November 29, 2020; Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; First Sunday of Advent
This week we begin the last month of 2020. Thank God! This has been a terribly difficult year. We have had to deal with a worldwide pandemic that has greatly reduced our mobility and freedom and has killed almost a million and a half people. We have had to endure a divisive presidential election that has revealed that half of this country is pitted against the other half. Then there are all the usual troubles, such as divorce, divisions in our family, and the death of the people we love. When you place all these things together it is easy to become pessimistic and depressed. We begin to wonder, “Will my life ever again be positive and joyful?”
This is why Advent is coming at just the right time for us. Advent is a season of hope, hope not in the things that have happened but in what God is doing. You see, people of faith believe that God is active and working in the events of our lives and in our world. Christians do not simply think that things happen, but believe that when they do happen, God is in the midst of them, somehow guiding events to God’s own purposes. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that God sent a pandemic for a divine purpose. I am not suggesting that God desires Democrats and Republicans to attack one another. Disease and divisions do not come from God. But when they do come, we believe that God is active and capable of drawing out of these difficult situations gifts that will be good for us.
The image of Advent is found in today’s first reading. Isaiah says, “Oh Lord, we are the clay; you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.” Isaiah’s image presents God as a potter shaping our lives. We are the clay. We sit on the potter’s wheel, and it begins to spin. Some years, like this one, we become dizzy and disorientated. We watch as the world circles around us and we lose our sense of security and well-being. But God’s hands are around us, like a potter’s hands around the clay—holding, shaping, and transforming the troubled clay of our lives into something useful and good. And it is in that action of God that we find hope. So, the challenge of Advent is not to turn our backs on 2020 with disgust, but dare to ask how will God use the difficult events of this past year to make something beautiful?
How will God do this? I cannot answer that question. I do not know the mind of the potter. I, like you, am only part of the clay. But it is certainly possible to look closely for hints or glimpses of what God is about. If you lost a loved one this year, do you perhaps also have a renewed sense of the dignity of life and a deeper appreciation for the loved ones who are still with you? That could be a part of God’s plan. As we face our polarized political situation, we should not fail to notice that more people voted this November than at any other time of history. More Americans seemed to be involved in the democratic process. That too, might be a part of the potter’s intent. As we continue to deal with the coronavirus, do you find yourself with a deeper appreciation of those in healthcare services who risk their lives for our benefit? If you have noticed how cashiers and clerks in stores and supermarkets continue to do their job even in the presence of danger, have you begun to wonder whether they should be better compensated for the service they provide?
And then there is this. Each summer off the coast of Alaska, the seas are filled with cruise ships and boats to watch humpback whales. This year, because of the virus, those seas were empty. Scientists report that the effect of the whales has been very positive. The whales are resting more, socializing more, and singing more—because humpback whales communicate with one another through underwater songs. Scientists say their songs this year are new and more diverse than in the past. One expert remarked that, for the first time, we are able to observe the whales as they react to their own environment rather than reacting to us.
We believe that God has been active in 2020. That is the cause of our hope. But what God is making is not yet completely clear. That is why this Advent we should watch for glimpses and hints of God’s plan. Then, when the work of the potter eventually becomes apparent, we will not be surprised. We will be able to say, “Yes! I saw that in the sacrifice of doctors in the emergency room. I heard that in the song of the humpback whales.”