Sermon :: December 3, 2017 :: Advent 1 B
1O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
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;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
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.
This Advent, we’re going to be spending some time in Isaiah. This might seem a little weird (which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be very out of character for me), but Isaiah plays a huge part in the church year. It is sometimes called the 5th gospel because of how big a role it plays in how people eventually thought about Jesus. It quoted or referenced at least 85 times in the New Testament by Jesus, Paul, and even in Revelation. We read Isaiah every week during Advent this year, so we’re going to be dwelling in the Old Testament a bit. It’s very intentional and we’re going to be doing a few things: We’re going to look at Isaiah itself, we’re going to take a look at what Isaiah meant for Jesus (or those that followed him), and we’re going to see what Isaiah is telling us about God today.
Before we dive into chapter 64, there are a few notes that you’ll want to know. Isaiah is traditionally split into 3 major sections based on where the people are who are reading it. The first section is the section which was written before the people were taken into exile by the Babylonians. This part is usually focused on sins and punishment. The second section is written many years later when the people are in exile (the punishment talked about in the first section). This section is full of hope and forgiveness as God tells the people that they will soon return home. The third section, which this week’s Isaiah passage comes from, is written when the people are back in Jerusalem. This section is typically full of conversation between God and Israel as well as a lot of passages about how to make sure they live in the ways of God to avoid this level of punishment again. Okay? I promise, the rest of the sermon won’t be like this. I just wanted to let you know what you’re in for.
I love ceramics, especially when the clay is molded into the form of a coffee mug. But the thing about ceramics is that the clay has to go through a lot in order to be made into such a useful vessel of warm, caffeinated goodness. First the clay is shaped, and often reshaped, before being put in a blazing hot furnace, before it hardens. The clay undergoes a lot of stress before it comes out ready to be use.
The Israelite people certainly know what that is like. They had just been taken as prisoners of war, forced to live in a foreign country for a few generations, and now they’re coming back to Jerusalem. But the city of their dreams did not end up being what they expected. When they came back, they found that people had moved into their houses, that they were still a vassal kingdom of a new imperial super power (the Persians), and that all of the problems that existed before they were taken into Exile still remained. They were home, after all this, and they were angry. So the prophet relays their complain to God in this reading.
They’ve trusted God but they don’t feel like God has lived up to God’s end of the bargain. They had big expectations for their homecoming, but now they’re disappointed. They’ve trusted God, and they’ll continue to trust God, but they don’t understand why things can’t just be fixed, why they can’t be back to the way they hoped it would be.
This, I believe, is something we can all relate to. Especially with this season of holiday get-togethers, it’s easy to become disappointed or frustrated. Because, we much as we want things to be perfect, things rarely are. We get frustrated and we wonder why God can’t just take it all away.
But here’s the thing. God doesn’t take all our pain and sadness away. This time of the year, Advent, is actually about waiting for the opposite. Instead of waiting for God to take everything away, we’re actually waiting for God to enter into our lives, enter into our pain and suffering, joy and laughter, struggles, defeats, and victories. Instead of escaping from all that breaks our hearts, we find that God is actually entering into our lives with us. That, sisters and brothers, is good news. God does that through the one that would eventually be called Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ.
And I love that, in their complaint to God, the Israelites use references to clay and a potter. They trust that God is a good potter, that God is still forming and molding them, and they’re willing to wait. This trust, ending in in the declaration that “we are all your people”, is a radical understanding of waiting in faith. They are waiting for the potter to finish, just as we are all waiting for the potter to finish. And, when it’s done, when the clay is ready to use, we see something beautiful.
When a potter is working with clay, every inch of the cup or bowl or vase is touched and known by the potter. Every bump and ridge, every fold and curve is known and guided by the potter. And all the clay can do it wait and trust. All the clay can do is be formed.
We are also experiencing this trusting and waiting as we wait in this season of Advent. We are waiting, trusting that God is coming enfleshed and entering into our lives with us. We are waiting, trusting that God is not coming with punishing fire and thunder, but with the cries of a newborn infant.
And this new infant comes for you. He comes to bring love and grace, the unearned gift of God. He comes and stakes his claim with the poor, hungry, and the grieving. God is coming, but shows power through vulnerability and love through suffering.
When we, like the Israelites, cry out in frustration and anger, shouting, “Where are you God? We need you.” We find God not in thunder, but in a manger and on a cross. We are the clay, all of creation is the clay, and so we trust that the potter, the Creator, Redeemer, and Inspirer of the cosmos is creating something beautiful. Just wait. Please wait. Amen.