Our men’s breakfast group is reading about great men in history. The first person in our book is George Washington, which prompted me to do a little extra American History reading, which led me to John Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson from a few years back. I had some of the typical stereotypes of this founding father – brilliant but conniving, sophisticated, smooth, but also manipulative. We know of the beauty of Monticello and Charlottesville, know the whispers about Sally Hemings. But I didn’t know how much suffering he carried. His wife Patty bore six children in ten years, four of whom died as children, a fifth by 26. At age 33, Patty’s body was exhausted. The exertions of the war, Meacham writes, culminating in the family’s evacuation of Monticello, exacerbated the state of her health. She may have suffered from tuberculosis. By the early summer of 1782 she was confined to her bed.1
Throughout the summer she remained in bed, and throughout the summer Jefferson stayed close. On Friday, September 6, Patty died. Jefferson was overwrought, alternating crashing on the floor in grief, and rushing outdoors in a frenzy, walking, then on horseback, on back roads, through the woods for hours. A month later he was alluding to the possibility of suicide. "This miserable kind of existence is really too burdensome to be borne," he wrote, "and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish its continuance a moment."2
"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," Isaiah cried. The Babylonians had come with their armies. Wanting to subdue Israel, but not have to occupy it, they simply took away anyone who was in charge of anything. Leaders, priests, intellectuals and artists, those with the power to shape the people’s thinking. In the decade following came the destruction. With the temple burned, their faith shaken, their way of life crumbling, they wondered if God had abandoned them. So they prayed this communal lament found in Isaiah 63 and 64.3
Its power comes in the prophet’s honest desperation. You can feel that same desperation in our world. From Jefferson’s grief to that of those killed by Isis. Ebola. Ferguson. Over these holidays some troops rush into the embrace of a loved one. Some have an honor guard escorting a casket. I’d bet you encountered some of that desperation in a family member over Thanksgiving, some sadness, some grief. Someone who wasn’t at the table who you really miss.
The prophet roots his plea in who GOD is, first in the Exodus. Back then, he says, YOU did awesome deeds we didn’t expect, came down among us. Mountains quaked, nations trembled. You have saved us before, they cried. None of us have seen or heard of anyone but YOU O God, You who works for those who wait. The verbs are all about God – GOD meets. God remembers. God was angry. In a season in which we get caught up in our stuff, our preparations, our anxiety – the prophets reminds us of the One who comes in power.
YET. This is the turn in the text. Literally the Hebrew is AND NOW. Despite all that has gone before, O Lord. You are our Father. Our loving parent, our forefather, the first, the beginning, the One who made it all. NOW, O Lord, we are the clay, You are the potter. We are nothing but the work of Your hand, powerless without you. The prophet then steps back. Do not be angry. Do not remember the things we have done. Not consider – this is the other word that really moves me here. Consider. As a child looks up, tenderly, with anticipation, at her parent. Behold. Look upon. Consider – it sounds like pleading. Consider, God, we are all your people.
Today Advent begins with candles and joyous music. But we do so feeling unsettled, knowing that the world is not as Christ intends. But what Advent does, what GOD does, what the church is called to proclaim, is the radical entrance of God into our ordinary and anxious and exhausting time, into our regularity and our pain. For us to consider a different story than the one we are so often told. A story of the same conflicts and the same grief, a story of the same divisions and the same anger, a story of us, once again, doing what the cartoon said in yesterday’s paper – we take one day, Thursday, and ‘be thankful for all we have.’ And then the next day, we rush to the mall, concluding that whatever we were thankful for wasn’t enough.4
Layer on the pain of the world. This year it’s Ferguson, and the anger and violence gnarled up in really complicated conversations about race and the justice system and communities without hope. I have spent most of this week feeling caught. I don’t know what it feels like to be an African American male in America. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer who risks his or her life every day for their community. I don’t know what happened on that street back on August 9. But I know it stands in as a symbol of our collective brokenness. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God.
But once in a while Advent breaks through. On Tuesday in Portland, 12 year old Devonte Hart, an African American boy, who grew up in desperate circumstances and was adopted as a 4 year old, was holding a sign on the edge of a protest that said, ‘free hugs.’ A white policeman, Sgt. Bret Barnum, saw it and walked over. They spoke for a moment, as Sgt Barnum said later, about school, art, and life. Then, he pointed at the sign. Can I get one of those? They share a powerful embrace, tears welling up in the boy’s eyes. The photograph is amazing, and I’ll post it with this sermon online this week.5
I don’t know what to tell you about so much of this. But for a moment this Advent I want you to CONSIDER. Look at. Gaze upon. More than the shimmering candles, the shiny brass, the smell of the green. Consider. God’s great love for you, breaking into the world. A love that would lead God to send God’s only son to earth, born, here again in a few weeks, in a manger, surrounded by hay and manure and animals and some scared parents. A love, in Jesus the Christ, that changes everything. Consider that this Advent. Consider that Love.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (New York: Random House, 2012), p 145.
2. The rest of this comes from Meacham, pages 145-148.
3. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), Exegetical, by William Brown, 3. "Composed sometime between the Babylonian conquest of 568, but before the rebuilding of the temple in 515, this lament reflects Israel’s complete disorientation in the wake of the devastating exile."
4. The News and Observer, November 29, 2014, page 18A, cartoon at top of page.
5. "Police officer and young demonstrator share hug during Ferguson rally in Portland," 11-28-14, The Oregonian.