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First Sunday of Advent
If you were to call up most memorable moments from the Lord of the Rings movies, one of the top ten would have to be the liberation of Helms Deep. The king of Rohan, Theoden, under the misdirection of an evil, sniveling advisor, subtly named Wormtongue, tells his valiant nephew Eomer to leave (this plays out differently in the book, but for the sake of the illiterate, we’ll stick with the movies). Eomer does leave, with his army of horsemen. While Theoden is brought to his senses soon after, it is too late; the armies of monstrous orcs are already marching on them, and the cavalry is gone. Theoden, some of our heroes, and the rest of Rohan flee to their fortress at Helms Deep, while Gandalf the wizard sets out to try and catch up to Eomer. Theoden and company get to Helms Deep and are besieged, his surrender to evil, even temporarily, reaping a terrible harvest of human life. As the siege roils on, and the fortress teeters on the edge of falling, the light of the sun comes over the hill, cut only by Gandalf’s silhouette, quickly followed by the galloping army of Rohan, led by Eomer.
Waiting. Hope. Uncertainty. Dread. Liberation. These are the emotional pulls of the Rohan story of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, and they are of Isaiah 64 as well, a song of lament but also of hope in the midst of a fearful, uncertain time. In this passage, Isaiah, having laid out a whole host of calamities that are to befall Israel and their significance, lays out here the two-sided nature of the coming of the Lord. For some, it will be their liberation and redemption; for others, it will be their judgment and condemnation. The core of this passage is that God will be merciful when he comes in his mighty power. It is expected he will come, and that he will be just, and Isaiah’s appeal is that the God who has so demonstrated love to Israel would yet be even more gracious and loving, an appeal we see answered and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
The imagery of this passage is truly marvelous. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” The heavens tearing, like thunder, or the sonic boom of a jet. Mountains, the natural monoliths that awe us in their beauty and immensity, quaking at the incredible power, like volcanoes about to explode. The image of fire, crackling, consuming dry brush, burning it away wildly, like our own fields and forests during the heat of summer. Water, boiling at the intense heat that causes its molecules to vibrate so fast as to become scaldingly hot. Nation’s trembling, not from cold, but from the overwhelming fear felt at the rending of the earth around them as God arrives. These are the images of epiphany, a manifestation of God here in the world.
The coming of the Lord is not, in other words, a peaceful glide into a flowery meadow. The path to God’s new creation must move through the crucible of justice. Things must be set right! And in Isaiah’s day, as in ours, the people who are to follow God are too often found on the side of injustice, sinning, living like the nations rather than like the people of God. “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.”
It is all too common. We play at goodness, when twisted inside. We clean our clothes and fix our hair, but are hypocrites, cruel, empty. Like Israel of Isaiah’s day, too often the Church is satisfied with itself, declaiming those around it while being full of a lust for power, greed, and self-righteousness. We find ourselves, individually and as the Church, in “The sleep of security and the lethargy of insensibility,” as one commentator put it.
The coming of the Lord will astound all people, and make clear to all just how faithful they actually were. The call to the Church, in the words of Jesus, is to “Keep awake.” Like servants whose master could be home at any moment, we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, recline, basking in our supposed goodness, and think that the coming of the Lord will not be utterly terrifying for us. As Isaiah says, “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.” Note that it is Israel’s iniquity, their falseness of faith that brings judgment upon them. In the same way, when we forget who we are, and trade in the gospel and the grace of God for political influence, or to make wealth and health proportionate to faith, or to sit in comfortable judgment rather than humble mercy, then we become those who will tremble and be blown like a dry leaf at the coming of the Lord.
But…that is not who we are, if we truly believe. If we have faith in Christ, baptized into him and filled with his Spirit, then we can say of God, he is our Father. If we trust in the Lord, and by so doing recognize that we are without his grace enemies of him, then he will transform our lives and can in the humble and believing person re-create us into the image of Christ. At the end, Isaiah has hope, even in darkness: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;” he says, “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 forever.” I believe Isaiah, putting this as a request, believes it will be true. He knows God’s goodness; he knows God’s acts in exodus, through his kings, and that even in the exile of Babylon which would seem to undo all of God’s promises to Israel, he is above all merciful.
We are those who need not fear with dread the coming of the Lord. We do need to recognize that it is a great and terrible day, and one which will reveal all that we so carefully keep concealed. Some people will be the orcs when the cavalry arrives, a broken and scattered enemy; some, despite the consequences of their failures, will be saved from the besieging enemy. When Christ comes again, it will be seen who stayed awake, and who slept; it will be seen who truly believes what Christ has done and so has followed him with their own cross, and those who pretended in order to benefit in some way, or to protect themselves, or to set themselves up as righteous. Isaiah shows us the way: be repentant, see your sin and own it, and believe in God’s goodness. The darkness will break, and when the creation is shaken by the coming Lord, trust that it will be for your good, to save you, to stand you on your feet, and to embrace you as a parent embraces their beloved child.
Repent, believe, and follow God, so that you may have hope. May we be those who know and can trust that God will be merciful when he comes in his mighty power. Amen.
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