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The Purpose of Advent

“The Purpose of Advent”

November 29, 2020 | FPC Auburn, AL

Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed


Isaiah 64:1-9

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!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

From ages past no one has heard,

no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

who works for those who wait for him.

You meet those who gladly do right,

those who remember you in your ways.

But you were angry, and we sinned;

because you hid yourself we transgressed.

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.

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.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

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.

Now consider, we are all your people.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

***

I.

Both at church and at home this year I’ve found myself going through a process that might sound familiar: Here are all the things we normally do at Advent/Christmas. Now, these just aren’t going to happen this year. These might happen, but in a different way, and maybe here are some new things that will come out of this situation. It’s a process of rebuilding.

The exiles who first heard these words from the prophet Isaiah were engaged in a similar process. They’d just returned to their homeland and were going about the work of rebuilding the temple and their very lives in a world where nothing they remembered was quite the same. So I’m sure, like, us, they grieved what could no longer be in the new circumstances, but at the same time there was hope: because by the grace of God, they’d been given a new beginning. A clean slate. And the same is true for us at the beginning of this new church year, Advent One.

II.

Author Katherine Patterson tells the story of a wealthy widow named Rosamund. On the first morning of her retirement, a beautiful December morning, Rosamund is ready to start fresh. She has a plan, which includes purging her house of all its contents (except the antiques) and selling it so she can move on. She thinks she’ll start in the attic, but then remembers the boxes of letters and photos, which will not only remind her of her late husband but also, tragically, a son who died much too young. There is grief in the attic that will slow her down, but only because of all the good things that have been.

Had Rosamund opened her bible to Isaiah she might have noticed that when the exiles were in the process of rebuilding, they revisited the past often. Sometimes that process of unpacking old letters and pictures was hard. It forced them to remember moments in which they failed to be faithful to their God:

Do not remember our iniquity forever, But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

It nudged them to reckon with the truth that they weren’t always the greatest followers. But at the same time, revisiting the past also reminded them of how, even in their worst moments, the grace of God persisted. How no matter the extent of their sin, no matter how far they strayed, over and over again God built bridges calling them back:

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

From ages past no one has heard,

no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

who works for those who wait for him.

When we find ourselves rebuilding, how God has acted in the past, especially stories of God’s grace, can be a powerful in influencing how we move forward.


III.

But Rosamund wasn’t quite ready to face all that just yet so, instead of heading to the attic she throws on some old clothes and heads out to the garden to weed her roses. As she’s working away out of nowhere a small boy named Buddy shows up. Buddy tells her he is a part of a Sunday School class at Grace Church down the street that is seek out “poor old people” in the community. Seeing Rosamund’s white hair and dirty garden clothes he decided she is both of these - poor and old, so he tells her what he’s learned at church: “People need to know that God loves them and that they got friends in this world.”

Buddy explains that if Rosamund lets him stay and visit awhile, he will get a star from his Sunday School teacher. Reluctantly, she agrees. Soon, Buddy keeps showing up at her house, leaving notes, dropping by, each time saying, “I’m your special friend — God loves you and you’ve got friends in this world!” As you can imagine, Rosamund starts to regret helping Buddy earn his star.

As readers we begin to see something Rosamund doesn’t: While she is doing everything she can to escape the grief and regrets of her past by starting fresh and moving forward unattached to the past, Buddy is gently, gently asking to not forget the love and memories that are calling to her from the attic.

Buddy embodies a truth that perhaps Rosamund knew at some point in her life: the truth that only God is the potter and we are the clay. She, like the exiles rebuilding the temple, is trying so hard to take control of her own circumstances. She doesn’t want to be clay in the hands of God or Buddy or anyone else. Being the potter gives us power. Being the potter gives us control. But Isaiah reminds us all: only God is the potter.

But here’s the good news — being clay in God’s hands is where we find our purpose - becoming vessels of God’s love. And with that purpose comes grace. Clay is malleable. Clay sometimes gives out in the potters hands and falls apart. But a skilled potter knows how to tend to that clay and reshape it so that it can still go on to carry out its purpose. That is grace - that when we fail, when we fall apart, God scoops us back up and reshapes us again, with renewed purpose.


IV.

A rumor begins to spread in town that Rosamund is cleaning out her house because she’s bankrupt and being evicted. It doesn’t take long for her to realize the source of the rumor - Buddy, who has been telling everyone about the poor old lady he visits who is getting rid of all her stuff. At this point Rosamund has had it with Buddy and goes to his house to confront him.

By the time she arrives on his doorstep the pastor has intervened and set the record straight. As it turns out, Buddy was never supposed to visit Rosamund, He was supposed to visit an elderly woman receiving public assistance, but he’d gotten the address wrong. He apologizes for pestering her. “You don’t get no stars for bothering rich people. You just get cars for helping the poor and needy.” he explains to Rosamund.

This revelation sparks something in Rosamund. A renewal, a reawakening. She’s been so focused on rebuilding her life independently: no need for her house, no need for the letters and the photos in the attic, no need for anyone else, especially an annoying little boy who won’t leave her alone. But when it seems Buddy is about to give up on her she realizes how hard she’s been fighting against the work of the potter. The hands that were trying to renew her relationship with grace, to be open to love, to find hope.

She looks Buddy in the eye and says “You know… sometimes… rich old ladies need friends too.”


V.

The gift of Advent, every year, is that it is not us who make Christmas happen. But it’s easy to forget that when we feel like we are in control. Sometimes it takes a year like this, a rebuilding year, to help us pause and reevaluate. To haul that box out of the attic and look back at the photos and the letters that capture our tender moments - both the times we were faithful to God and others as well as moments when we wandered away from God and God’s purposes for our lives. But in those memories we also see how God built bridges of grace to help us find our way back. Over and over again. God sent prophets into our lives to remind us that God is the potter and we are the clay.

The same God, who when choosing to form the divine self as a human self chose not a wealthy or powerful form but instead a vulnerable displaced infant. Who eventually grew into a young boy who walked the earth seeking out the ones who had lost their way saying something like, “God loves you and you’ve got friends in this world!” to remind them that nothing in life our death could separate them from God’s love.

Our purpose this Advent is to receive the grace of Jesus Christ and let the potter use that grace shape every aspect of our lives.

Receive it by confessing our regrets, our need for control.

Receive it by allowing the Buddies of the world into our lives, the small simple voices that tell us, “God loves you, and you have friends in this world.”

And once we have received grace, our purpose is to rebuild by extending grace to others in how we are working to rebuild our world right now. What if we asked those same questions I began with, not just of our personal Christmas traditions but of our life together as children of God:

What just can’t happen anymore? The ways we have allowed the poor and vulnerable bearing the brunt of economic and health crises.

What can still we do, but perhaps differently? Engage in new dialogues across the political divide to try and begin a process of confession, healing, and reconciliation in our nation.

What new things might we do? the possibilities are endless

It’s an overwhelming thought, but again - we are just the clay. And as Paul reminds us, “we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen us to the end.” So while we wait this Advent, may we receive the grace of Jesus Christ and may we begin our rebuilding at the hands of the potter, who is working to transform this world into a kingdom far better than we could ever ask or imagine for all God’s children.


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