The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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When The End Comes

Isaiah 64:1-9

We gather once a month to discuss common concerns and brainstorm ideas for joint ministries. The group includes clergy and lay people from many of the churches within the Walled Lake School District. We call ourselves the Lakes Area Ministrium Association (LAMA). Last month we were sharing ideas for Advent. Judy told us about the plans that the Methodists had and Tracy talked about the special candle lighting ceremony that the Episcopals use. Then Tim asked if anyone had any special plans for sermons and the box was opened. Ray expressed his frustration, "I sure would like to get a chance to speak my mind to that lectionary group. The Scripture lessons for the past 3 weeks have all been about the end times and they continue that same theme for Advent. There is only so much you can say about the end times."

Ray put into words the feelings of frustration that many of the ministers who use the Revised Common Lectionary Scriptures for their sermons. The Advent Scriptures just do not seem to fit our traditional Advent celebrations. The lectionary selects Scriptures with a hairy guy screaming, "REPENT FOR THE END IS NEAR." We like to think of Advent as a time of cozy stables, filled with Martha Stewart barnyard animals. (You know, the kind that are quaint to admire but do not smell). We prefer to decorate with picturesque scenes of wise men riding camels and angels appearing before shepherds. Earthquakes, a darkened sun, falling stars, and shaking heavens do not sit well on coffee tables. The words "Peace on Earth," more gracefully adorn our Hallmark greeting cards, than five-letter "Repent."

The conflict comes between our sentimental views of Advent and the theological foundations for the season. Traditionally in the Eastern Church, the festival was created to prepare for the Baptism of Jesus on January 6. Believers devoted themselves to acts of repentance and contrition to prepare for the waters of cleansing. The season did not focus on the coming of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem but the final coming of the exalted Christ with believers preparing for the final judgment.

The lectionary scholars have tried to recapture this theme of end time's penitence, often referred to as eschatology, in their Scripture selections. Pastors are encouraged to defer the singing of Christmas carols until the grand and glorious day arrives. The lack of Christmas decorations is consistent with that theme except their absence today is due more to the holiday weekend than liturgical awareness. I say all this to highlight that, as one author has said, Advent is a season under stress. The scholar and the pew seem out-of-sync from the first Sunday until the Nativity.1 Yet, before our surround sound stereos drown out this eschatological theme with their mixture of secular and religious holiday melodies, the prophet Isaiah helps us refocus on the true meaning of Advent as a time of preparation. His words will disturb our sentimental celebrations with uncomfortable images. But the joy of the cradle must always be celebrated alongside the tears of the cross. Our holiday festivities should always be a blend of the bitter with the sweet. 

God raised up the prophet Isaiah at a critical time in history of the Jewish people. After the death of Solomon, David's son, the Jewish state divided into two nations over the jealousy of Solomon's sons. The northern kingdom was called Israel and consisted of 10 tribes. The southern kingdom was called Judah and held the capital city of Jerusalem and the Temple. While neither nation was marked by religious zeal, overt apostasy to foreign gods was more the exception than the rule in the southern kingdom of Judah. However, the religious climate in the northern kingdom produced moral and social decay. Israel was further weakened by political civil war. It finally succumbed to an invading Assyrian army. (The capital city of Assyria was called Babylon.)

The Assyrian murdered the political leaders and too the religious leaders and the wealthy taken into captivity as slaves. Judah and the city of Jerusalem was spared but not without a price. It had to pay a tribute to the Assyrian government that was so expensive, the King had to empty his treasury and strip the Temple of all its gold, depleting the economic health of the nation. The religious life also suffered. The Assyrian king had a pagan altar erected in the Temple alongside the Ark of the Covenant. The King of Judah was required to pay homage to the gods of Assyria.

In this state of political, moral, and spiritual turmoil, God raised up the prophet Isaiah to guide the nation back to its covenant. Throughout his career, Isaiah railed against a corrupt economic system that allowed the rich to leech off the poor. He warned King Hezekiah against trusting in military alliance rather than waiting upon the God who delivered the nation from Pharaoh's army. Throughout his message, we hear themes that spoke to his own generation, the people who waited for the Messiah's first appearance and for us who wait for his return.

Our Scripture lesson begins with the prophet pleading with God to appear as he once did so long ago in the Sinai dessert. You will find the story recorded in Exodus 19. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, God surrounded the mountain in a cloud. Thunder trumpeted from the heavens and the ground shook. Skeptics and critics were silenced by the ominous physical manifestation of Divine Presence. The prophet yearned for God to reappear and once again silence the naysayer. The prophet longed for the day when God would do more than watch from a distance. 

At the end of 2002, under the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack, a sagging economy, depleted retirement funds, and the realization that old age is quickly approaching, America's interest in spiritual issues continues to grow. We have a yearning for God to intervene once again in the affairs of history in a dramatic, explicit display of power. We know that the Left Behind novels are merely fiction but their popularity indicates a not so subtle desire for God to step into history and shake the foundations of the earth.

After issuing his plea for action, the prophet offers his confession for the disobedience of his fellow citizens. His offer of penance comes from the knowledge of human depravity. Isaiah has a clear vision into the hearts of humanity. Isaiah is not fooled by their occasional acts of generosity. Their religious ceremonies do not mesmerize him and their quaint religious symbols do not bring a warm glow to his heart. Isaiah considers all their rituals and practices filthy rags.

Sir Winston Churchill shared the prophet's assessment of human nature. The great statesmen once wrote

Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. Under sufficient stress: starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy, the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up2
We are strangely reluctant to admit that we are the sole contributor to the social, and moral climate of our day. The evils of our time are the fruits of a society and Church that cherish self-autonomy, self-expression, and self-fulfillment more than the common good, sacrifice and commitment. We do not want to admit that the values that are basic to our culture are contrary to the Scripture. These values have allowed drug abuse to flourish, child and spousal abuse to escalate and have created confusion in sexual orientation. We stand strangely incapacitated to respond with bold and decisive strategies to correct the problems. 

Isaiah calls us to our knees. The prophet of Judah reminds us that before we can celebrate the birth of Messiah we must acknowledge our disobedience before God. This is an uncomfortable message to a pleasure seeking society. We expect the blessings of God without considering the ramifications of our lifestyle as evidence by the "God Bless America," sign that hung in the window of an adult bookstore. The own failed to grasp the inconsistency between his profiteering from sexually explicit material and his sign.

The prophet Isaiah knew that the people of Judah were God's chosen people. He knew that God had given them the land of Canaan as their homeland. He knew that God had raised them up as a strong and vibrant kingdom under the leadership of David and Solomon. Isaiah knew that God loved them and wanted the best for them. But he also knew that the time of judgment had come upon the nation and they would have to endure the full consequences of their disobedience until they were willing to confession their sins and turn from the evil ways.

Isaiah's words were directed at the nation of Judah but should be heeded by every nation that expects the blessings of God.

While we do not often use the image of a mountain to represent Advent neither will we find many lumps of clay sitting amongst our Christmas decorations that is unfortunate because Advent is as much about lumps of clay as it is about donkeys and wise men and angels? Advent is not only a season of "comings" but it is also a season of preparation. We prepare for the coming of our Lord in glory by celebrating the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem. The entire month is a month of preparation. We spend more time prepare the gifts, food and festive cheer then we do actually unwrapping, eating and drinking it all. Preparation is the essences of Advent and I cannot think of another image more suited to that theme than a lump of clay.

In potter's hands, the lump of clay is prepared for service. It does not happen in an instance. Round and round the wheel must spin. With each rotation, the hands of the potter bring shape and form. The clay is powerless to mold itself. It must depend on the wisdom, the skill, and the dedication of the potter. Sometimes the clay is smooth and palpable. Gentle pressure is all that need be applied. Sometimes the clay is dry and hard and it must spend more time on the wheel. It requires more turns of the wheel and the pressure of the potter's hand must be firm and constant. Then at times the artist discovers an impurity that must be craved out and removed.

As a season of preparation, Advent should remind us that he is the potter and we are the clay. As Lloyd John Oligvie once said, "God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way."3 Advent should be a season of transformation as God reshapes our values, perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs.

Two little girls were looking with their mother into a department store window at a Nativity scene. A group of shepherds were kneeling around an old rustic cradle. Mary was sitting beside it with a smile of contentment on her face as she rocked an empty cradle. Their mother pulled the children away in dismay the youngest girl said to her sister, "They forgot to put the baby Jesus in the cradle." Perhaps more accurately the baby Jesus was simply not necessary to attract shoppers into the store.4

Stars hung on Christmas trees, the soft glow of purple candles, and the quaint nativity scenes may all look more like the Advent with which we are familiar but

I do not expect to ever see a different kind of Advent celebration regardless of the Scripture verses selected by the lectionary committee. The secular has forever intruded upon the scared. There will always be a holy tension between the Advent holidays, marked by their consumer extravaganza and the Advent Holy Days marked by spiritual devotion. But how long will the Church allow the commercialization of the season to create a season of empty religiosity.

Through the rush of gift buying, Christmas trimming, and festival plans, we must remember that the most important preparation lies within our own souls. Unless we are willing to allow our lives to be molded, shaped, and transformed by the potter's hands, all our celebration is as Isaiah says, filthy rags.

1 Richard C. Hoefler cited by Robert Webber, "The Origins of Advent," The Services of the Christian Year, Volume V, The Complete Volume of Christian Worship, (Nashville, TN: Star Song, 1994) 108.
2 Sir Winston Churchill, quoted by Ray Steadman, "When Then the End Comes," Online:
3 Quote from memory, actual source unknown.
4 "O, Holy Nightmare," Online:

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