’t clear. But it’s core to God.
So Jesus let himself be killed rather than kill his enemies. The eternal Son of God, joining our human flesh, taught peacemaking and non-violence, and when we decided we wanted none of it and killed him, Jesus showed us God’s answer, and invited us to do the same.
There is no power that can force non-violence. Only God’s way will work. But it’s going to take a long time.
If God dreams of humanity living in love of God and neighbor, God can’t accomplish that with power and wrath.
The Bible’s consistent witness is that God’s entire expectation of us is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor.
How will God’s coming in power and wrath make that happen? We look at how humans don’t love God or each other and despair. But what do we want God to do? Destroy the unloving? Force them – force us – to love?
So the Triune God faced the cross. The only way to show us what love really is is to love us with what love really is. Self-giving, vulnerable, letting go of everything. No other way could break our hearts so they’d also learn to love.
Only God’s way will work. But it’s going to take a long time.
If God dreams of a restored creation, God can’t accomplish that by destroying the world.
Christians who focus only on life after death don’t need to care about this planet, about this environment. It’s disposable.
But the Scriptures flow with God’s love for this creation, God’s sadness at our pollution and destruction. They burst with promises that God will restore all things.
How will God coming with fire and destruction do that? Hoping that God will break it all apart and take us to heaven makes no sense. God loves this creation, and desires only good for it. It can provide in abundance for all God’s creatures.
So God asks us to care for it, tend it, love it.
Only God’s way will work. But it, too, is going to take a long time.
Advent teaches us what we wait for, and what we do while we wait.
We do our jobs, Jesus says today. Follow Christ. Be Christ. Love God and love neighbor. Tend the garden, the earth. Feed those who are hungry. Shelter those who have none. Dismantle systems and structures that oppress. Tell the truth in love and seek the healing of our country, and of all nations. It’s all there. Jesus’ parable today just tells us to be at our work. The rest of the Scriptures tell us what that work is.
Through that work in us, God will keep doing this salvation. And today Paul promises Christ will give us the spiritual gifts and strength we need to do what we are asked to do.
We already knew this truth about God’s plan. In fact, we’ve sung it many times, in another Advent hymn we love.
Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, wrote a plea for Christ to come, a hymn Martin Luther loved and translated. “Savior of the nations, come; virgin’s son, make here your home.”
But they sang of this different coming. They didn’t sing of God ripping open the skies or destroying or using power and might. The hymn’s climax reveals the paradox and hope at the center of God’s long-term plan:
Now your manger, shining bright
hallows night with newborn light.
Night cannot this light subdue;
let our faith shine ever new. (ELW no. 263)
No sensible person could see a manger hold anything like an unquenchable light. Or the hope of the healing of the world. But in that manger is the heart of God’s plan. It’s still unfolding in us, and eventually, God’s light will break all darkness and death.
It’s going to take a long time. But Christ has shown us there’s no stopping a love like this, no quenching a light like this, no matter how long it takes.
So we wait, we work, we hope. Because God is already here, and everything already is being healed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen