a sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 for the First Sunday of Advent
preached on November 27, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The people of Israel knew what it was like for God to come down and meet them. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, God had intervened in their history many times, guiding them away from the danger of the Egyptians, through the waters of the sea, and onto dry land; shaking the foundations of their lives to give them the gift of the law to guide their life together; and stepping in to show them a new way when they faced the power of their enemies. God was the only god that they had known – “no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you,” as Isaiah put it.
But now something had happened, and God was not quite so present anymore. The people were in exile, longing to return home. Their land lay in ruins, torn apart by centuries of attacks from within and without. According to the prophet, the people had forgotten God and gone another way, becoming unclean like the filthiest, nastiest rags. Nothing was going right for them anymore, and things were just a complete mess.
So it was time for something new. It was time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It was time.
Our world seems to be very much like ancient Israel sometimes. Not only is that tiny stretch of holy land still the focus of great war and conflict in our day, we too wonder why God doesn’t seem to be as involved in things as God used to be. We too can look back and see marks of God’s presence in the past – in a less complicated, less busy world where it was easier to set aside the time we need for spiritual and religious things; in a seemingly stronger, more vibrant church where the pews were full and challenges absent; in a world that didn’t seem to have so many dangers and complications that strike at the core of our humanity; even in the little things of life and living where God’s face has emerged through the haze of our world over the years.
But we too face an uncertain and unknown day, a time mostly of our own making, a place where the presence of God feels distant. Our celebration of the birth of God’s son at Christmas has devolved into a competition for the best gifts and cheapest prices at the expense of the humanity of others and ourselves, as we have seen so clearly over the course of these past few days. The institutions of our society struggle more and more to be relevant to the new and different lives of people in our changing world. Our economy seems to be stuck in neutral for so many of us – and even jammed permanently into reverse for the least of these among us. And yet our indomitable American spirit makes us think that we can take care of ourselves and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps out of the mess we face. Nothing seems to be going right anymore, and things are just a complete mess.
It is time for something new. It is time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.
The prophet’s response to the great laments of his age wasn’t all that comforting. First he reminds the people of the fleeting nature of life: “We all fade like a leaf,” he proclaims. Then he suggests that everyone has given up on God and any chance of God’s intervention – and God has given up too: “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.”
But he doesn’t leave it there. Isaiah says that God hasn’t completely given up, that God is still working on the people like a potter shaping her clay, gently but firmly reshaping the people into something new, just in time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.
We can stand to hear something like Isaiah’s words in these days. Like the fleeting leaves of the prophet, none of us will be around forever, and eventually things will be different because we’ll be out of the picture. Like the people of Israel, we too have often turned away from God and claimed that we can do it on our own. And yet God’s presence is still with us too, molding us and shaping us like clay in the hands of a master potter, correcting us where we have gone wrong, preparing us for the great and new thing ahead.
It is from this place where we begin our journey toward Christmas – not from the manic lines and crowds of the holiday shopping season, not from the bulging feast of our Thanksgiving tables, not from the crazy busyness that marks these days between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th, not in the songs that repeat the platitudes of the holidays over and over again, not in gifts or any things that too often carry the day.
No, my friends, we begin our journey toward Christmas with a longing for something real and whole and new, a heartfelt cry to God for things to change once and for all, not just a change in things for the better for one or two of us or the one percent or even the ninety-nine percent, but a new way of life for all of us, where the heavens break open and God comes down and cleans up the mess and starts things over again. My friends, it’s time.
This way of approaching this season is what it means to celebrate Advent, to make a space for this time in our lives and our hearts for the coming of Jesus into our world, to prepare the way for God’s new thing by putting aside the certainty that we can handle things on our own, to keep awake and be ready for the time when God’s presence will transform us and our world, to make sure that we are longing not just for a baby boy born two thousand years ago but also for the time when he will return in power and glory to make things whole once and for all.
And so it is time for us to do radical things in these days – small but radical things amidst our world. We light candles to show the promise of God’s light shining through the darkness. We sing strange hymns that talk about waiting and longing and hope and promise. We pray quietly and hopefully for the time when something new will break into our world. And we keep being as faithful as we can together, showing God’s claim upon us and our world in baptism as we do today with Eve and never forgetting to let our world know the reality of God’s love as best we can.
And so, my friends, it is time – time for us to set aside the trappings of the holidays in favor of preparing for something radically new, time for us to trust that God will not leave us to our own devices along the way, time for us to clear out what we must so that we can be as faithful as we are called to be, time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.