Longing

Sunday, November 27
First Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
Longing

Weekly Prayer
Creator of the world, you are the potter, we are the clay, and you form us in your image. Shape our spirits by Christ's transforming power, that as one people we may live out your compassion and justice, whole and sound in the realm of your peace. Amen.

Focus Reading
Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence ó
as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil ó
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
   you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
   no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
   who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
   those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
   because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
   or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
   and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
   we are the clay, and you are our potter;
   we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
   and do not remember iniquity for ever.
   Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,
   shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Sovereign God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;    
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
   the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
   give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Sovereign God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.

All Readings for this Sunday
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Focus Questions

1. How do you plan to observe Advent this year?

2. What sort of prayers most move your spirit?

3. How do you feel connected to the people of Israel long ago?

4. What do you think would happen if Advent were observed more faithfully in our "Christian" culture?

5. When was the last time you experienced "the holy" breaking into "the daily"?

Reflection
by Kate Huey

Most of us depend on our calendar to help us keep track of time. We remember events and appointments in our personal lives, and follow the events of the world around us based on a calendar that turns over a new year on the first of every January. This week, as it does each year, the church gets a head start on the rest of the world by beginning a new year on the First Sunday of Advent. In her book, "Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith," Nora Gallagher uses the church year and its seasons as a framework for her graceful meditation: "The church calendar," she writes, "calls into consciousness the existence of a world uninhabited by efficiency, a world filled with the excessiveness of saints, ashes, smoke and fire; it fills my heart with both dread and hope."
 
Dread and hope: words as good as any to describe the mood of both of our readings from the Old Testament, the deep longing of the poet of Psalm 80 and the sorrowful questions of the prophet Isaiah. Both were writing in the midst of, and out of, the suffering of their people, God's own people, Israel. Where are you, God? Why don't you act to fix this awful situation we find ourselves in? Why don't you "come down" and make things right? Where is God now? Readers of "Night," Elie Wiesel's classic account of his youth spent in a concentration camp, surely hear echoes of that same question, asked by the inmates forced to watch the ordeal of a child, a "sad-eyed angel," hanged by the Nazis for being a spy. Where is God now?

The psalms are a book of prayers that hold back nothing in the heart of Israel: praise and thanksgiving, but also anger, doubt, guilt, even demands. The demands only slightly resemble reminders, just in case God has forgotten the promises of old or God's habit of intervening in wonderful ways on behalf of Israel. Remember, God? Remember that we are your children and you are our loving Parent; we are the clay and you are the Potter; we are the vine that you yourself have planted and cared for, tenderly. How long, O Lord, how long will we have to wait for you to "give ear," to "stir up your might," to "restore us," to "turn again" and "let your face shine" upon us? This psalm, Talitha Arnold observes, "confesses the people's trust in a God who is big enough to hear their hurt, strong enough to handle their anger and pain." They "are in a world of hurt. They want God to know about it."

How can we expect God to act?

The people could have been suffering in slavery or exile, in crushing defeat or on the edges of a power structure, after the return of Israel from exile. The beauty of the psalms is that they can be prayed by Israel in all of these settings and times, and in concentration camps and pogroms, because they express the heartfelt, anguished questions of a people who have a history with God. This long, long history holds memories of God stepping in and doing something when the need was great. We can understand that shared stories of defeating Pharaoh, raining bread from heaven, and enjoying the glory of David might lead the people to have certain expectations of God. And that is the word for Advent: expectation. In what way can people of faith "expect" God to act?

Like our ancestors in faith, we and all of humankind stand before God in "helplessness and need," James Newsome writes: "Not only are we vulnerable to those forces that may destroy our happiness--indeed, our very existence--but there is little or nothing we, when left to ourselves, are capable of doing about our precarious state. And so the psalm text utters a simple and primal cry: O God, help!" But the psalm doesn't say anything about repentance or sin, according to Charles M. Wood: "There is no searching of the heart, no probing of reasons for God's anger or withdrawal or distance, no explicit acknowledgment of fault. There is simply sheer need for God: the pain of absence and the longing for God's presence." Or, as Anne Lamott has famously summarized the two basic prayers of the human heart: "Help me, help me," and "Thank you, thank you!"

Purple instead of red and green

The text from Isaiah does speak of sin, but seems to blame the people's unfaithfulness on God's decision to remain aloof: "because you hid yourself we transgressed" (v. 5c). Isaiah, however, knows that there is iniquity (v. 9b) that God will have to forget, as we ourselves hope that God will forget our own sin. And so the time of expectation that coincides with the world's jolly celebration of "the season" is at least partly about repentance and turning back to God. That's why we use symbols and signs of this season in the church very different from the red ribbons and green holly of the world around us: "Purple, the color of remorse," James Brenneman explains in The Christian Century (11-18-08), "adorns the altar. It's a ritual warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously--that is, at least not until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter's hands, people chastened by God's silence, ready to be molded anew as the 'work of [God's] hand.'"

Of course, Advent is also about the nearness of God, our hope to experience God, right here, "down" here, on earth, God's radiance and power and love. While the commentaries on these Advent texts from the Hebrew Scriptures necessarily speak of hopelessness and repentance and doubt, Nora Gallagher takes a different route, a gentler but unsentimental route to the same conclusion. She draws on Esther de Waal's description of Celtic Christianity, "a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary" ("Things Seen and Unseen"). Patricia De Jong writes in this same spirit: "At Advent, God's people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily." Perhaps that's the difference between a calendar and a journal, if the latter helps us to notice, and mark, those experiences of the holy in our days.

God regularly breaks into reality

No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly. Sometimes, this inbreaking is dramatic and publicly celebrated: one thinks of the fall of apartheid in South Africa, for example. Sometimes it's felt in private consolations and reconciliations, a relationship restored by forgiveness or a return to health. "The coming of Advent," Patricia E. De Jong writes, "jolts the church out of Ordinary Time with the invasive news that it's time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness." This good news, she observes, comes when we Americans long for peace in the world, especially in the Middle East and in places like Afghanistan and Africa, even though we may feel "helpless, hopeless, and just plain brokenhearted over the devastation...." Advent calls us to a time of self-examination as well as hope, and De Jong sadly remembers "a comment that our country has changed over the past years from one that wanted to be good to one that wants to feel good." Perhaps the radical transformation that God will work may bring us back to wanting to be good rather than merely feel good.
 
There are many folks in our ongregations who may be unhappy with the absence of Christmas carols and red ribbons throughout December. We want Christmas to feel the way we think we remember it did long ago. "Hope," Talitha Arnold writes, "is mixed with longing for the past....Especially at Christmas, our congregations are often filled with people with that same yearning for restoration to a life we once knew, be it the life of our families, relationships, churches, or even nation. But while we may look back, God always looks ahead." And so we begin a new year in the church, looking ahead with hope and expectation, knowing that God is near in every difficulty and heartache, and yet also far ahead of us, calling us forward into the bright new day of justice, healing, and peace for which our hearts long.

For Further Reflection

Karl Rahner, 20th century
Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise.

Anna Freud, 20th century
If some longing goes unmet, don't be astonished. We call that Life.

George Eliot
It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.

Mahatma Gandhi
Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

Saul Bellow, 20th century
There is an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

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