The Very Rev. Tom Callard – December 1, 2019
The prophet Isaiah in his writing takes his time to give the people the good news. Some of the prophets in the Bible just jump right into it, like they can’t wait to share all the good things that God is doing for the people. But Isaiah, he starts off slow.
In Chapter One of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet begins by talking about how the Lord has seen the people and spoken to the people, but the Lord is not happy. For the people have rebelled. The people have been created to do great things by the Lord. But the people have become corrupt. And so their land lies in ruin, their country is desolate, and despite that the people are offering sacrifices, and despite that people are making prayers, the Lord does not care about their sacrifice or their prayers. The Lord does not like what the people have been doing.
And so the Lord lays his anger and wrath upon the people. And the people in response try and please the Lord, but they can do nothing. They have no power. And in so Isaiah chapter one, the people find themselves in this situation where they have been ruined and cast down and made desolate. And they have no clue how to go on. Does that sound like a good beginning?
Well, it is. It’s a great beginning. If you are going to hope to change your life, if you are going to try and make a difference in your ways, if you’re coming here to church this Sunday or any Sunday with of a desire for transformation or spiritual growth, you don’t begin on the top, you begin on the bottom.
Many years ago a gentleman came to my office to make a confession, for he was doing an inventory of himself where he wanted to share his life and all that he had done. And he told me his story: that he had been working at a big financial institution in Boston, doing well, making money, but at some point he got involved in cocaine. And like probably a lot of people who suffer from addiction, his life began to spiral out of control, and go further down this path toward the bottom.
One thing I remember he told me was that in the depths of his addiction he realized he didn’t have to pay any of his bills except the phone bill so he could stay in touch with his dealer to get more cocaine. And sometimes as I pay my bills, I think about that. So he started out well, happy and successful, but he gradually began to lose it all, including his job, his money, and most of his friends. Until it all came down to one thing, which was paying his phone bill. And then that, too, was gone. And shortly after, he hit rock bottom. And he had nowhere else to go.
And, he told me, it was an incredible moment. It was life changing to know that he had lost it all and was utterly helpless. That there in the face of challenges which were too great for him, he gave up. Before that, he said, he labored under the illusion that he could control his life, and he worked, as so many of us do, to make it look like everything was going so well. He felt himself mighty and powerful. But then, as he hit bottom, he realize that he had no power, and what little he could do in life was just to turn things over to God. Which is why he came to me, to make his confession turn himself over to God.
What a way to begin your spiritual journey, there at the bottom. And what a way for Isaiah to begin his book, there with the people in desolation and ruin. And what a way for our church to begin this new year, to prepare for the coming of Christ. Not on the top.
Last week, Christ the King Sunday we were at the top. Last week, Jesus was our king, and he was enthroned in heaven with the promise of justice and mercy and good things for all people. And today, on Advent One, we are invited to start with nothing.
Let’s forget we live in a wealthy country. Let’s forget that we ourselves have things in our home and money in our bank and houses and cars, and we have these degrees and our fancy titles and have, in whatever way, accomplished all this in life. Let’s forget all we’ve done and gained and earned.
Because Advent One begs us to be there with the people in Isiah who start from nothing after ruin. Advent One begs us to be there with the man who hits rock bottom who then looks around and says – I have no power in this life at all. Advent one begins with those everywhere who have lost and have stumbled and fallen and suffered. In those moments they are taking first steps to try and get back up, as they wipe their hands on their clothes and get their feet under them, one foot at a time, and stand up slowly, and look around and say, well now what?
It’s an amazing thing to say: well, now what?, and admit that we don’t know. Because so often we presume to know. We presume to have plans. To have it all charted out, the things in our life and how this week will be, how our plans for Christmas will go, our plans for 2020, and what we’ll do with our friends and family in life, and accomplish with our days. Our dreams are so solidly intact. And then just suddenly you find yourself with none of these things to count on in a place where instead you have to look around and say, well now what?
I’ve got a bad diagnosis from the Doctor, well now what? My relationship just ended in ruin, well now what? The market has tanked, and I’m broke. I lost my job and I’m broke. I’ve got these huge bills, and I’m broke. Well now what?
It wakes you up doesn’t it. Like that startling phone call in the middle of the night which is going to be news, good or bad. And just try and get back to sleep. I’ve had phone calls in the middle of the night where I’ve just said to myself- well that’s it, my night’s sleep is done.
And now is the time for you to wake. I have to remember that the next time I get one of those calls in the middle of the night. That Saint Paul says today it is a blessing from God. For we have been asleep. And for how long?
Just once in my life, I can remember driving in the middle of the night and I woke myself with a jerk of my head, because my chin had hit my chest and I slept for probably three seconds. Just don’t tell my mom.
Waking up from sleep is spiritual and holy and the only way to move toward God. And we will hear again and again in these four weeks that we must wake up. And of course there are many ways to wake from sleep. Some of them are more gentle than others. So we pray to be gently woken with that little tap on the shoulder by our loved ones whispering in our ear, saying – honey it’s time to wake up.
I’ve tried to use that with my teenagers, that gentle, “honey, it’s time to wake up.” But sometimes that doesn’t work. And so it takes bigger things, because often we are truly asleep, or we are truly in denial, or truly stubborn and rebellious like the people in Isaiah. And then it takes a lot to wake us. It takes hitting the bottom, and wiping out, and ending with nothing.
So before we get to that point, Advent week One comes to remind us that we already have nothing. And that, in fact, we’ve always had nothing. That we began with nothing and we’ll end with nothing. So we have no power in ourselves to save ourselves. Or strength to fight what is to come. So let’s turn to God. Let’s light a candle. Let’s believe in the coming of the Messiah, whose promised arrival will bring us everything.
And if Isaiah chapter one is about having nothing, then Isaiah chapter two is about having everything. If the first chapter your life is about hitting rock bottom and the bad things that have happened to you, then then the next chapter is about finding God. That mountain. For God has put out there a mountain. And it’s not just a little hill, like a blip on the horizon, but it is the highest of the mountains, as Isaiah says, raised above the concerns of your life. And all the nations shall stream to it and all people shall come to it, and its existence will bring peace.
There is something bigger and stronger than us and greater than we are, to which we can ascend, which promises that which we do not have within ourselves, a divine force to come to us and bless us and the world around us. And this is the Messiah.
And as long as we know there’s a mountain out there, which has been promised to us, we can be here at the beginning of chapter two of life and look around and say, Well now what? And the answer will always be – well let’s go to the mountain. What else would we do? Where else would we go? Once you see that mountain, and are aware of the presence of Jesus and the love of God and the blessing God brings to the world, there’s nothing on the horizon but that.
So welcome to Advent. Let’s keep that mountain before us. Let’s walk to it week by week, day by day, prayer after prayer, heading in the direction of Christmas. And knowing that it’s always going to be there and that it will never disappear. And that all we have to do to is just to keep moving slowly in faith. And keep giving up.