The Gospel today surely announces a critical Advent theme: Watch! And while I want to comment primarily on the Reading from Isaiah, the Gospel admonition surely deserves some attention as well.
For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most, if not all, are going to heaven. But for four weeks now we have been reading gospels wherein the Lord Jesus warns us that some (perhaps many, possibly even most) are not heading for heaven. There are wise and foolish virgins, industrious and lazy servants, sheep and goats, and today, those who keep watch and those who do not.
And though many today like to brush aside the teachings on judgment, or teachings that some are lost, to those who do, and to all, Jesus says, Watch! In other words, watch out, be serious, sober and prepared for death and judgment. Realize that your choices are leading somewhere.
Some have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, but it is not the fake Jesus they have reinvented that they will meet, it is the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. At the beginning of Advent we do well to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.
And that leads to the first reading from Isaiah which rather thoroughly sets forth our need for a savior. Isaiah distinguishes five ailments which beset us, and from which we need rescue. We are: drifting, demanding, depraved, disaffected and depressed. But in the end Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Lets look at each in turn.
1. Drifting – The text says, Why [O Lord] do you let us wander from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.
It is a common human tendency that we wander, or drift. It is a rarer thing that most people, in one moment, reject God, especially if they were raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain or pilot of a boat who stops paying close attention. Soon enough the boat is farther and farther off course. At first things are not noticed, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. He did not suddenly turn the helm and shift 180 degrees, he just stopped paying attention and drifted, and drifted some more.
And so it is with some of us who may wonder how we got so far off course. I talk with many people who have left the Church, and so many of them cannot point to an incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back here.” It is usually just that they drifted away, fell away, from the practice of the faith. They missed a Sunday here or there, and little by little, missing Mass became the norm. Maybe they moved to a new city and never got around to finding a parish. They just got disconnected and drifted.
Funny thing about drifting, the further off course you get, the harder it is to get back on course. It just seems increasingly monumental to make the changes necessary to get back on track. Thus Isaiah speaks of the heart of a drifter becoming hardened. Our bad habits become “hard” to break, and as God seems more and more distant, we lose our holy fear and reverence for Him.
Interesting how, in taking up our voice, Isaiah, “blames” God for it all. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander for he lets us do it.
It is true that God has made us free and that he is very serious about respecting our freedom. How else could we love God, if we were not free. Compelled love is not love at all.
But what Isaiah is really getting at is that some of us are so far afield, so lost, that only God can find us and save us. And so we must depend on God being like a Shepherd who seeks his lost sheep.
Thus, here is the first way that Isaiah sets forth our need for a Savior. And so in Advent, reflecting this way, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Seek and find us for many of us are drifting.
2. Demanding - The text says, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
There is a human tendency to demand signs and wonders. Our flesh demands to see. And when we do not see, in a fleshly sort of way, we are dismissive, even scoffing.
This human tendency has reached a peak in our modern times when so many reject faith because it does not meet the demands of empirical science and a materialist age. If something is not physical and measurable by some human instrument, many rejects its very existence. Never mind that many things that are very real (e.g. justice, or fear) cannot be measured on an atomic scale. What most moderns are really about doing is more specific: rejecting is God and the demands of faith. “Since we cannot see him with our eyes, he is not there and thus, we may do as we please.”
Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We demand signs and wonders, and then we will believe. It is almost as though we are saying to God, “Force me to believe in you” or “Make everything so certain that I don’t really have to walk by faith.”
Many of us look back to the miracles of the scriptures and think, “If I saw that, I would believe.” But faith is not so simple. For many who did see miracles (e.g. the Hebrew people in the desert), saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles, fled at the first sign of trouble or when he said something that displeased them.
Our flesh demands to see. But, in the end, even after seeing it usually refuses to believe.
Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to overwhelm us. Satan does overwhelm us. But God is a quiet and persistent lover who respectfully and delicately works in us, if we let him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. God more often is that still, small voice speaking in the depth of our heart.
Thus the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, warns us of this second ailment, the demand for signs and wonders. Our rebellious flesh pouts and draws back in resentful rebellion.
Thus our need for a Savior, to give us a new heart and mind, attuned to the small still voice of God in a strident world. And so in Advent, reflecting thus, the Church cries our, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Calm our souls and lets us find you in the daily and small things.
3. Depraved - The text says, Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.
The word depraved comes from the Latin pravitas, meaning crooked or deformed. It means to be lacking what we ought to have. Hence, the Lord though Isaiah here describes our deformed state in the following ways. We are:
A. Unthinking - the text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed our minds are very weak and we can go for long periods, so turned in on ourselves, that we barely, if ever, think of God. Our thoughts are wholly focused on things that are passing, and almost wholly forgetful of God and heaven which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture too has “kicked God to the curb” and thus there are even fewer reminders of Him than in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and give us new minds. Come Lord Jesus!
B. Unhappy – the text says of God “You are angry.” But, biblically we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us, than in God. God’s anger is his passion to set things right. But God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger on God. The “Wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. God does not loose his temper, or fly into a rage, he does not lose his serenity. It is we who are unhappy, angry, egotistical, scornful etc. We need God to give us a new heart. Come Lord Jesus!
C. Undistinguished – the text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy, that is, “set apart” and distinguished from the sinful world around us. But too often we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like a light in the darkness, we seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support abortion, contraception, fail the poor, etc., in numbers akin to secular people who know not God. We do not seem joyful, serene or alive. We just look like “everybody else.” And we seem to have as our main goal to “fit in” and be like everyone. Save us O Lord from our mediocrity and fear. Come Lord Jesus!
4. Disaffected - The text says, There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.
In other words we, collectively speaking, have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, a T.V. show, etc. But when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves to pray, go to Church, or read scripture. We find time for everything else, but God can wait.
Here too Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God, for he says (i.e. we say) God has hidden his face. But God has not moved. If you can’t see God, guess who turned away? If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved?
Our heart and our priorities are messed up. We need a savior to give us a new heart, a greater love and better priorities and desires. Come Lord Jesus!
5. Depressed – The text says, All our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
One of the definitions of depression is anger turned inward. And while Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger and blame at God, here he gives voice to our other tendency, to turn on ourselves.
Thus, our good deeds are described like polluted rags. It may be true that they are less than they could be, but calling them polluted rags is the kind of exaggeration that bespeaks a frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation, and addiction to sin and injustice.
Ultimately the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves and to lock us into a depressed and angry state. If there were no good in us at all, why bother?
There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt and a self loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. And from such depressed self loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come Lord Jesus!
And so the cry has gone up: Come Lord Jesus, save us, Savior of the world! We need a savior, and Advent is a time to mediate on our need.
But Isaiah ends on a final note and the song goes from D minor to D Major. And the final Note is our
Dignity - the text says, Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
Yes, we are a mess, but a loveable mess. And God has so loved us, as to send his Son, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren.
We are not forsaken, and in Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. And our cry, Come Lord Jesus is heard and heeded by the Father, who loves us and is fashioning us into his very image. God is able and he will fix and fashion us well. Help is on the way!
Here’s a magnificent Advent Hymn that so beautifully expresses the longing of the Church for her savior to come. The second verse says:
Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
Her hearts leaps up with joy undoubting!
She stands and waits with eager eyes.
See! Her Love from heaven descending,
Adorned with grace and truth unending.
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!
Now come our precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son