A Longing Heart isn't All Bad
The Church's New Year begins today with the First Sunday in Advent. At the start of a new year one's thoughts are naturally filled with expectation, a longing that things would be different this year from last. A longing heart is popularly thought of as Bette Miller sang, "an endless, aching need," or as Bruce Springstein sang, "a hungry heart," or as the novelist described it "a Lonely Hunter." This longingness that poets, musicians, romantics, and thinkers of all times have always noted isn't all bad...but it can be.
There is a real note of longing in Advent. Can you hear it? It's in the Bible readings, isn't it? "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!" moans Isaiah. He admits that Israel is nothing but an unclean, filthy, sinful mess with no one calling on God's name, with no one striving to lay hold of Him, yet Isaiah longs for his Father-God to reshape them. In the Epistle reading Paul notes that the Corinthians "eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." In the Introit, we spoke of lifting up our soul to God, trusting in Him, begging Him not to allow our trust to be put to shame, longing for Him to cause us to triumph over our enemies.
The Advent liturgy is marked by longing. We long for the Lord to stir up Himself to action in the Collect. We implore Him to at long last come for us. And surely you can't miss the longing, almost painful at times, found in the Advent hymns. How plaintive the strains of "Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel" are as we long for Christ to ransom captive Israel, to deliver us from every foe, to bring us in victory through the grave. Our hymn of the month identifies Jesus as the "Joy of every longing heart." Our sermon hymn depicts us "groaning under sin's dread rod." It speaks of languishing many a day under guilt and having, therefore, a pinning sadness. The hymn we will close with also has this note of longing, languishing, and lamenting speaking of Christ as "What the fathers most desired," and as "What they longed for many a year."
There is a sharp note of longing in this season of Advent, and it corresponds to one we have in our hearts. Those of you with sick relatives long for them to be better. Those of you with rocky marriages long for them to be smoother. Those of you with troubled children long for them to be at peace. Those of you with heavy jobs long for them to be lighter. Those of you who are lonely long for companionship. All of us have this longing for things to be put right, whole, or well.
The notes of longing are sharp and long in the fallen human heart. They reflect that ever since we were kicked out of the Garden things haven't been right. We long to get back to the Garden even as they sang at the first Woodstock festival in 1969. We have that "emptiness deep inside" that Neil Diamond sang about that though we try it will never let us go. The danger, the thing to be on guard against in these last days is finding an earthly relief to this heavenly aching, to find fulfillment from that "emptiness deep inside" apart from God.
Make no mistakes; such fulfillment is out there, waived in front of your nose, danced in front of your eyes on a regular basis. Popular culture in this and every other era is designed, it would be better to say, arises from what holes and aches people need filling at the time. Let me put this another way. Insurance companies all market their products based on security because we all feel insecure. Health tablets, supplements, workouts, and diets are the rage because we all feel the Grim Reaper stalking us in every grey hair and wrinkle we find and every medical test and study we're confronted with. It is because everyone knows as Isaiah 59 declares that our iniquities have separated us from God that almost all TV and most movies focus on mending broken relationships.
But friends, though you have the best insurance policies and retirement plans available, there is none of the true security in them that you crave. If you think there is, then you of course are an idolater. Likewise if you think your good blood pressure, fat ratio, cholesterol count, or doctor's report can fill the longing for everlasting life, then you are a fool, and this very night your soul might be required of you. And if you think your need for a restored relationship with God can be met by restoring relationships with people, you're going to be awful surprised when you find that having a good relationship with others doesn't get you a restored relationship with God.
Don't be fooled by what popular culture says will answer the longing of your heart. The time to especially be on guard is Christmas. A "good" Christmas is dangled before people as the be all and end all of happiness and fulfillment. A "good" Christmas is the holy grail of popular culture. If you just achieve this at year's end, that's a good start to the coming year. Don't tell me you haven't felt this burden before. Don't tell me you haven't ran yourself ragged trying to get just the right gifts, just the right decorations, just the right things for a "good" Christmas. Don't tell me you haven't been crushed when fighting erupted during the gift opening or arguing at the big meal putting your good Christmas in doubt.
Yes, as long as Rudolph is able to guide the sleigh, Frosty doesn't melt, the Grinch gives back Christmas, Tiny Tim doesn't die, and your Christmas is "good" everything is really all right in the world. Beware, beware, what the world is really selling this time of year. It's not "Joy TO the World" but Joy IN the world, not peace ON earth, but peace WITH the earth, not good will TO men from God but good will WITH your fellow man regardless of his god.
