A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on November 28, 2010.
Isaiah 40:1-5, 27-31
Our Father, we approach this Advent season confessing that we have lost our way. We admit to you that we have lost sight of our true needs and that we have grown far too accustomed to things as they are. O God, we know we have lost our vision for your will. We have ceased to believe our desire for the difference your grace can make. Forgive us if we have longed for the world’s salvation yet been unwilling in our own lives to pay the price of better things. Forgive us if we have desired your coming into the world but long for it to be on a path that requires little from us. Forgive us if we have longed for salvation in the world that would leave our hearts unchanged. Thy will be done in our hearts as it is in heaven, in our hearts first, and then in all the earth. Father, we pray that you would stand before us in radiant light and glory. Stand before us in purity and love. Stand before us like the dawn of morning and eternity and give us each a vision of what we can be and what work you would have us do if salvation were to come to this world. Show us faith. Show us peace. Show us light. Give us hope and these will ever be our joy. Give us these things, and our pledge is to hinder your kingdom no more. Forbid it, Lord, that when you come again you should not find faith upon the earth or hope within our hearts. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen
This church. The church on the other side of town, the other side of the world. All churches everywhere. The day will come when they will lie in ruins, every last one of them. The day will come when all the voices that were ever raised in them, including our own, will be permanently stilled. But when that day comes, I believe the tumbled stones will cry aloud of the great, deep hope that down through the centuries has been the one reason for having churches at all and is the one reason we have for coming to this one now, the hope that into the world the King does come. And in the name of the Lord. And is always coming, blessed be he. And will come afire with glory, at the end of time.
–Frederick Buechner in Secrets in the Dark
In just a few weeks, it will have been six years since the tsunami occurred in the area around Indonesia and the Pacific rim. We all remember watching video of that wall of water as it came ashore in so many different places, a wall of water that swept away buildings, cars, livestock, and people. Families were ripped from one another. We remember the absolute devastation that took place and how the world responded in a moment. Even you as a congregation responded with one of the most lavish gifts that I remember–$150,000 for water projects. We called it Water for Life as we attempted to try to provide water for people whose lives had been disrupted by water.
Millions and millions of dollars from around the world poured into that region to help with the devastation. Little did we know that within just a few months our own country would be hit with a wall of water—Hurricane Katrina. And if Katrina were not enough, along came Hurricane Rita, and the Gulf Coast was absolutely decimated.
We saw our nation as a whole spring into action. We saw people do very unselfish acts as a broader community. If you will remember, the old Kroger store on Hicks Drive was turned into a reception area for goods that were needed. Tractor-trailer trucks were taken from this community to help people. People were welcomed into this community. People, once again, just poured out their hearts and their money in an attempt to try to restore the lives of people who had lost everything.
Then came one tragedy after another. It seemed to me that there were times on our staff prayer list where we would list some natural disaster, and within just a week or two, it would be replaced by another. There were floods in Pakistan. There were earthquakes in Chile. There was a hurricane in Haiti, as if Haiti needed a hurricane to be a disaster area. Just one right after another, and I am missing several in this list. What we heard, as we listened to television, were people in the international aid organizations talking about how so many disasters, one right after the other, had dulled our senses and we no longer responded as we once did. The expression that I heard used time and time again was “compassion fatigue.” People had seen so much devastation that they had opened their hearts and checkbooks so many times that finally we all came to a place, and I think we may still be there, where our ability to respond has diminished greatly. We are just worn out from all the things that have taken place that we need to care about.
I have heard “___________ fatigue.” It has become something of a buzz phrase, different ways it is used. Whenever we get tired of doing something for a long time, we have whatever it is “fatigue.”
I heard some movie star’s extracurricular activity described as “fidelity fatigue,” which I thought was an oxymoron, but nonetheless I guess they just got tired of it.
As we approach the great shopping holidays, I heard a new one that I had not heard before. A commentator was talking about how, over the past two years, everyone has tried to cut back because of the economy, etc. but this year is going to be different. “We are going to shop at Tiffany’s and we are going to participate in the December-to-Remember Lexus Sales Event because we have ‘frugal fatigue.’ We are tired of being frugal.” I thought that one was pretty superficial myself. But nonetheless, these things that take place for a long time cause us to lose sight of the ability to stick with it. If there was such a term and if we understood Advent correctly, I am not so sure that we have not come to “Advent fatigue.”
We have already described Advent and you have probably read about it in the Advent booklet. Advent is just a way to add four weeks onto the front of Christmas so that people who go to church can have something to do while everybody else is shopping. Right? We think of Advent as a way to have a worship theme during the season while we are decorating our homes, wrapping our presents, and getting everybody what they want on their list. It is just a way of extending Christmas. It is a way of preparing spiritually for the Christmas holiday. It is a way of preparing for the birth of Christ, to once again try to experience that birth in its newness and freshness in our own hearts. I think anyone who participates in the Christmas Eve service here or in thousands of other churches recognizes that sense of wanting to be ready for the purity of that night and the sense that the promise of Christ is true. But it has always been more than that in the church. It has also been a time in which Christians have prepared between the first coming when Christ comes in humility in a manger and the second coming when Christ returns on the clouds with angels, in might and power. It is a way of preparing since the first coming of Christ for the time when he comes again to fulfill the eternal will of God.
