Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-9
Preparing for the first Sunday of Advent one year, I asked a colleague, Samuel Voth Schrag, what he was thinking about for his upcoming sermon “Oh,” he said, “I’m going to talk about Dues ex machina.”
In case you’ve forgotten your English classes, duex ex machina is a literary device: It is when an author gets her characters into a very difficult situation and then solves the crisis by having some external force swoop in and fix everything. (This, by the way, is considered cheating.)
Deus ex machina.
It’s what Isaiah wanted: O God, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.
It’s what Mark wanted: Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
It’s what I want.
A few years ago, one of my friends posted on Facebook: “All I want for Christmas is the abolition of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” (Yes, I have a peculiar set of Facebook friends.)
It’s true. I would love for the end of all oppressions and injustice to just be handed to me all wrapped up with a bow.
When the racism, the violence, the misogyny, the oppressions . . . the fear, the pain, the anger . . . when it all seems too much, too difficult, too overwhelming, we, too, want God to swoop in and make all things right. But it seldom happens that way. Even the Exodus, that great story of dramatic Divine intervention, takes place over decades.
And the coming of the Messiah, the One people expected to defeat the enemies of Israel and redeem the people, proved rather anti-climactic. God came to us, but there were no torn heavens or quaking mountains or clouds of glory. There was just a squalling baby. Most people didn’t even notice.
Biblical commentators point out that, while this passage from Isaiah begins with a vision of God’s powerful intervention, it ends with a different image: the metaphor of God as the potter and people as the clay. A very different image indeed.
Mark, too, moves from the apocalyptic imagery–the darkening sun, the Son of Man coming on the clouds, the angels–to a very earthy parable: a man goes on a journey and leaves his slaves in charge of the household. The slaves know the master will come back home, but they do not know when, so they must stay awake. They will not be awakened by the celestial spectacle; they must stay awake so they can be ready when their weary master trudges through the door.
When so much is wrong in the world, it is tempting to fix our hope on a god who will swoop down and fix it all. But it seems that is not how God generally operates. God did not swoop down and re-build the temple. God did not swoop down and overthrow the Roman government. And, so far, God is not swooping down to abolish imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. We still live with oppression and injustice.
But God’s failure to swoop down does not mean that God is not at work. The heavens may not be torn. The sun may not be darkened. But nevertheless, God is present and at work within us and among us. It’s just that we have to stay awake to see the signs of hope that surround us.
Because our Advent hope is not in a god who swoops down. Our hope is in a God who, in Jesus, stoops down.
In our moments of anguish and fear and anger we may long for God’s swooping, but it is God’s stooping that is truly remarkable–the willingness of the almighty to take on our flesh and take us by the hand and lead us in a better way.
It is God’s stooping that we anticipate and celebrate this Advent season.
Thanks be to God.