“New and Improved.” That’s the name that Pastor Tim and I have given to the sermon series we’re preaching during the four weeks of Advent this year. The title is an obvious reference to the season of consumerism we’ve all entered into, as the world around us puts all its persuasive powers to work to separate us from our money with the lure of all things new and improved, when what we’re really longing for is a world made new and improved. So that’s what we’re focusing on for the next four weeks, the promise that God’s Advent into the world is making all things new.
And, having spent six weeks in a series titled “God’s Politics,” we’re making a concerted effort to pull the focus back a bit and look at how these cosmic themes play out on the smaller stages of our individual lives. This is actually something of a preaching challenge, since the Advent texts are so grandiose in their scope. They don’t simply promise a changed heart, they promise a changed world. Still, change begins in the heart, with love, so we’ll start there as well.
A final word of preface, then I’ll dive right in. As you probably gathered when Pastor Tim was here two weeks ago, the fact that we are doing worship planning together and plotting out sermon series shared by both congregations doesn’t mean we’re each preaching the same sermon. Tim and I have spent time studying the portions of scripture assigned for these weeks, we’ve discussed how the themes in these passages connect with the experiences of our congregations, but in the end we are each interpreting these common elements through the lens of our own lives and the communities where we’re pastoring.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah pleads. I remember praying a prayer very like this one, just over a decade ago. I’d been sitting at my desk, near the end of the day, when my phone rang. It was my father, and he was calling to tell me that my sister was in the hospital. She had taken a handful of pills and was found by her boyfriend lying on the floor of her dorm room. She’d been rushed to the emergency room, where they pumped her stomach, and then she was admitted to the hospital for observation. I hung up the phone and called my closest friends, asking them to come get me and drive me to Iowa.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah pleads. It is the prayer no one has to teach you, the one that flows from the hearts of parents and children, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends, when the ones they love are in pain or danger. When death is in the room, and you are helpless to do anything but wait. When all illusions of power are stripped away no one has to teach you this prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Friends, you know this prayer. I know you know this prayer, because we’ve been praying it together. Some of you are pleading for the lives of those you love as dearly as your own selves. You are praying for your brother. You are praying for your grandchildren. You are praying for your husbands and wives and partners. Some of you are pleading for your own lives, fighting off the despair and exhaustion that refuses to leave you. You are praying for your marriages. You are praying for your health. You are praying for yourselves.
The fact that these prayers are so common doesn’t make them any less personal. The fact that millions of people are praying for a job doesn’t make any one person’s struggle to provide a merry Christmas for their children any less significant. The fact that tens of thousands of families are being torn apart by deportations doesn’t make the agony of families here in Logan Square any less acute. The season of Advent, filled as it is with such deep longing for the world to be made new and improved, doesn’t impose its agenda from above. It is the outpouring of millions of tears, pouring down millions of faces, gathering into a common prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” A prayer rooted in our common identity, “now consider, we are all your people.”
After my sister was released from the hospital, I struggled to find a way to talk with her about the pain she carried in her soul that was trying to choke the life out of her. I had always been my sister’s translator, interpreting her needs after she came to this country from Thailand, speaking no English for months. How could I interpret this pain in a way that offered any hope?
I thought about the backyards we’d played in as children, and about the hours our parents had spent planting flowers and vegetables and even trees, and an image came to me. I brought her a brown paper bag filled with bulbs, tulips and daffodils, and I made up a parable.
“Tara,” I said, “there are people whose lives look – at least from the outside – like trees. Year after year they just keep growing bigger and taller. Sure, they go through seasons like the rest of the world, but each spring brings new height and new width. They seem to go from strength to strength.”
“Then,” I continued, “there are the tulips. Every year starts out looking so good as they break the surface of the earth with their tender green shoots. You can see them growing so much faster than a tree does, and soon they erupt in bright, beautiful reds and yellows and purples. Then fall comes and they lose their flowers and their stalks wither and dry up, and by winter it’s as if they were never there.”
“But that’s not true. Even though there’s nothing to see, no proof above ground, just below the surface the tulip bulb is preparing to emerge again, as it will – over and over again throughout its life.”
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells a similar story about how God comes to us. “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” he says. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”
What I love about the parable of the fig tree is that, like the tulip or the daffodil, God’s coming isn’t translated to us as a once and forever event. Instead, it’s communicated as a part of the cyclical rhythm of life. We pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and God answers, “he is near, at the very gates.”
Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians with words of thanksgiving and assurance. He writes,
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:4-7)
This makes the Corinthians sound like an exemplary community of Christians. If you read on, you discover that they’re not. They’re an incredibly diverse community, deeply divided by class and wealth, struggling with sexual ethics, worried about how to relate to people of other religions traditions, and conflicted about how to practice their own faith.
To such a community, you might expect Paul to open with a cold splash of water in the face, a wakeup call to straighten up and fly right. He doesn’t. Instead Paul enters into the conversation with words of assurance that God has already enriched the congregation with every good gift that it needs to live in the tension between the now and the not yet, the present struggle and the future hope.
Sisters and brothers, I want to affirm the same for you. I know that we are all living with some version of the common prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” On this first Sunday of a new year in the church’s life together, hear this as well, “[Christ] is near, at the very gates,” and “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord.” It’s not a once and forever coming that we’re waiting on. It’s a fig tree putting forth its leaves, or a tulip sending up tender shoots. It is people and places left for dead finally returning to life. It is changed hearts that change lives that change the world. It is everything that has ever been being made new, even improved.