Beloved in Christ, I would like to ask Isaiah: “Why are you so anxious? You are one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Nobody has painted a more beautiful picture of what Christ would do. You foretold that He would comfort God’s people, that He would be the Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of the world, and that He would make everything right when He would return in glory. Indeed, in chapters 60 through 62 you portray how God would restore His people. You describe the church as a rebuilt Jerusalem, where the nations gather, where God is the light of His people and there is no need for sun or moon. So after all those wonderful words, words of hope and promise, why are you such a gloomy Gus? Why do you rain on your parade? Why do you pour forth your lament in chapters 63 and 64, including today’s text?”
Well, I imagine that Isaiah could turn around and ask us some similar things: “Why are you so anxious? I lived before the Messiah came and did His work of redeeming the world from their sins. But you live after Jesus has come and won salvation for you. Why then are you so anxious? Why in fact do many of you find this entire time of the year so depressing? What could be more thrilling than to prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior? And yet you are frazzled by all the shopping and the parties. You stuff yourselves with chocolate and eggnog, but you are still sour on life. You surround yourselves with friends and family, but feel so alone. You brighten your streets with festive lights, but you act as if you are living in great darkness. Why are you so anxious in this Advent season, when great joy is around the corner?”
The truth of the matter is that both Isaiah and we have some grounds for feeling dissatisfied. Isaiah may well have known about what Christ’s arrival would mean for the earth. But He was still living in a time when people cared little for the LORD God, let alone for the salvation He would bring. Instead, they preferred worshipping their idols, no matter how often the false gods would disappoint them. So it is understandable that he would break out in a lament, weeping for the circumstances in which he found himself. And we too share in some of that same frustration that Isaiah did. For, even if it is true that Christ has already come and redeemed the world from slavery to sin, the ancient regime of the devil still holds sway over much of the earth. We have not yet received the fullness of our salvation, as we will when He returns in glory. And so sometimes the very sweetness of God’s promises in Christ leave a bitter aftertaste in our mouth, for we know that they are not yet fulfilled.
But, beloved in Christ, if we listen to Isaiah’s lament today, we can get back on track. We can turn an anxious Advent into a blessed one. For Isaiah teaches us three good lessons that we should learn especially in this Advent season.
But it is not just about the future. In Advent we look back at the past and see how God has come into our midst then, too. For us that means recalling the birth of Christ and His whole earthly ministry, including His riding humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem. But even Isaiah could recall how God had come into Israel’s midst before.
He recalled a time when God “did awesome things that [His people] did not look for” and when “the mountains quaked at [His] presence.” He is probably referring to the time when God poured out the plagues upon Egypt and then led the Israelites through the Red Sea. Then they came to Sinai, where the whole mountain trembled as the LORD God descended upon the mountain. Even though it had been several centuries since those events had happened, Isaiah rightly remembered God coming to free His people from slavery. In the same way, it may be centuries since Christ was born and freed us from our slavery to sin and death, but we rightly remember His sojourn among us, even as we desire His return.
But in the meantime, as we recall the past coming of Christ and await His return, we perceive that God still is with us today. Isaiah put it this way in his prayer to God: “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways.” When we meditate upon God’s Word and call to mind all the things He has spoken, we meet Him. No, not visibly, as Christ appeared two thousand years ago and will appear sometime in the future. But the Triune God is with us, as we hear His Word and embrace it. And that truth helps us to live in these days between Christ’s past coming and His return. God is with us, even now, even in our anxious Advent days.
But if God is coming to us constantly, why would we ever having an anxious Advent? Why wouldn’t we always rejoice? From Isaiah we learn a second truth: Advent gets us to acknowledge our sins. “We sinned” and “[God was] angry.” No, it isn’t just that we sinned, but that “we have been a long time in our sins.” The sins that disturb us most aren’t the casual, one-off sins. We can convince ourselves that they are a fluke. They don’t represent who we really are. Rather it is the sins we repeat again and again, the sins we resolved last December 31 finally to conquer, only to see ourselves repeating them this year.
Sin leaves a mark on us over time. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” like a leper that nobody wants to have anything to do with. “All our righteous deeds” in the end turn out to be “like a polluted garment,” Isaiah says. Actually, “polluted garment” is a cleaned-up way of expressing it; I can’t say in polite company what it really means. Or to use a different metaphor: we are a shriveled-up leaf that is blown in whatever direction the wind of our iniquities sends us.
And so we come to the heart of our anxiety: Whether God comes or not, it doesn’t calm our anxiety over sin. If He doesn’t come, His absence shows that He is still angry about our sins. If He does come, His presence terrifies us because of our sins. But thank God that He comes to restore us to fellowship with Him!
And this leads us to the third truth we learn from Isaiah: Advent is calling us back to childlike trust in the LORD God. It is not enough to know that God comes, especially the second Person of the Trinity, namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Neither is it enough to know that our sins make us fear His coming and His absence alike. Instead, we must know that God comes to be our redeemer. He had brought His people out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, not because He wanted to scare the living daylights out of them, but because He wanted them to be saved from the grinding slavery to the Egyptians and to know Him as their loving God.
In Advent we learn to confess, “O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” Let us work our way backwards through those thoughts. First of all, in Advent we learn that God will “not remember [our] iniquity forever.” We have sinned. We have ingrained sin into our being. But because Christ has redeemed us by His holy life, suffering, and death, God will not remember our sin forever.
Not only does He not remember it, He purposely forgets it, because it has already been dealt with. Therefore, there is no reason for Him to come in anger or be “so terribly angry” against us. Instead, we can acknowledge that He is “our Father” and that “we are all the work of [His] hand.” We can call upon Him as our beloved Creator rather than as our terrifying Judge.
But can this all help us when we face the winter blahs and when it seems as if the festivities all around us are pointless cheer? Yes, it can. For God comes to us in the midst of our sorrow, no less than in our joy. He doesn’t gloss over our problem—sin—but neither does He come to destroy us for that reason. Instead, He comes to make us His beloved children once again. That, beloved in Christ, is the antidote to an anxious Advent. In Jesus’ name. Amen.