Read Today’s Reading »
Finally, Advent is here! We can stop pretending that we’re okay. We can stop pretending that with a little hard work and determination we can right the ship. We can stop pretending that we can make it work out if we just try harder or elect the right people or if our side wins. We can finally give up the charade, and instead cry out to God to save us!
Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes our situation so well. “Behold, we have been in our sins a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Isaiah realizes that we’re stuck in a pit of our own making. We’ve been trying to right the ship for a long time, and we’ve only dug ourselves into a hole we can’t get out of. Our own best efforts, our righteous deeds, are like a polluted garment. The best we have to offer only makes matters worse. Isaiah doesn’t offer any self-encouragement. He doesn’t say something like, “If we just try a little harder, or if we just get the right person in office, or if the good people got their way, then we could make the world great again.” No. Isaiah recognizes that each of us is a wreck, and each of us is a wreck all the way down, all the way to the core. And the more we try, the worse it gets. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
These days this is clearer than ever. We’re stuck in a pit of our own making. Take politics, for example. We put so much hope in politics these days because we can see that the world is full of greed and corruption and wrongdoing. And politicians seem like the answer. We think that if we could only find the right president, or the right representative—if we could only get the right people in office, then everything would be alright. And because we put so much hope in that person, we demonize the other side as if they’re the sole reason the world is filled with greed and corruption and wrongdoing. And so rather than fixing the situation, our best efforts only plunge us deeper into our sin, deeper into anger and malice. Our righteous deeds, our best efforts, are like a polluted garment.
But politics only scratches the surface of our condition. We do the same with our ideas and values. Behind our fervor for politics is our conviction that the world would be a better place if people just thought like us and lived like us. We have our acts together. We know what’s right. And all those other people who disagree with us and live a different lifestyle, they’re what’s wrong with this world. And so, in our pursuit of what’s good and right in the world, we demonize the other side. We can’t possibly see anything good in them. So we put the worst construction on other people’s actions, and in the name of what’s right, we treat people who are different from us with hatred and contempt. All our righteous deeds, our best efforts, are like a polluted garment.
I could go on and on here. The conflict and contention in our world right now pervade just about every aspect of life. In the name of getting things right, in the name of being right, we’re clearly only making matters worse. Isaiah is right about us. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
But this isn’t pessimism. It’s the ultimate form of optimism. It means that we have nowhere left to turn but to the God who loves us. As Isaiah says, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand. Be not so terribly anger, O Lord and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
We have nowhere left to turn but to God. And God is our Father. He’s the one who spoke the world into being, and filled it with all good things—day and night, sun and moon, oceans and mountains, fish and animals, man and woman—not because he owed it to us, but out of divine fatherly goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in us. He’s the one who formed our inward parts and knitted us together in our mother’s womb. We are the clay and he is the potter. We are the work of his hands. How could he let us go on in our self-imposed misery? When we have no hope left in ourselves, we can finally turn to God, our Father.
And there we find a true hope, because God our Father is bound and determined to set things right through his Son, Jesus. The one who is coming to set all things right, is the one who did not come to reward the righteous, but to eat with sinners, and prostitutes, and tax collectors and forgive their sins. As Isaiah says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” He’s the one who did not ignore the blind and the beggars when they cried out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” But called them forward and healed them. As Isaiah says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute man sing for joy.” He’s the one who did not return evil for evil when they arrested him out of spite and envy. Instead, he patiently bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. As Isaiah says, “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus is the faithfulness and love of God our Father to his creation. And the day is coming when Jesus will rend the heavens and come down and finish the work that he started. And that’s why recognizing our sin and the pit we’ve dug for ourselves isn’t pessimism; it’s the ultimate optimism. Because it means that we can finally stop pretending that with a little hard work and determination we can right the ship. We can stop pretending that we can make it work out if we just try harder or elect the right people or if our side wins, and we can simply rejoice that Jesus is coming!
In that sense, baptism is a great way to start Advent. We don’t bring our little children to baptism because we think that, with a little hard work and determination, they can make it work out in the end. If that’s what we believed, we wouldn’t even bother with baptism. No, we bring our children to baptism because we know that they are exactly like us, sinners all the way down, who in the end have nothing going for us, nothing to stand on, and nothing finally to be confident in but the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s exactly what they get in baptism; that’s exactly what you got in baptism. In baptism, you were joined to the one who is coming to finish the work that he started, the one who is the love and faithfulness of God come in the flesh. Your baptism is a promise that despite the futility and hopelessness of the world we’re born into, you can rest in the love and faithfulness of the one who is coming: Jesus Christ, our Lord.
So take heart and rejoice; Jesus is coming!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
5 You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
and remember not iniquity forever.
Behold, please look, we are all your people.