Summary: A sermon for Advent Sunday, also alluding to St. Andrew’s tide and World AIDS day.
Advent Sunday is a time that can mean so many different things to so many different people. As well as the start of Advent, it’s also the Sunday nearest to 1st December, marked as World AIDS Day, and the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s day, a traditional time for thinking about the mission of the church, following St. Andrew’s example as a Christian missionary (and also a good excuse for lots of Scottish things). So, there are many ideas for Advent Sunday, which is the time when we begin our thinking about, and preparation for, God coming among us, which is not unrelated to either AIDS or the mission of the church.
I’d like to bring these ideas together, in a broad context, by addressing the question, “where on earth is God?”
Many of us, on a daily basis, live with, or encounter, feelings of both disappointment and frustration that God does not seem to be anything like as active in the world as we have been led to believe God should be. Many of us have been told about a God who longs to heal us, who longs to release our burdens, who longs to make every little thing all right.
But this doesn’t match our experience. We are not always healed; we still carry burdens and don’t seem able to put them down, and every little thing is very definitely not all right¬. Our experience does not match what we have been told.
Many people who are not regular church goers, and a good many people who used to be but are no longer, say that this is one of the main reasons why they are not more involved with church. They say that they cannot worship a God who they see as “allowing” such things to go on, and some of us have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view, whilst others of us don’t really see the problem.
Our reading from Isaiah was all about that situation. In the reading we head something addressed to the people of Israel: a people struggling with what it means to be God’s people when God is not active. Let me fill you in on a bit of background, with something you need to know to understand the Old Testament. Either I never listened in Church, or no-one ever told me this, as I didn’t find out until I was studying for my theology degree.
The key event, through which the whole of the Old Testament needs to be understood, is the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. In 597BC the whole nation of Israel was taken prisoner by the Babylonians, and held in captivity in Babylon. Every text in the Old Testament was written before, during, or after, the exile. And know which of those it was is vital to understanding the context of a passage, and therefore to seeing what it might mean. Just to keep you on your toes, the books as we find them in our Bible are not in chronological order, so don’t expect to know how a book relates to the exile just from its position in the Bible
This is so important because the whole nation was captured and taken into slavery. We don’t necessarily have anything equivalent for us, and so it’s not so easy for us to grasp the momentousness of the exile for the Israelites.
Today’s reading from Isaiah was written to the Israelites when they were in exile, far from the land that God promised them. They were a people under oppression from the Babylonians. They were a dislocated and abandoned people. They believed that God can and did act in history. They believed he has acted in the past, and they long for him to act in the present.
Our reading is filled with this desire of the Israelites for their God to act. But God doesn’t seem to hear their cries, and remains silent. So they wonder why this should be. They start to blame themselves - was it something they did which has caused God to grow angry and abandon them? Then they reflect that even if they did wrong, they only sinned because God had already hidden himself from them. What seems to them, the inescapable conclusion is that God has simply withdrawn, and has done so for his own reasons that they, mere humans, cannot understand.
And this is where so many of us find ourselves. Who to blame for God’s lack of action? The rock group Travis have a line in one of their songs that sums up our capacity to blame ourselves: ’Why does it always rain on me? Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?’
When we look at our world, for instance, and see the appalling figures for HIV and AIDS infection, we must surely wonder why God isn’t acting. In Zambia, one in five adults is HIV positive, in Zimbabwe one in four, and in Lesoto one in three. Closer to home, in the UK last year 7000 people were infected with HIV, the highest infection rate for over ten years, with the greatest increase in rates of infection among under-25s. Doesn’t this make us wonder why God doesn’t act?