When I was asked just the other day to give the service this week, the first thing I thought was, ‘No problem, it’s the first Sunday of advent, and advent is all about preparation, I’ll just speak about getting our preparations right, about getting ourselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, about setting out on a journey that will end with Christmas and all that comes with it.’
But then I thought, wait, things are a bit different this year, aren’t they? I mean, normally the shops would be mobbed, the excitement would be building, we’d all be talking about where we’re going to spend the day, who we’d be spending it with. The church would be getting ready for its busiest time of the year, with carol services, Christingles, Christmas tree festivals, Christmas fayres. This year, although I know it’s early yet, it’s all just a bit muted, isn’t it? More than a bit, I think. Most of these things, the festivals, the fayres, aren’t happening this year and I think we’re all in something of a limbo, not quite sure what’s going on and how we’re going to deal with it.
So how do you prepare for something when you don’t know what it looks like? You wait for a clearer picture, I suppose, you wait for things to come into focus a bit. And that’s what advent is about too. It’s about preparation, but it’s also about waiting.
And we’ve been getting good at waiting, haven’t we? We’ve had plenty of practice this year. You could say that this year, most of it, at least, has all been one big advent. We’ve done a lot of waiting. Waiting in the queue outside Tesco, or Asda, or the chemist. Waiting for that one hour a day when we were allowed out for a walk. Waiting for the daily updates from the government at 5 o’clock. Waiting for it all to be over. And we’re still waiting. We’re waiting each time there’s an announcement about which tier we’re going to be in, waiting to find out how much freedom we’ve got. Waiting for the pubs and the shops to open. Waiting for a vaccine. We’re still waiting.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah was waiting too. Waiting, just like we are now, for things to get better. But where we tend to wait patiently in silence, Isaiah wasn’t like that – he struck out, he wanted to know why things weren’t getting better and he wanted action. You can hear his frustration as he prays to God: ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.’
They’re hard words to hear, aren’t they? Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of a man who’s struggling so much to make sense of the world he’s living in. A man who wishes God would make himself known, come down and sort it all out, just like he used to do. Maybe that sounds familiar?
We don’t know for sure exactly when Isaiah wrote these words, but what we do know is that the great days of Israel’s history, the days of David and Solomon, when Israel was, relatively speaking anyway, prosperous and peaceful, these days were in the past.
Isaiah lived in a much later time, when generations of ungodly kings had led the people badly, when people had turned from the God of Moses and Abraham to all sorts of other gods. And it was a time when God was remote because he didn’t like the way Israel was going, so he left the people to their own devices. The people had made their bed and God was letting them lie in it. But the problem actually was not so much that God had abandoned the people, but that the people had abandoned God, and Isaiah knew this. ‘There is no-one who calls upon your name,’ he said, ‘No-one who rouses himself to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face and made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.’ Isaiah knew that the problem didn’t lie with God, it lay closer to home.
But where was God? That’s what Isaiah wanted to know. Why had he ‘hidden his face?’ How was Israel going to get out of the mess it had found itself in. Was God going to come and bless his people again?
Isaiah wanted God to come down in a blaze of glory like he used to do, when he’d done awesome things and the mountains quaked. That wasn’t going to happen. But it didn’t stop him waiting and hoping.
As I say, maybe it sounds familiar. Maybe we can identify with some of what Isaiah was going through. Our situation isn’t the same, but there are similarities. This is a tough time for us, just as Isaiah’s time was tough for him. We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, one that we wouldn’t have recognised this time last year. Maybe it’s worse for us in a way, because we feel so helpless, it’s all so much out of our control. Isaiah had a very black and white view of why Israel was in the state it was, but thankfully we don’t hold to his Old Testament concept that it’s our iniquities, our sins, that are to blame for the position we’ve found ourselves in. There’s no-one, there’s nothing to pin the blame on. So we feel helpless.
But where Isaiah was looking forward, waiting for the day God would come, we look back knowing that he did come, only not with fire and fury and quaking mountains but as a child in a manger in Bethlehem. Isaiah waited, and he hoped. And that’s what we do during Advent, we wait and we hope. The first candle of Advent represents that hope.
I think I need to explain something at this point, and it's that hope as we know it and biblical hope aren’t quite the same thing. When we speak of hope in our day-to-day lives, what we’re really talking about is wishful thinking. We hope that we’ll get the Christmas present we want. We hope the sun’s going to shine tomorrow. We hope that the vaccinations everyone’s talking about are on the way. The way we think of hope is that something good will happen, or that something bad won’t happen. And there’s always an element of uncertainty whether it’ll happen or not. When we say we hope the sun will shine, what we’re saying as well is that there’s a chance it won’t.
But hope in the Bible isn’t the same. Biblical hope isn’t just a wish that something will happen or not happen – biblical hope expects it to happen. It’s called a confident expectation, or a secure assurance.
Isaiah waited, hoping and looking forward to the day that God would come down. As we wait during Advent, our hope is our confident expectation, our secure assurance, that as he came to us in Bethlehem all those years ago, so he’ll come to us again. That’s what we remember at Advent.
As I say, we’ve done a lot of waiting this year, and we keep waiting, patiently waiting for things to get better. And the politicians and the health experts keep telling us to be patient, that a vaccination is on the way, sit tight, it’ll be alright. But patience takes different forms, I think – there’s such a thing as passive patience and active patience.
Passive patience is when you wait and do nothing, stand still. Active patience is when you slow down, take your time, but never give in. Passive patience says stop, don’t move. Active patience, I think it can be best summed up in the old wartime poster, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’
In our New Testament reading earlier, I think Jesus was telling the disciples something similar. Don’t stop what you’re doing just because I’m not there in person, he was telling them. Keep going, stay awake, be ready, do all the things I’ve told you to do, like take care of your people and live the way I’ve told you that you should be living. Now, he was talking about the end of days, about the final judgement, his second coming, and that’s a subject for a whole different sermon so I’m not going to say too much about that today, but those words, ‘stay awake’, I think they speak to us now in all that we’re going through.
Because staying awake means actively waiting. It means keeping calm and carrying on. It means continuing with our lives despite all that’s happening. It means continuing to care for those we love and those who need our help. We can’t shut our eyes and ignore all that’s going on around us. Because not staying awake and closing our eyes, well, that means we’re in the dark, and if there’s a place we don’t want to be at a time like this it’s in the dark. And for the times when we struggle, when we feel the darkness close in, there’s always our candle, the candle of hope, and what it represents - the hope that God gave us by coming to the world to be among us and by being with us always. Our candle, when we need it, is our light in the dark.
So Advent is here, and we begin our preparations for Christmas, we wait for a Christmas that we all know is going to be different in so many ways this year. But most of the things that are different, well, maybe they’re things that shouldn’t matter so much to us. I know it’s important to have all the family round, I know it’s important to give gifts and receive them, I know it’s important to some people to have parties and festive celebrations. But this advent, and every advent, it’s more important to remember what and who God gave us that first Christmas, to give thanks for him, to recognise the impact and the effect he has on all our lives. And I think if we remember these things first, it makes every Christmas, Covid or no Covid, a Christmas worth waiting for.