For the first Sunday of Advent, I preached on Isaiah 64:1-9. Here is the sermon:
Happy New Year! That’s right. Happy New Year! Normally, we associate the first day of the year with Jan. 1, but that is for the secular calendar. The church liturgical year starts on a different date and is traditionally 4 Sundays before Christmas. This period of four weeks before Christmas is Advent, which means arrival, appearance, and emergence. We are not just waiting for Christmas, but for our Lord’s return as triumphant king.
In the reading from Isaiah, those who had returned to the Promised Land after the Babylonian Captivity were hoping and waiting for God’s appearance to deliver them from trouble. Life in the land was not as they had anticipated. They were not welcomed back with open arms. Those who had not been taken from the land resented the returnees’ sense of entitlement. The people were once again waiting and longing for God’s intervention on their behalf.
This passage sounds a lot like the psalms of lament, which are a great place to turn to when our hearts are heavy. Isaiah, on behalf of the people, cries out in misery and appeals for mercy. Our reading reflects the people's journey from desperation to their destiny as God's people.
Today's lesson begins and ends with a request. The opening request is, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...to make your name known to your adversaries” (vv. 1a, 2b). For the people of Israel, life is turned upside down. It is time for God to act in the prophet's here and now, so their appeal is to a cosmic, divine warrior who would go to battle for them.
This anguished cry is followed by Isaiah reminding God of what he has done for the people in the past. Think of all the times throughout Israel's history God had made appearances in the people's time of need: the incident of the burning bush in Moses' call and the Mt. Sinai appearances of God.
The resources of the faithful minority were exhausted. The bottom line of the prophet's appeal is to God's honor (v. 2). Of course, the people of Israel also wanted their enemies to get their comeuppance. Enemies would experience the terror of God's mountain-quaking, fiery presence (1b, 2a). That would get Israel's enemies off their back. However, as they were praying and hoping for a change in their adversaries, a change occurs in the lamenting community.
The mention of God's mountain quaking power reminds the people of Israel of God's previous interventions on their behalf. How God should deal with the people's enemies and the wrongs they've done, gives way to how God has cared for them through "awesome deeds" (v. 3). Funny things happen when we pray rather than retaliate.
The Israelites’ pondering of these things moves them to praising God for being the only God "who works for those who wait for him (v4). The people's praise honors the God who is turned toward humanity, who is in relationship with them and working on their behalf. They reaffirm God's sovereignty. The righteous are rewarded.
All is well for the righteous, but what should God do with the guilty? Like the spouse who "confesses" their cheating was due to their partner's failure, the people of Israel attribute their sin and their transgression to God’s anger and withdrawal. The accusation draws upon two key premises: 1. That good deeds derive from divine good ness, and 2. Without God, humans will sin. The lamenters next describe how sin has covered them as a community, contaminated their deeds, taken their energy and become their driving force. This compulsion to sin leads to a second confession and accusation: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (v. 7). The failure to seek God is attributed to God’s hiding; seeking is futile because God has left the guilty to the consequences of their own trespasses (Solvang).
Now the lamenters do what they said nobody does: they call upon God's name and attempt to take hold of God. When all hope seems lost and the divide between God and his people seems too wide to bridge, this confession is made, "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand" (v. 8). The people of Israel appeal to their historic relationship with God--"our Father" and "our potter."
Since God gathered and fashioned Israel as his own people, why should he destroy the work of his own hands? Ultimately, the light goes on and the people make the connection and make just one more request--that God's anger and memory of their guilt not last forever.
Today is not much different from Isaiah's time. We too, cry out with Isaiah for mighty acts of deliverance. That's a perfectly normal response to the craziness and pain we experience in the world surrounding us and those we love. Friends, colleagues, neighbors and family struggle to detect some glimmer of hope in a time of confusion, pain and darkness. The elderly battle chronic loneliness and health issues. Their adult children have their own problems and feel helpless to help their parents. Teenagers struggle with bullying and depression and some end their lives. Violence wracks our nation and the world: in Ferguson, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
In the season of Advent, however, we are reminded that God is not a "Cosmic Concierge" at our beckon call. We are deluded into thinking that every problem has a solution and that every question has an answer. The common understanding is, "There is a reason for everything." However, God does not always split open the heavens. The lesson that God is teaching us in this time of Advent runs contrary to the lifestyle of the 21st century. Everything today demands instant gratification. In the cosmic scheme of things, God is teaching us that not everything is gratified immediately. There are times in our lives that we simply must learn to sit, to be patient and to wait. Things will happen in God’s time.
So how do we handle this season of Advent, when things are bleak and God is not answering us in the time that we want? We need to set aside time for reflection and time for prayer. The tradition of the Advent wreath and the lighting of a new candle each week remind us that God is coming and our prayers will be answered. Over the next four weeks as we light the Advent candles and the light grows brighter, may our hearts grow stronger with the knowledge that the King of creation has heard us and will send his Son to comfort us and to wipe away our tears. Amen.
Samuel Giere, workingpreacher.org
HarperCollins Study Bible
Ralph W. Klein, "Studies on Old Testament Texts for Series B," Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
Russell Rathbun, "Begging for God's Presence”
Elma K. Solvang, workingpreacher.org