Title: Anticipating Glory
Date: December 7, 2008 (2nd Sunday of Advent)
Texts: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Author: Monica Schmucker
Growing up with a German mother, advent was a season we celebrated, and so I have long felt that I understand the concept of Advent better than most Americans. I was taught that you do not rush to the manger the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, we take a four week journey to Bethlehem and along the way we recall the prophecies foretelling Christ’s birth and the unfolding of God’s plan through people like Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist. And to mark this journey there are advent calendars, wreaths and candles, songs, and of course, food. On Friday evening Jessamine, Chris, and Melinda, and I enjoyed some of these traditions together. I even found an advent card which my German grandma sent my sister and me 19 years ago. I left the Harders’ place that evening with a warm fuzzy feeling—and it wasn’t just the gluhwein.
Advent is a season of preparing to welcome Jesus. Got it, I thought. Then I started coming to CHMF and realized that I’d overlooked an important aspect of this season. I’d never realized that it wasn’t only about anticipating the baby Jesus but that this is also the season when the Church anticipates Christ’s return. This realization has taken Advent out of the realm of familiar traditions from my childhood and into a mysterious place where the past, present, and future keep intertwining like so many strands of Christmas lights.
Our passage today from Isaiah 40 is beautiful and familiar. Certainly much has already been said, probably most eloquently with music, about these words of comfort and hope.
Comfort, comfort my people says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for, that she has received
from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the desert prepare the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
The rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
I try to imagine how the people of Israel heard these words while they were in exile. What would it look like for the glory of the LORD to be revealed? I don’t have a solid definition of what God’s “glory” is, but I suspect that all definitions are deficient. We might think of it as God’s splendor, honor, and abundance. The glory is the reputation of God. This summer the lectionary took us through some chapters in Exodus. The last one we looked at was chapter 33. In it Moses really wants assurances of who this God is. He asks God, “Show me your glory.” God responds, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (v 19-20). After this glimpse of God’s glory, Moses’ face glows even after he comes down from the mountain. The tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem are the place where God dwells, where God’s glory is among the people. And once a year, one priest enters that place, the Holy of Holies. But we read in Ezekiel’s weird visions, that the glory of the LORD has departed from the temple, (chapter 10) that the people’s sinful, unrepentant ways have led to God’s presence leaving them. But Isaiah 40 proclaims, “Here is your God. See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him.” Get ready—because the Glory is coming back!
As Christians, we believe that the glory of God is revealed in Christ Jesus. John 1:14 says it this way, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The opening of Mark echoes Isaiah 40 in identifying John the Baptist as the voice in the desert. John’s message is a call to repentance in order to prepare for coming of the one after him, “the thongs of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.” God’s glory is about to be revealed in Jesus.
But surely we are still waiting for this vision to happen. I thought that the raising of valleys and leveling of mountains were just lovely figurative language, but when I think what it would mean for all of humanity to see God’s glory, this might not be an exaggeration. We readily connect the image in Isaiah with the New Testament’s proclamation that Christ will return in glory. We know that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11). Peter tells his readers that God is being patient in holding off that day, but it will come suddenly. And in that day the heavens and the earth will be consumed by fire and everything will be laid bare. In light of this certain future, he urges “Live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”
But I for one am not really enthusiastic for that day. Maybe I’m hesitant to see Peter’s Day of the Lord as something for which to be eager because, well, there are folks who are eager for it and they make me nervous. I think their efforts to speed its coming are misguided and harmful. Even Peter cautions that we should regard God’s patience in this matter as salvation.
But maybe I am not eager for this day because my senses have been dulled to the true state of fallen humanity. We are able to know in great detail the horrible things happening in our world, and also to insulate ourselves from that reality. My roommate was telling me about a book she is reading on the modern slave trade. It is shocking to realize that slavery, particularly sex trafficking, occurs everywhere. For many in our world who are suffering, the Day of the Lord can’t come soon enough. They are desperate for some words of comfort and hope. My friend, Amy, lives and works in Central Asia. Among her friends there, is a young woman who has worked hard to get an education in her country. But she feels the walls of despair closing in on her, because her family is arranging her marriage to a man who is unlikely to understand her dreams of continuing her education. She will likely be a prisoner in her own home. Amy writes, “I am beginning to understand the despair that drives women here to suicide. So many of them set themselves on fire.” And we could all list many other examples. With our senses dulled, we do not hear Isaiah’s message with joy. We do not sense the immense hope that the words, “See, your God comes and his arm rules for him,” stir up. We must hear these words from the depths to grasp how good they are.
But would a focus on the suffering in our world help us anticipate Christ’s return? In my own experience, I can’t do it without a certain paralysis and hopelessness setting in. And then I feel guilty for tuning it out. Suffering and injustice sometimes lead me to doubt God’s goodness. I found some wise insights on this in an Advent letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the pastors of the Confessing Church, dated Nov. 29, 1942. He writes, “We are not called to burden ourselves with the sorrows of the whole world; in the end, we cannot suffer with people in our own strength because we are unable to redeem. A suppressed desire to suffer with someone in one’s own strength must become resignation. We are simply called to look with utter joy on the one who really suffered with people and became their redeemer. We may joyfully believe that there was, there is, a man to whom no human sorrow and no human sin is strange, and who in the profoundest love achieved our redemption. Only in such joy toward Christ, the Redeemer, are we saved from having our senses dulled by the pressure of human sorrow or from becoming resigned under the experience of suffering.”
It is hard to maintain an air of expectation for more than a few weeks. Even couples anticipating the birth of a child have reasonable expectations that the birth will not be delayed more than a week or two past the due date. God’s glory revealed in the advent of Christ’s birth and in his future return feels distant from us—in the past and in the future. But what if we started realizing that the glory of the Lord is actively being revealed—where we can experience it? This event of God bursting into our dark, sin-filled world is on-going. It is now.
Where have we seen God’s glory revealed? I can only bear witness to what I have seen, so sorry if I keep bringing this up, but I cannot forget it. I saw God’ glory revealed through the transformations of suffering people in West Africa. Patients we cared for on Mercy Ships had suffered not only the physical pain of their afflictions, but also emotional, social, and spiritual isolation and despair. I watched them literally come back to life. Some were within weeks of dying, many had spirits almost snuffed out. I cannot tell you enough how beautiful it was to see them recover their health and also their hope and dignity. To see them grasp the truth that they were not forgotten, that God had heard their prayers and responded by moving His people from around the world to extend a loving, healing embrace. This was the Day of the Lord in their lives, the day they saw and felt God’s glory—his goodness and abundance, his reputation as Shepherd and Savior. And it extended beyond these men, women, and children, to their families, their villages, and to us – all who had witnessed their brokenness now rejoiced in their healing and wholeness. “Lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid: say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:9c-11). This is the advent, the coming of the LORD that I can eagerly anticipate, that I can feel is imminent and joyful, that I wish to speed in coming, that I want to announce boldly.
But how? Both our passages in Isaiah and Mark call us to prepare the way, to cultivate a space in our individual and corporate lives where God’s glory can be revealed. Clear some space, be receptive. Expect the unexpected—that God’s glory is revealed where we did not think to look. “Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps,” Psalm 85 tells us. “Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him,” Peter urges (2Peter 3:14). Clearing that space requires repentance. John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). How have we so underestimated or misunderstood God’s glory that we aren’t eager for it to be revealed? Repentance is the starting point. Let our eyes be open to see the people and places where the light of this glory can work salvation. And then, let us look, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “with utter joy” on the One who redeems all suffering and sin, who reveals God’s glory in all its grace and truth. Let us bear joyful witness that we have seen this glory revealed.