“Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways?” Isaiah 63:17
If your driving career began in the age of Siri, then you don’t know what it’s like to be lost.
I had occasion recently to fondly reminisce about the folded maps we used to carry in the glove box. They were about the size of a fitted sheet, and if you’re driving alone you had to drape it over the steering wheel. It was necessary! In those hazy, pre-satellite days, you could genuinely get to a point where you were completely lost. And if you couldn’t figure out where you were on the map, God forbid, you had to stop and ask someone for directions. Traveling was more exciting in those days. There was a genuine risk of getting lost.
Today, I really don’t bother learning the roads of a new city. Now I just punch in the address and follow the directions. I can literally be on the road somewhere, get a call from my wife who’s first and natural question is “where are you?” and reply, “I really don’t know.” So, we may never be lost but we really don’t know where we are. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.
On this first Sunday of Advent the theme is hope. We’re hoping for the coming of the Savior. Why? As Isaiah pointed out, we need to realize the ways we’ve wandered away from God’s path. In fact, it’s so important to remember our lostness that I’m not sure we can really appreciate the full depth and richness of Advent if we don’t realize we need to be found. Why would you need a Savior if you’re convinced you have nothing to be saved from?
This is certainly the reigning cultural mood. We don’t want anyone feeling bad or guilty. In fact, both of those terms are deemed too heavy and “labeling.” It’s actually a natural consequence of jettisoning the idea of objective, God-derived values. If we can make up our own rules, then we don’t have to worry about breaking them. And if we do break them, we simply reset the threshold.
In essence, we have a lot of people today hacking their way through the tall weeds, ignoring a clear path that has been prepared for them. Even more puzzling, they claim their path is just as good and helpful as the one laid out by God. They’ve exchanged a genuine solution for false freedom. They’re lost AND they don’t know where they are.
Could it be that we need a recovery of the idea of lostness in order to make real progress back to God? Of course! We need to understand the reality of sin, not to make us feel bad, but to help us understand who we are and where we can find help.
Hobart Mower served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1954. In 1960 he wrote “For several decades we psychologists looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and acclaimed our liberation from it as epoch making. But at length we have discovered that to be free in this sense, that is, to have the excuse of being sick rather than sinful, is to court the danger of also becoming lost… In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity, and with neurotics, themselves, we find ourselves asking: Who am I, what is my deepest destiny, what does living mean?” (Hobart Mowrer “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” American Psychologist, 15 (1960): 301-304)
What I propose is not something that will be either popular or marketable. We need to recover the idea that God can be angry. It’s in the Old Testament liturgical reading for the first Sunday of Advent. Isaiah clearly stated, “You were angry, and we sinned.” Now let’s please not treat God like He’s lost His temper and needs anger management classes. That’s pressing the imagery of God’s anger too far. It’s making it like our anger, and that’s not the biblical sensibility.
Think of God’s anger the same way parents think about the drugs that have addicted their son or daughter. Or how they think about the guy who sold the drugs to them. They’re angry. God is angry at sin because it can completely destroy His creation and His vision for each one of His children. That’s why we find references to God’s anger sprinkled throughout the Bible. God is genuinely and deeply angry at sin because sin is completely at odds with His love and purpose for us. God’s anger at sin is a consequence of His very nature. No, don’t reduce God to our fits and tempers, but don’t get rid of the ideas of sin and God’s opposition to it simply because we it’s scary and will make us feel bad.
This fear is where Advent finds its fullest purpose. Yes, we rightly feel our lostness, but every reminder of our need for a Savior is met with the richest and most beautiful response of mercy. God never wants us to sit in our feelings of lostness. He wants us to turn back to the path, back to Him.
The most appropriate first Sunday of Advent hymn is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It was written in a minor key, the key of sadness. It reminds us of our need to mourn, to be ransomed, to be brought back from exile. It reminds us that we were lost and that lostness still echoes. But it also reminds us of the Emmanuel, the “God with us” who came to save us and bring us back to Him.
Take some time this week to consider the ways you’ve wandered. Remember your need for a Savior Who came to bring us home. Let’s start with our need. Then, I believe, we’ll be all the more ready to receive Him in the weeks to come.
Dr. Terry Ellis
November 29, 2020