During this season of Advent I have chosen to preach from passages found in the Book of Isaiah. While the first 39 chapters cover the life of the prophet Isaiah, the entire book spans a period of over 200 years. It is a combination of prose and poetry written as meditations on the destiny of Jerusalem as it resided within the shifting sands of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Writing about the destruction of Jerusalem, exile in Babylon, and finally restoration, these poets speak freely concerning the judgment and promises of God. From suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, the writers of Isaiah understand history through the intentionality of God. Why invite Isaiah into our Christmas preparations? Because no other Old Testament book has had more influence on the NT’s understanding of the coming of Jesus.
Isaiah 64 begins, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
When tragedy strikes often our response becomes, “Where is God?” Let’s face it, what good is God if God is non-responsive. Three weeks ago there was a community gathering to pray for the folks that had been murdered in a Baptist church outside of San Antonio. One minister stood in the pulpit and railed against the forces of evil that dared to challenge the sanctity of Sunday morning. Another prayed endlessly that God would step out of the heavens and place, “a protective shield over his beloved people.” More than one minister claimed Satan had taken over the land. Another vowed to arm himself so that this kind of tragedy would never happen in his congregation. I sat, listened, and eventually spoke, only adding more confusion to the mix.
Imagine if God responded to all our prayers? Everyone who spoke did so with great conviction. Every person who spoke is someone I know as a person of faith. Yet none of us were anywhere close to agreeing on what we were asking God to do. Furthermore while each prayer was given approval by passionate “Amens” from the congregation, no one seemed to be bothered that each prayer represented a vastly different mindset to an impossible dilemma.
Sometimes prayer becomes an instrument to placate our frustration. We pray, and then turn the problem over to God. This does more than just relieve us from our responsibility. It arrogantly demands God be guided by our emotions and perhaps even our intolerance. Then when nothing happens, God becomes the target of our anger.
This poetic response in Isaiah 64 does not give us that satisfaction. The complaint I hear most often by folks who don’t spend much time in the Old Testament is the “Jewish” God is vengeful and filled with anger. I think a more correct observation would be that the God we discover in the Old Testament is painfully honest. God stands behind the claim if we don’t lie, if we don’t steal, if we don’t commit adultery, if we don’t murder, if we care for the downtrodden, and if we challenge those who individually or systemically work against the well being of the community, then there is a possibility we might live in peace.
That is a very high, perhaps impossible standard that is certainly not universally accepted. The folks of Isaiah’s day who would point their fingers toward the east and say, “They started all the trouble.” Claiming to be innocent they would call on God fix the crisis. And the response of the Lord would come be, “The problem begins with you.” 2,500 years later that is still not the answer we want to hear.
This morning our bulletin was blessed, or cursed, depending on your perspective, with a call to confession written by Jill Duffield. You might remember Jill preached at Rockfish twice last June. She is an articulate person of faith who completely understands confession as the first step toward wholeness. Her prayer begins, “We hate violence,” and mimicking the poet of Isaiah her initial response is, “Come down here and fix this mess.” But then Jill makes the move that any Old Testament prophet would applaud. Instead of pointing the finger at others, Jill confesses, “We who trust Christ lay before you our failures.” That is so hard to hear. We want Jill to condemn the young men chanting vile phrases. We want her to place equal blame on the young folks pushing back from the other political spectrum. But Jill speaks only to us. She writes, “Silence in us any voice but yours. Then give us the courage to respond.”
Jill echoes the words of the poet who writes, “O God, you are the potter. We are the clay.” Once we establish our less than equal relationship with God, once we admit that our actions or lack thereof might be part of the problem, once we admit confession might be good for the soul, like that lifeless clay sitting on the wheel we are asked to wait. There is a distinctive reason for this. Before anyone listens, a whole lot of stuff has got to be unloaded.
The poet knows there is trouble. The poet is willing to acknowledge his responsibility for the mess. But the poet also dares to hint that God is equally guilty because he believes God has neglected Israel. The poet needs to release these words, these accusations, and this anger. We who bring a “modern perspective” to this discussion not only accuse God, but often dare to deny God’s existence. But the poet either cannot or will not make that leap. The accusation is spoken. The cancer that clouds his faith is released and then the poet reclaims his relationship with God. The poet cannot change the past. But now the clay can be molded to shape the future.
During this season of Advent we are called to sit in the juices of our own discontent and take a good long hard look at who we are.
We are called to look deep into our silent rage, perhaps even acknowledging our dissatisfaction with God.
Then, once our discontent and rage have been given the time and respect they deserve, we are asked to consider that we might not be the center of the universe.
Now the real waiting, and healing begins.
Come Lord Jesus.