You may want to read Isaiah 64:1-12 before you read this.
Thomas Merton, back in the sixties, somewhere in Kentucky went into a drugstore to get some toothpaste. When the clerk asked him which brand he preferred, he replied, “I don’t care.”
“He almost dropped dead,” Merton later wrote. “I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest. … the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
Kathleen Norris called Merton a prophet for saying “I don’t care” in one of the temples for the brand-conscious consumer.
These days, of course, it’s a lot harder to not care about these things since they tend to be everywhere. TV, radio, billboards, busses, racecars, flashing banners at every other website, glossy ads in every magazine or journal. And since all that is not enough, somebody somewhere works hard so you notice that the young hero on your favorite show drives a Ford and the villain an import. You’re told to ask your doctor if Aplex, Beplex, or Ceplex is for you, and you better make sure you get some over the counter Dementex to fight off insanity as you try to jot down all the things you need to remember for your next doctor’s appointment.
The paper on Thursday resembled the Metro phonebook in volume and weight. Most of it were high-gloss inserts with coupons for the opening of the bargain-hunting season on Friday. As a brand and price conscious consumer you are expected to spend your Thanksgiving morning reading all that information carefully to determine in front of which big box store you will spend the night, and then mapping out the rest of your Black Friday shopping trip.
On the other hand, you could just take another sip of your coffee, get up and baste the turkey, sit down again and declare with prophetic clarity, “I don’t care.”
Retail marketing and faith are both about the cultivation of desire. But where marketing is all about annual sales, brand loyalty, and the promise of fulfillment, faith leads us to question the noise and to bring our own desires in tune with God’s. During Advent this difference and tension becomes clearer than during any other time of the year.
Many voices invite us to think of this as the holiday season of santas, angels, trees and lights, shopping mixed with warm childhood memories, and all of it bathed in a nostalgic glow.
In the church, this is new year’s day, and we are invited to begin the new year preparing joyfully for the coming of God in a child and preparing humbly and penitently for his coming again to judge the living and the dead. The latter, of course, doesn’t lend itself to red-nosed holiday cheer, which is why the merchants won’t touch it.
In the church, Advent doesn’t begin with carols and pageants, but with the tears and prayers of an old man (Isaiah 63:15).
Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?
The voice of Isaiah had been with the people of Jerusalem and Judah through the unimaginable loss of the city and the temple to Babylon’s armies; his voice was an essential part of the long reflection that followed that devastating experience in exile:
The loss was God’s judgment on a people who made a mockery of righteousness, Isaiah declared. They would return to Zion, though, and their return would be glorious. The Lord would lead them on a highway through the wilderness to the land of their ancestors and the city of David, he proclaimed.
But when they returned, the shouts of joy and songs of freedom soon died down among the silent ruins of the city and the temple. Worst of all was the silence of God.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake and the nations might tremble at your presence (Isaiah 64:1).
The old prophet gave voice to a people’s longing. They wanted to see some sign of God’s presence, some unmistakable indication that their suffering did not go unnoticed.
Advent begins with that silence. Have you ever prayed and felt like you were talking to yourself? Have you ever knelt under a blanket of silence and pleaded and all you could sense was your own yearning? Have you ever let go of all respectful restraint and cried out, “O tear open the heavens and come! Come like fire on brushwood! Do something unexpected nobody can ignore!”
The wonder of the old prophet’s prayer is that he doesn’t quit praying. He meditates on the character of God recalled and praised in the stories of God’s people. He reflects on his people’s situation in light of those stories. He admits in what sounds like a confession (Isaiah 64:7), There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, but he sees responsibility also on God’s side, saying, You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. He keeps praying. He doesn’t turn away from the silence. He doesn’t let go of the relationship that has shaped his entire life.
And he says (Isaiah 64:8), Yet, O Lord.
In one little word he wraps up his people’s anguish and his own, the hopelessness of their circumstance, and their only hope:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand.
It is a prayer of surrender and trust. The little word yet opens the window to a future determined no longer by human failure but by the unlimited possibilities of God’s creative power.
Advent begins with the silence that makes room for us to be honest about ourselves and the condition of our world.
Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation, Isaiah prays (64:10-11), our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
And at the end his old voice turns into a whisper (Isaiah 64:12), After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?
The question lingers between earth and heaven, and now everything depends on that little yet. Will you hide your face forever or turn to us with mercy? Will you keep silent or speak the word of peace? Will you remember that we are your people, and that without you we are nothing but dust?
Thomas Merton spent much time in silence, Advent silence, waiting for the revealing of God’s word and face. In silence he remembered what is worth caring about and what is not. It was silence that taught him so say “I don’t care” to the clerk’s question about his preferred brand of toothpaste. It was silence that taught him to care about the suffering of others and to desire truth and peace. Silence can make you turn away from God and toward the noise of other promises, or it can make you lean more attentively toward God.
Isaiah spoke for all of God’s people who at least occasionally wish that God would tear open the veil between earth and heaven and do something big, something that would undeniably manifest the divine presence among us, so that all of us, from the first to the last, would confess that the Lord is God and no other.
We live in a world of constant noise, and so we expect a voice loud enough to drown out all the others. We live in a world of constant distractions, and so we expect a vision bright enough to outshine all the others. We live in a world of constant advertising, and so we expect a product that promises and delivers fulfillment in an instant.
But God doesn’t shout people into belief. God doesn’t bend people into obedience or manipulate them into relationship. God calls and waits.
Will Willimon once said, “Sometimes, God speaks, but we need to be leaning toward [God] to hear. What kind of ear do you bring to the hearing?”
The same can be said for our other senses. What kind of eye do you bring to the seeing? We need to be leaning toward God to perceive. We must sit in the dark with nothing but a small candle of hope in order to see the light of Christ. We must enter the great silence and wait there in order to hear the songs of angels. We must pray patiently with Isaiah and lean toward the fullness of life in God’s new creation in order to perceive the new thing God is doing now.
One of our carols reminds us,
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is giv’n;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive Him still,
the dear Christ enters in.
One of the great dangers in this world of sin is that we get absorbed in the noise. We see a child without food, and we say, “I don’t care, it’s not my child.” And the noise keeps getting louder.
We see a woman who can’t pay her rent, and we say, “I don’t care, she’s not my sister.” And the noise keeps getting louder.
We see a man sitting on the same bench at the mall, always by himself, day after day, and we say, “I don’t care, he’s not my father.” And the noise keeps getting louder.
And we see a baby, born between animals in a barn, and we say, “I don’t care, they shouldn’t have babies in the first place.”
Yet those who have kept the little flame of hope, those who have leaned intently into the silence and toward the fullness of God’s reign, see the baby and welcome the dear Christ.
And they tell the story of how God tore open the heavens.