REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
Advent 1 – Hope
Isaiah 64: 1-9
In the early church, the season of Advent was marked liturgically by the singing of what was called the ‘O Antiphons’, meaning that each song began with the word, ‘O.’ The ‘O Antiphon’ for the First Sunday of Advent is ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. And here are its opening lines: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here.” This ninth century hymn leads us directly into our Isaiah text. For the prophet Isaiah was with the ‘ransomed captive Israel’ of the hymn. The people were taken into captivity by the Babylonian army who had ransacked and pillaged the beautiful city of Jerusalem. The people were brought to live in a desert place, to live in exile in this very different land. And the people longed for a return to their beautiful city of Jerusalem.
Isaiah describes the tearing down of the beautiful city: “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.” (vs. 10-11) The beautiful buildings were a pile of ruins. And the people in exile are wondering why after all this, God is nowhere to be found. From Isaiah, “After all this … will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (vs. 12)
Stouffville United Church is part of Stouffville Cares, a community-based organization that was formed a few years ago to sponsor Syrian refugees to Canada. In total, we sponsored four families, four brothers and their families. They all have settled in our town. That first family made their courageous decision to seek asylum, left all they knew behind, and arrived in a strange land, with a strange language, and trusted strangers for their safety. I remember this first family showing me on their cell phones the images of the city they grew up in Syria, in Aleppo, which was being bombed during the time of their arrival in Canada. The before and after pictures show the devastation that completely annihilated a beautiful city into shattered buildings and piles of rubble.
The desolation of a crumbled world that Isaiah described, is here today. While not in North America, it is very much in places all around the globe. And it’s happened again and again throughout human history, this tearing down. It would seem it is nothing new.
Here is Isaiah, in the opening line, saying, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.’ We talk about tear down homes as if it is a common place thing. “Oh, that house is a tear down,” we’ll say. “A developer will make quick work of that in order to put in a couple of new homes.” And here, on the first Sunday of Advent, we are asking God to come here and tear open the heavens. It seems to me a violent act. It suggests powerful strength and determination, with no looking back.
We’ve grown up with stories of God’s amazing redemptive, saving acts – like the Red Sea Crossing; like the manna and the quail in the desert; like the water from the rock. Our biblical ‘story’ suggests that God comes down and fixes everything. But here, God is not fixing anything. God’s silence is problematic. But maybe God is doing something else here. Maybe God is relying on us to do the fixing. Maybe instead of us waiting for God to fix things, God is waiting for us to do some of the tearing down ourselves. Maybe God is waiting for us to start dismantling some things ourselves.
I’m thinking of the things in our world that need to be torn down. Old ways of racism and colonialism. Ways that force assimilation or segregation, or even worse, tear away the language and customs of a culture, as Canada has done to the Indigenous people here in this land. There are lots of things we should start tearing down. It is our work to tear down the structures that need to come down, structures that are falling apart in the face of new social movements that demand equity and respect – from Black Lives Matter, to the #metoo movement. I’m thinking of our need to care for the earth, outweighed by our harmful ways that need to be dismantled – harmful ways that effect the earth and its climate, the ways our oceans are filling up with plastic, the ways that animal species are facing extinction.
Advent is a church season that every year, leads us to discover hope anew – the hope that is God’s love, born for us, in a manger, a sign for all that God’s love is here to stay, in his only begotten Son, Jesus. Brother Roger, founder of the Taize Community in France wrote, “Human beings have not been created for hopelessness.” There is within us an inherent pull to the lifeline that hope throws us.
On August 4th, the city of Beirut, in Lebanon was decimated by an explosion in its harbour, caused by the dangerous storage of illegal combustible materials, harbour paperwork conveniently overlooking the stockpile through the bribery of government officials. In the explosion, more than 190 people were killed and over 6,000 injured. The historic neighbourhoods and commercial district were obliterated by the explosion. But the community has found a way to find hopefulness in the midst of the rubble and broken glass. In the arts community, Lebanese designers have been busy rebuilding, while honoring the past. In one furniture store, the owner is mending the upholstery tears with a “conspicuous red thread,” saying, “we don’t want to forget the wounds.” In another store, the owner spray-painted on the walls, “Our space is destroyed but we are not.” She plans to “keep her scarred walls as they are. She’ll fill the space with a line of furniture made from repurposed doors, shutters, and bits of wood, all foraged from the ruins of her neighbourhood.” These and other business owners are “trying to … heal a community that has experienced so much trauma.” She adds, “I feel that the sooner things get fixed, the quicker things can go back to normal.” 
“The sooner things get fixed.” Isaiah pleads with God, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,’ come down and fix things. But here is a story of the people gathering as community to fix the brokenness in their midst.
We are a hope-filled people. We revisit this birth of hope every year in the Christmas story. Our first candle of the Advent wreathe is the Candle of hope. Someone wrote that the candle of hope is strong enough to stand alone. It is this hope that lightens our darkness. It is this hope that resurrects a community in the midst of rubble and broken glass. It is this hope that asks us to stop waiting around for the divine to fix things, and to get to work fixing things on our own.
Yes, Advent is about waiting for the birth of Jesus. But really, God is waiting. For us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Behold: Arts for the Church Year Advent & Christmas 2008, Epiphany 2009 (Inver Grove Heights: Logos Productions Inc., 2008), 2.
 Vogue Magazine, December 2020, 76.
 This quote is from a colleague’s Facebook post from November 26 where they were referencing “Katherine Brittain’s letter on the Current this morning.”