It is fitting for Advent to begin this year with Isaiah’s lament. Seems ain’t no one much happy these days! And I don’t mean just the worrisome creaking of the economy or the tedious bickering of the politicians and candidates, or the daily appearance of yet another country in the throes of civil unrest. These are merely the symptoms, some very serious, some merely annoying…but only symptoms. Deep down there’s something missing. That’s what triggers Isaiah’s lament.
But we are more than a little confused these days. Confronted by this profoundly empty ailment, what is the better course of action? Do we feed it or do we starve it?
We may not have any choice. The feeding frenzy has certainly begun. Black Friday, taking a big nibble this year out of Thursday, witnessed the rush to feed the need. Yet it has been ironic this year how much the shopping season has already become a parody of itself. So many of the ads are doing this, especially that TV ad with the woman in the red jump suit who went more than a little bubble off plumb in anticipation of Black Friday. The stores need the shoppers…yet through their ads they mock them.
And there’s a whole stream of Christianity that has gone down that ironic road and around the bend! Not just at Christmas, but all year…becoming a parody of itself, making worship more like a nightclub than an encounter with the holy, all the latest high-tech toys, and painfully hip about everything…gotta feed the need!
It should come as no surprise, then, that there is a backlash. In the commercial world comes the cry, “Simplify!” Those chipper little commercial ditties urging shoppers to get up and get out of the mall…shop local, shop small.
And in the church there has appeared more and more in recent years a curious “Occupy Advent” movement, reclaiming Advent from the clutches of the commercial Christmas season. Ah, but being a reaction to one excess, it becomes its own parodied excess. The occupiers turn Advent into something like the “Soup Nazi” of the old Seinfeld TV show. “No soup for you!”
In some churches Advent becomes this Spartan set of 4 weeks, making Lent look like a slacker. There’s not a whiff of pine anywhere, let alone an actual Christmas tree. There’s not a peep of Christmas music. Never is heard a mention of mangers or angels or shepherds or fa-la-la-la-la. “No Christmas for you!” “Come back 4 weeks, December 24th.” But because Christmas is such a delicious soup, folks will endure that sort of abuse just to get to Christmas.
And away goes our month of December, bingeing and purging and purging and bingeing. Clearly this holiday season is one sick puppy! Isaiah’s lament, however, does what neither the hipster prophets nor the Spartan prophets can do. They deal in the superficial. Isaiah’s lament goes to the heart of what is missing. He cries out, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence…to make Your name known to Your adversaries…that the nations might tremble at Your presence….[but] You have hidden Your face from us.”
Isaiah recognizes what is missing. No…it’s not God who is missing. As if anything human beings do could ever push God out of existence. If God had withdrawn from His world, things would not turn bad, there would be neither good nor bad.. If God withdrew there would be literally nothing.
No, it’s not God who is missing…back in Isaiah’s day or in our season of strangeness. What is missing is God’s favor. That’s Isaiah’s lament! Of course God is there! He has been, He is, and He always will be. But the lament is that God has hidden His face, which means God has turned away His favor. He is there, but no longer with us. He is there but no longer for us.
Isaiah says it wasn’t always that way. “When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked.” Maybe he was thinking of Mt. Sinai, that was mighty impressive. The plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, Joshua’s campaign against the tribes of Canaan; he was like the Packers, one victory after another. King David…those glory years when it was clear to everyone that God was on their side!
And we Christians have our glory stories, too. The advance of the faith throughout the Roman Empire, despite the violence of persecution. How Christianity shaped the entire course of western civilization after Rome…into Europe, across the sea to the New World. There was a time that wherever Christianity went, life became better, ordered, civilized, advanced, humane.
Not so much now. Isaiah continues his lament. “We sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have become like one who is unclean…we fade like a leaf, our iniquities blow us away like the wind. No one calls on Your name. No one rouses himself to take hold of You.” He could be describing our day as much as Israel in the 8th Century BC.
But…here is why Isaiah’s lament is not mere whining…and why it is good to hear it. In the Bible a lament is never simply a cry of despair. Isaiah is not singing the blues. In the Bible a lament is always an expression of faith and hope!
The Psalms are full of laments. Psalm 80 for today is a lament. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel!” “Restore us, O God.” “O Lord God, how long?” “Turn again, O God of hosts!” The anguish is palpable. Or the cry of lament made so very famous, Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
In all of those cries of lament, there is no denial that there is a God. There’s no rejection of God. It is not that God has become absent. His favor has gone missing. God, no longer with us. God, no longer for us.
And yet…yet in all the laments recorded in the Scriptures…they never, never, never end in despair. Even when Jesus takes Psalm 22 for Himself: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Of course, Jesus knows “why.” He had been telling His disciples for three years why He would be forsaken. And yet, in that moment it is no less a lament of incomprehensible anguish simply because it comes from the lips of Jesus. In fact, because it does come from the lips of Jesus, it means that there is no moment of lament that may escape our lips, but that He is there with us in that lament. He is there for us.
What Jesus accomplishes by His cross, by His Word from the cross, is God’s reply to Isaiah and to every tongue that cries out in lamentation. Namely that any lamentable experience is now no longer a sign of God forsakenness. With Jesus, even the emptiness of this gnawing season, or of any season, is in fact the ultimate sign that God has NOT forsaken us. The empty feeling is a sign that His favor abides with us still. The emptiness itself declares that He is with us, that He is for us. Now that, as Isaiah writes, is some kind of awesome that we did not except at all!
So Jesus, having rent the heavens with His cry, ends His lament from the cross in faith and hope: Psalm 31, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit.” In faith He knows that God’s favor still rests on Him. And likewise Isaiah, foreshadowing Jesus, ends his lament in faith and hope: “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, You are the Potter… Behold, please look, we are all Your people.” By faith he knows that God is with them still.
The God who rent the heavens to come down as a Baby in a manger; the God who rent the heavens to come down into death at a cross…this God still does “awesome things that we did not look for…” Not by indulgence of the emptiness nor by Spartan self-denial. God Himself defines the way this Advent season.
Namely, that even in His apparent absence, He is with us. Even when every sign tells us that He has hidden His face from us—when, as the Psalm laments today, He “feeds us with the bread of tears”—it is those tears, it is that hidden face which nevertheless speaks gently like the flicker of this single candle of the Advent. In the emptiness that lies deep in the heart of what this season has become these days, the hidden God—hidden in a manger, hidden on the cross—the hidden God says to us, “Fear not, I am with you. Be not afraid, I am here for you.” And with that, Advent sallies forth once more unto the breach, singing a whole new song!