Our hearts do ache so, do long so, do pine so for filling, for healing, for living that we can be filled, healed and enlivened by what the world offers. But dear friends, our Lord has told us plainly: Friendship with the world is not just bad, it's DEATH! If we find our joy IN this world we will miss the Joy who came into this world. If we make our peace WITH the earth, we can have no peace with our God. If we think good will with others is really what we lack, we'll think lightly of God's good will towards us in Christ.
There is danger in thinking that our Advent longing can be answered by the earthly season of Christmas. It's the danger referred to in Hebrews 11. There we read concerning Able, Noah, and Abraham that they looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. Then it says, "If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return." Friend, if we think our heavenly longing can be answered by earthly things, we will find that we have many opportunities to do just that. The only problem is that eventually we will find that earthly things can't really fill our emptiness.
Folks we are to expect fulfillment only through God. He alone is the answer to the longing heart. This is the point of the Gospel reading saying repeatedly we are to watch. We are to be looking for the answer to our emptiness in Christ; we are not to think we've found the answer in this life. If you cease to watch, cease to long, you're content. But woe to him or her who is content with what cannot really fill. He or she is then like the Psalm describes the Israelites longing for food in the wilderness: God fed their bodies but sent leanness into their souls.
Friends, don't be content with anything less than God tearing open the heavens and coming down personally. Don't be content with Christmas being about a homeless couple needing shelter. Don't be content with a Christmas that has nothing more miraculous than flying reindeer and a fat guy in a red suit being able to fit down a 24 x 36 inch chimney. Don't be content with an earthly peace between the Grinch and Whoville. Crave, long, ache for what Scripture says did happen. God took on flesh and dwelled among us. All of the fullness of the Godhead was placed into the womb of a woman. God stepped into His creation in order to save us creatures from certain damnation. The God who was an eternity away from us because of our sins stepped into time to bring us to Himself.
Don't be content with the mended earthly relationships that Christmas specials revel in as if there is no broken relationship with God that humans have to deal with. Don't think that everything is solved when Mother and daughter get back together or father and son can at last embrace as Christmas specials depict.
What does Jesus tell us? That His coming into the world would fracture some relationships. He says, "I have a come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." Jesus didn't come into this world to make everything warm and fuzzy in your family, at work, or in school. He came into this world to right, to restore, to recreate your relationship with God for all eternity..
Christmas is about the dividing wall between us and God which our sins built thick and heavy being torn down. Don't be satisfied when you see people hugging and families restored at Christmas. That's great, but it's not enough. God has something better, fuller, richer for sinners. God wants to dwell in peace with sinners. He says, "Look I've put all of your sins on My Son and He has carried them away. They're not between you and Me now or ever again." Christmas isn't the joy of peace between people or nations; it's the joy of peace between God and Man for the sake of the God-Man in the manger. Christmas is the peace of knowing that though you are a sinner; God has put away His wrath towards you for Christ's sake and He is doing nothing but smiling on you in Him.
Don't let down your guard this Christmas. Don't think that it is enough if you are healthy, trim, and have good medical numbers. God didn't take on flesh and blood to rescue us from experiencing the First Death. No, it is appointed for all of us to die once says Hebrews. None of us will forever be able to stay one step ahead of the Grime Reaper, so don't be content with promises that you can. Don't be content with Frosty not melting and Tiny Tim not dying. Crave, long, or ache for no more death at all. That's what God took on flesh and blood to achieve. He became a Man not just to live our life but to swallow our death.
Friends, don't be content with a body that might live old and wrinkled for 100 years. Long for the perfect body that can never die again. Don't find fulfillment in promising new treatments for heart disease and cancer; look for your Jesus who brings new hearts and bodies that cannot get cancer. Don't find satisfaction in new technologies or new medicines that lengthen the life span; watch for Him who will bring you into the world without end.
We will watch all the way till Christ arrives because our hearts can only be satisfied by Him. They are forever on edge, aching, longing until our Christ arrives and fulfills in time what He has already fulfilled in eternity. When that takes place,THEN we will cease to watch because no one watches for what has arrived. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (11/28/99) Is. 64:1,2