Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Expectant hope. Persistent yearning. Longing of the soul. I think that pretty much describes the human condition when all the rest of the trappings of life are stripped away. I know that seems like a very audacious statement, but in all of my years of listening to people, that’s the what emerges when all else has been said.
Expectant hope is also the theme of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. It’s a time of anticipation and waiting, much like children awaiting the brightly wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. It’s the almost-but-not-quite-yet feeling we have prior to a much anticipated event.
It’s also a magical time. It’s that sense that something’s there, but just beyond our grasp. Like the fuzziness of trying to remember what you were going to say before it ebbed back from your thoughts. Frustrating, but maybe it will come back and then you can share it.
It’s also a time for introspection and reflection. Sometimes the mess of life around us gives us cause to stop and reflect, wondering how we’re going to find the path that’s overgrown with the bad news of the economy, the pestilence of politics, and the unrest in governments around the globe. Sometimes it’s the mess of our own lives and we wonder if anyone, including God, even cares.
That’s exactly where the author of this passage from Isaiah was when he penned these words:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people (Isaiah 64:1-9).
This text is part of a lament, an argumentative prayer in which the prophet struggles over the fact that God has not been heard from in awhile and things aren’t going so well for God’s people in the midst of God’s absence. That’s what I love so much about the prophets. They just say it like it is. They figure that since they’re doing God’s work (and they really would rather not), God can just hear their complaints about the whole situation.
Then the tone of wondering and smoldering anger that God has left and abandoned the people shifts slightly. The prophet admits that the people have sinned and turned from God and are in trouble because of it. But he also lays the blame for this sinfulness squarely in God’s lap for having gone away and leaving them to their own devices! It’s like the old Mark Twain joke about the man who killed his parents and then pleaded mercy from the court because he was an orphan.
As we read the prophet’s prayer, we notice that one little word, yet, changes the tone and meaning of the whole text. After making his serious and passionate case that things are really, really bad and that God is, honestly, just as much to blame as the people, the prophet speaks a word of hope and longing: Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. This word of hope and longing is rooted in an awareness that the mighty acts of God have come before and he has trust that God will act again.
Advent is a time when we stare into the face of the present data of the world’s sorry state and dare to believe that God still cares and God still plans to do something about it. Advent is a time when we wrestle with and confess that we all too often live out of a practical atheism, in which we say with our lips that we believe in God, but we say with our lives that we really believe, really put our trust, in armies and governments and savings accounts.
Advent is a time when we let wordless prayers of our heart speak to the still listening ears of God. It is a wonderful time of waiting and expectant hope in the God who still comes to us.