For November 27, 2011: 1 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 64:1-9

This Sunday we begin a new church year with the holy season of Advent. In today’s reading, Isaiah combines stunningly poetic imagery with startling bluntness to remind us of God’s greatness and goodness, and of the breadth and depth of our need for God’s mercy.

The Epistle            1 Corinthians 1:3-9

In the year 57 a.d., Corinth was a wealthy, cosmopolitan seaport not far from Athens. Its church was home to Jewish and Gentile contingents that were not good at getting along. The opening of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reflects this, with praise for their learning and speaking but sobering silence as to their love, hope, and faith.

Further thoughts

Advent has been called “the little Lent”, though most Protestant churches have moved a bit away from the emphasis on Advent as a penitential season in favor of celebrating the coming Christ Child. Today’s readings begin firmly in the penitential camp. Isaiah gives us an arresting series of images. He shows us mountains quaking in God’s presence like water at a rolling boil. He likens even our righteous deeds to a cloth a woman had used for that time of month—and if you find this image unbearably uncouth, shocking, vivid, and humiliating, that’s precisely the effect Isaiah intends. The psalmist adds a vivid picture of us so steeped in shame and sorrow that we drink our own tears by the bowlful.

But there’s hope in Advent. Isaiah calls God “our Father”—for the first and only time in the Old Testament—and compares us to works of clay made by God the Potter. One is reminded of the saying, “God don’t make no junk,” and I think Isaiah intends something of that as well. The psalmist, similarly, begs for God’s forbearance, and the implication in both cases is that we’re worth saving, not because of our goodness but because we’re God’s.

Similarly, Paul’s veiled condemnation of the contentious Corinthians can be read in two hopeful ways: First, living as a child of God does not depend on learning and eloquence and an abundance of cultivated spiritual gifts. This is a comfort to those of us who, for whatever reason, find ourselves coming up short in one or another of these departments, and it is certainly good news (though not necessarily new news). Second, however, Paul gives some of us hope that learning  and eloquence—and even material wealth—are not of themselves disqualifications to live as children of God. Paul, like God, corrects the Corinthians because they need correction but also because they’re worth correcting: in them, as in us, Paul and God see potential and good.

Our work is cut out for us this Advent. Thanks be to God!

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