I am not just talking about the 18th Century or sometime when everybody dressed like a character in a Dickens’ novel. I am talking about not that long ago when we lived in anticipation for the return of Christ, a time when we did not have to be part of a splitter group to believe that judgment was coming and we didn’t have to participate in a cult to wonder about when would be the end of the age. When is Jesus coming?
I think in mainstream Christianity in this country judgment is simply a remote possibility. It is not something we consider much anymore. But this is what Advent has always been. It is something we would rather overlook. We would rather simply think about Christmas. We would rather think about presents and toys and everything else we want to be involved in. It is easy to get Advent fatigue. As we wait, we sometimes convince ourselves that this life is as good as it gets. As we wait, we say, “Jesus is Lord, and I really mean that as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me. Yes, I’ll say ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
But Christmas itself gives us away. Do we spend more time in the material aspects of Christmas or more time in the spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ? Which is it?
We put bumper stickers on our cars or signs in our yards that say, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” or “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but the truth is that most of our real interests are on the very things that we say shouldn’t be. In our Advent fatigue and in somehow losing sight of what God really wants to do in the world and what we would pray for God to do in the world, we have become very complacent about whether or not Jesus comes again and what we are going to do while we wait.
Of course, Jesus sees it. Jesus did understand it. He tells a series of parables near the end of his ministry and right before his crucifixion in which he reminds us about how we should wait and watch. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells us how we should use what we have until the master returns. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus tells us we should fill our lamps with oil so we will be prepared when the bridegroom comes. Even in the telling of the division of the sheep and the goats, it was said, “We were not ready for this. We didn’t know it was going to be like this.” In all the parables that Jesus taught, he reminded us that we are to watch and to wait and we are to be ready for Jesus’ return.
The passage from Isaiah 40 is really a precursor to the parables of Jesus about how the people of God are to watch and wait. Particularly the last part of the 40th chapter of Isaiah is one that we have used in our personal lives many times. People have quoted it to us in times of grief. People have signed letters and notes to us in times of despair that we might look it up and read it, and in it find hope. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary and the young will fall exhausted. But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
Before these words were spoken to us in our personal moments of need, they were spoken to the people of Israel in an hour of despair. Students of the Bible have long noticed that if you read the entire Book of Isaiah and come to the 40th chapter, something changes. Up until this point, the prophet has been bemoaning what is going to befall Israel, but when you get to the 40th chapter, it is a word to people who are already in despair. What we know from history is that they were in exile. They had been uprooted out of Jerusalem, out of Judea. They have been taken off to live in Babylon in a faraway place. Every day and every week that passed, they grew more weary in waiting on God to do something. They had the equivalent of what we would think of as Advent fatigue.
We skipped some of the verses because it would take so long to read the entire chapter, but if you go back and read the chapter, there is even a section where Isaiah says to them, “Look, do not waste your time on the idols of the people of Babylon. All they do is go out, cut down a tree, and carve it to look like a god and worship it. That’s crazy. They have a lot of money. They may take gold or silver and fashion it into something and worship it. Don’t do that because God is sending you a promise that God’s salvation is coming. Wait and trust in God. Hope in God and your strength will be renewed.”
I tried to find a book that I saw referenced in my study for the sermon today called Waiting Without Idols. Evidently, the premise of the book is that so many times while we are waiting on God, we get sidetracked into the idols of the age and spend our time on that. What Isaiah is telling the children of Israel not to do is no different than us becoming distracted. We might think that this life is as good as it gets and that somehow pure silk or cashmere will be just as fine as whatever the garments are in glory. Maybe we think that the vehicles we could drive in a December sales event would be a match for the presence of God in eternity. But Isaiah says, “Do not worry. Do not succumb to the trinkets of the day but prepare the way of the Lord. God’s very salvation is coming.”
What we have believed about God’s power in our own personal tragedies is true for the world. Now that I believe in God through Jesus Christ, I believe in hope, not only that the things I want the most in life will be God’s will for my life, but I hope for a new world, a time when God’s will reigns supreme. Things like torture, cruelty, and oppression will all pass away. The petty tyrants of this age will all bow down and worship the King of Glory. There will be no more tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, fire or famine. All these things will pass away and all will be swallowed up in God’s victory. The things of this world that we have loved too much will pass away so that we can love God alone.
I hope for these things because I believe in Christ. As we prepare for Christmas, between his first coming in humility in a manger in Bethlehem and waiting on the second coming when he comes in glory, I hope for his perfect will, and I will prepare my heart for him.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.