Happy New Year!

Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the church calendar. 

We have spent the last six months in what the church calls “ordinary time,” that long period between Pentecost, which is 50 days after Easter, and the First Sunday of Advent. Ordinary time is, of course, where we live most of our lives. No huge celebrations, no big feast days, just the days in and out of the life of faith.

Advent jolts out of ordinary time with the good news that God is about to do a new thing, that God’s grace is about to arrive in the world in the unexpected form of a vulnerable, helpless baby.

But surprisingly, Advent begins at the end, with apocalpytic imagery and warnings of doom.

As I read the gospel for this week, my mind went back to the beginning of Advent 45 years ago, when the nation was still reeling from the bizarre and tragic events that were happening a world away in Jonestown, Guyana, where more than 900 Americans died. 

I was a reporter for The Greenville News and on standby to go to Charleston if the bodies were brought back there. That didn’t happen, but I, like most people, was transfixed to the news.

Journalist Tim Reiterman was in Jonestown then, covering California Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to Guyana to investigate allegations of abuse and other horrors in the Peoples’ Temple compound run by the charismatic Rev. Jim Jones.

Reiterman remembers a freakish storm that day, which in retrospect seemed an ominous warning of what was to come. Dark clouds unexpectedly tumbled through the blue sky, a powerful wind tore through the pavilion where Reiterman was interviewing Jones, and the skies suddenly dumped torrents of rain.

“I felt evil itself blow into Jonestown when that storm hit,” one of the few survivors of that day remembers.

Within hours the congressman and three others were dead, shot by temple assassins as they tried to board an airplane. Reiterman was wounded in the gunfire.

Those events were just the beginning of the horror.

When the assassins returned to Jonestown from the outlying airport, Jones had gathered his people into the pavilion, and weaving words of desperation, had begun preparing them for the end.

As Reiterman writes in an article remembering those dark days, Jones used the news of Ryan’s murder to convince his followers that they had no hope, no future, no place to go.

“The congressman has been murdered!” he announced. “Please get the medication before it is too late…Don’t be afraid to die.”

Then cyanide-laced KoolAde was brought out. Jones insisted that the children drink the KoolAde first, sealing everyone’s fate because the parents and elders of the community would then follow the children in despair.

Unbelievably, more than 900 people died in the suicide and murder ritual that has come to epitomize the ultimate evil power of a charismatic leader over his followers.

As horrific and bizarre as the events in Jonestown were, they have scriptural overtones. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about strange meteorological events being a sign of the coming end time.

We begin Advent today not on a note of hope about the impending birth of the savior, but on a note of despair at the depths to which humanity has sunk.

Advent begins this way every year — with humankind at the end of its rope. One commentator writes that at the start of Advent, “We have realized at the deepest level of our being that we cannot save ourselves, and that apart from the intervention of God, we are totally and irretrievably lost.”

Those words sound strikingly similar to the message Jim Jones gave his followers that fateful day – they had no hope, no future, no place to go. They were totally lost.

In many ways that was the situation of the people of Israel in today’s reading from Isaiah. The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon. That long exile is now coming to an end, and some Jews are beginning to return to Israel.

But the Israel they return to is not the one they left. The Temple, the very home of God, has been destroyed. Streets are in ruin. Being back is almost worse than being exiled. There seems to be no hope for the future.

The people feel what one writer calls “a deep sense of desperation about a situation out of control.”

No hope, no future, no where to go. The same emotions of despair voiced by Jim Jones more than four decades ago.

But here is the difference between the two situations – and it is a big one.

In their despair, the people of Israel turn not to the vagaries of a false prophet whose only alternative to the current situation is suicide and murder. The people of Israel turn to God.

They turn to God even when God seems absent.

The passage of Isaiah we hear today is a prayer, a bid for God’s intrusiveness into the despair and hopelessness that God’s people are experiencing.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” the people pray.

And they remember their history – that in the past God did just that. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God did come down and meet them on the mountain, which quaked in God’s presence.

They remember the awesome deeds God did for them in past times of darkness and despair, and pray that God will be present with them again. They remind themselves that “God works for those who wait for him.”

And they admit that they have responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves.

“We sinned,” they say. “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.”

They admit that they are so tainted and stained with sin that it is likely God will not want to have anything to do with them.

Then comes the most important word of this passage – just three letters long. YET.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

With these words of affirmation, Israel reminds God: “You made us, you own us, you are responsible for us, we belong to you.”

Yes, we have sinned, we have sunk to new depths, but we are still yours. The people remind God of God’s deep obligation to Israel.

They remind God that it is time for God to act; that God is obligated to act.

The people of Israel show a deep faith that even when God is absent, even when their own sins seem to have separated them from God, that the story is not over.

The world of Jim Jones was a closed world, clothed in anxiety, despair, and distrust. In the narrative he told his followers there was no way out except death.

But for people of faith in Isaiah’s time and in our own, the world in which we live, no matter how dark and desperate, is never closed.

Our stories of faith show us again and again that God can and does break through.

In our narrative, God the creator is never finished creating.

We begin this Advent deeply aware that many people in our community, in our nation, in our world are feeling a deep sense of desperation about a situation out of control — whether it is in Ukraine, Israel, or Gaza or the inner cities and poverty stricken rural towns in our own country, or illness and grief in our own lives. 

We live in dark times. For far too many, the future is bleak.

Advent acknowledges the reality of the times in which we live. But the season also reminds us that we worship a God who has and will intervene to redeem life.

And so this Advent, we, like the people of Israel, pray that God will once again break into a world of hopelessness. We pray that God will once again intervene, and shine a light of peace, justice, and generosity into the darkest corners of our despair.

Consider, O God, we are all your people.

This Advent we wait and boldly trust that God will, indeed, appear again.


Pin It on Pinterest