Advent 1B Becoming the Answer

Douglas Adams wrote hysterical science fiction, the humor of which sometimes hid gems of insights into the human condition. In his “Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe” series he told the story of how a society built a computer with a massive amount of calculating power, and named it “Deep Thought.” The single task they put before it was to provide the all purpose answer to THE QUESTION—you know—“the question of life, the universe, and everything.”

“Can you do it, oh Deep Thought?”

“Tricky, but yes,” came the answer. “But it will take a while.”

“How much of a “while?”

It turns out it was a very, very long while. 7.3 million years, to be exact. But, the big day did come, throngs of people gathered, and to immense fanfare the answer was given. Hold your breath: 42.

Of course the waiting throngs, and the greatest minds of the time were thrown for a loop. What could that simple answer of 42 mean?

Deep Thought replied, “Do you understand the question? It’s obvious that you don’t understand the question, so how can you possibly understand the answer.

Of course Deep Thought was asked if he could help the people understand the question, but it would be tricky, last a long time, and he would have to consult an even more powerful computer.

This first Sunday of Advent, and the first Sunday of our new Church Year, our biblical authors stand beside us as our troubled times urges us to look for Big Answers to Bigger Questions.

In the short space of our first reading this Sunday, the first nine verses of Isaiah 64, the ancient prophet demonstrates the thinking process we all must go through. He starts with a cry of desperation: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

The prophet looks for a direct show of power, as God had shown on Sinai—a bit of fire and judgment, devouring the unrighteous and exalting the virtuous. That’s what’s needed. An all-purpose answer to our questions—an all purpose solution to our problems.

But soon he realizes what he is asking for. He realizes that it’s not just the “adversaries” and the “nations” that deserve the fire—it is not just them, but us.

6We 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.

7There is no one who calls on your name,

or attempts to take hold of you…

Then the prophet changes his tune: “I thought we needed tearing and the fire of judgment—we need the black and white of holy righteousness to be applied.” But after he considers that his people and he haven’t exactly lived on the right side of the divide, he adds this:

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

and do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

The Gospel of Mark, which we will follow through this new Church Year, will give us tearing—but of a far different sort: The heavens are torn open as the Father commissions Jesus for his mission of healing and mercy at his baptism. Later, as Jesus gives himself in a climactic act of exorcism and dies, the curtain of the Temple that separates the Holy of Holies from the people is torn from top to bottom and a hated gentile recognizes that Jesus is truly the Son of God.

But before that Jesus teaches, in our Gospel reading for this day in Mark 13:24-37 that there will indeed be a tearing of the sky and a great reckoning. But the judging will be done by the Son of Man who we already see before us touching the impure, breaking through the false barriers, and calling us all to a compassionate Father for forgiveness. The Son of Man who tears open the heavens and comes is the one who has taken up his cross.

Each election I mark my ballot and say a little prayer that the Lord would tear open the heavens and stuff the ballot boxes for the candidates I think will put our government back on the right track, and solve our problems. Thank you God that you haven’t harkened to my will. Each candidate, no matter of which party, has feet of clay. I do not understand the question I’m putting to God. How can I understand the answer, when God disappoints me yet again?

So, instead of stuffing the ballot box in favor of my party or policies, the Jesus Christ says, “I have not only given you the answer—I’ve made you the answer: “I’ve carried the cross. Now take up your cross and follow me.”

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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