Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, the first Sunday in the church year. And this Advent I want to do something a little different. I’m going to preach a sermon series. The topic subject for our series is “The God who comes and comforts,” and we will be exploring how, in this Advent season, “we long for God to come to us and comfort us with the good news of Jesus Christ.” We’re going to split up that sentence into four parts, and look at one part each week, as you can see here on the slide. For those of you who are keeping track of the lectionary, we will spend the first three weeks of Advent dwelling in our Old Testament readings from Isaiah before jumping into the gospel text on the fourth Sunday.
And so—we long for God.
What exactly is it that you long for? Is there anything that seems absent in your life, something for which you feel a deep yearning? Longings come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes I long for world peace; other times I long for a piece of my mom’s chocolate chip cake. Advent is the season when we get to express the deeper longings in our lives: for peace, for contentment, for love, for connection, for deliverance, for health, for safety, for justice, for salvation. Advent is the season when we get to state plainly that this world is not as it should be and we long for it to change.
Today’s reading throws us right into the deep-end of Israel’s longings. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah writes. This line, more than any other, caught my attention this week and wouldn’t let go. There may be no deeper expression of longing than asking God to come out of heaven.
The Israelites of Isaiah’s time had a lot to long for. They had been conquered and carried away into exile by Babylon. Their temple, which they believed to be the holy habitation of God Most High, had been destroyed, leveled, razed to the ground so that no one stone lay upon another. People were murdered. Families were torn apart. Most of those who were exiled would never return.
We can imagine the people coming to sit on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, singing out Isaiah’s words: “O that you tear open the heavens and come down, God!” This is the bitter longing for God to intervene, to step out of heaven, to step upon the earth, and to act. Have you ever felt such longing? Have you ever begged God to do something, anything at all, to help you or someone else? That aching, that yearning, that longing is what the Israelites felt.
That ache brings their memories back, way back, generations back to Israel’s slavery in Egypt and God’s deliverance. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,” Isaiah writes, “you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” Here the Israelite imagination would return to Mount Sinai, where God dwelt in thunder and fire after bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt. If God could act like that in the past, surely God could act like that now, the exiled Israelites think.
It is as though Isaiah shouts: “If you’re so powerful, God, why don’t you do something?” This passage is filled with expressions of God’s power and majesty: in God’s presence mountains tremble and rivers boil. No ear has heard, nor eye has ever seen any God but God. And yet, Isaiah says, it seems like God has disappeared altogether. “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you;” Isaiah cries, “for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
God could act; and yet God does not. In fact, God doesn’t seem to be anywhere.
And so Isaiah ends this passage with a final plea to God. He addresses God directly, saying, “now consider, we are your people.” It is as if Isaiah thinks God needs reminding. It is as if Isaiah says, “God, you chose us as your people, remember? You promised to bless us so that we could be a blessing to the world! You promised to be our God so that we could be your people! Have you forgotten all of that? If you haven’t, then why do you leave us in this exile?”
I hope that in hearing some of Israel’s longings you can hear some of your own longings, too. I think the ache that Isaiah expresses is not just an Israelite ache, but a human ache. We all long for something. And I wonder if all of our longings are ultimately a longing for God. Whether we long for love or peace or happiness or contentment or justice or health or salvation, God is ultimately the only one who can provide those things for us. Our longings are the result of the realization that all is not as it should be; and the only one who can make the world right again is God. When Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he is reaching to the very center of all his longings—a longing for God.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we return to an exile we all hoped was behind us. We’re gathering again not in our sanctuary, but in our living rooms, on our computers. As the number of COVID cases begins to soar again, I can’t help but join in Isaiah’s longing. O that God would tear open the heavens and come down and end this pandemic. O that God would tear open the heavens and come down and heal the sick. O that God would tear open the heavens and come down and bind up the broken hearts of those who have lost loved ones.
While I long for this pandemic to end, while I long for this exile to end, I am grateful that God has at least given us the gift of Advent. We live in a time of deep longing, and now, with Advent, we are given the opportunity to express those deep longings to ourselves, to each other, and to God.
Isaiah writes that, “[God] works for those who wait for him.” Advent is, in part, a time of waiting. And waiting on God is part of the Christian life no matter what season it is. And sometimes, in the midst of our aches and longings, it may feel like we’ll wait forever for God to come down from heaven to intervene; it may even feel like God may never come.
Biblical scholar Christopher Davis reminds us that God doesn’t always work as quickly as we would like. In fact, sometimes God is downright slow. But, Davis says, God is not a liar, and so if God says God is gonna do something, then God is gonna do it. “Thus,” Davis says, with God “slow is never to be confused with no.”
Part of Advent is expressing our longings, but it can’t stop there. Waiting on the Lord also involves faith and hope. We must express our deep longings, yes, but then we also must trust that God is going to act, too. I believe the day will come when the heavens will tear open and God will come down. It may be tomorrow, it may be a thousand years from now; and while we may long for it to come sooner rather than later, it is surely coming.
So in the next four weeks of this Advent season, embrace your longings and don’t ignore them. But once you’ve taken a good hard look at them, I invite you to hand them over in prayer to the God who dwells at the center of all our longings. Because our God can do awesome deeds that we may not expect; and soon our God will tear open the heavens and come down.