Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 1B

Isaiah 64:1–9, Mark 13:24–37




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


A growing sense of imminent doom has come over the land. Houses of worship have been desecrated. Threats, deep divisions, and power struggles have erupted among the people. The nation has experienced one disaster after another. An overwhelming sense of lostness has gripped so many. Life seems very, very fragile. Those long established feel threatened by new arrivals. A battle for the soul of the nation is raging. People of faith struggle not to give in to hopelessness and despair. They are wondering where God is in all this. Many are struggling with an overwhelming sense of God’s absence. It is obvious that people have brought much of their condition upon themselves. Nonetheless, people of faith are filled with a strong desire for God to intervene.


I deliberately tried to make this opening description sound like I was referring to our current situation in our nation. But it is actually a description of what the people of God were experiencing in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel following the return of the exiles from Babylon. In a stroke of enlightened leadership Cyrus of Persia had allowed the exiled people of God to return to their homeland. That return, however, had been painful. Many of the exiles had visions of Israel returning to its former greatness and glory. But when they saw the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins, reality set in. Israel would not be made great again any time soon. Furthermore, it was going to take time to get the returning exiles on the same page with those who had not gone into exile. Internal divisions threatened to derail any attempt to rebuild the nation.


Our lesson for today is part of a communal lament, very likely written in post-exilic Israel. Laments are common in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Psalms. Laments express what we often think of as negative feelings: sorrow, bitterness, anger, confusion, despair, suffering, fear, and the like. I once counted the number of laments in the Psalms. About 60 out of the 150 Psalms are lament Psalms. It often seems like we avoid sharing our negative feelings with God. It is as if we believe that good Christians talk nicely to God. The Psalmists had no qualms about sharing whatever was on their hearts and minds with God. Whether things we were going well or not so well, they turned to God and spoke freely. They must have thought the God who created all things and led the Israelites of out slavery could handle hearing their heartfelt cries. The Psalmists willingness to share all that was on their hearts and minds was a sign of their dynamic, real relationship with God. Psalm 13 is a classic lament Psalm. It begins: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Like many laments Psalm 13 concludes with an affirmation of trust in God: “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” The Psalmist’s trust in God’s steadfast love frees him to lament to God.


A communal lament, such as the one our lesson is part of, often describes the beleaguered state of a community of faith. A communal lament will also usually include an appeal for God to step in and save or redeem God’s people. Our lesson begins with such a fervent appeal: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as 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!” In addition, this communal lament includes a confession of the depth of their sin and iniquity: “We 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.” But in verses 5 and 7 they seem to blame God for their sin: “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed . . . for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Certainly these verses could be interpreted as blaming God. However, there is a another way to look at them— they could be interpreted as an admission of their inability to walk in the ways of the Lord apart from God’s presence. They are pleading with God to make God’s presence known to them. They are pleading with God to shape them as people of faith and as a community of faith just as a potter shapes and forms clay.


In recent months I have heard a number of people both in St. Andrew and in the larger community express a sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues and crises we face in our nation. Many, if not all, recognize that we have brought much of this adversity upon ourselves. People of faith know human beings are not going to overcome this adversity simply on our own, apart from God’s presence.


Traditionally Advent has been viewed as a season of preparation for celebrating the birth of the Christ child. Christ’s birth reveals that God is with us. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the shepherds and the angels we will take to heart the good news of great joy for all the people.


I assume that none of us want to be identified with the Grinch who stole Christmas. But our lesson from Isaiah 64 can be interpreted as encouragement not to jump too quickly to Christmas, but to take time to lament during this Advent season. In our conversations with God we are free to unburden our hearts of all that pains them; we are free to name our fears, our sorrows, our bitterness, our anger, our confusion, our suffering— whatever is actually on our hearts and minds. Advent season is a season to acknowledge who we are. We do not have to be nice to God. We do not have to pretend we are someone who we are not. We are free to confess all our sins and shortcomings. We do not have to hide that we may be struggling with an overwhelming sense of God’s absence.


Isaiah 64 does not include a concluding affirmation of trust in God’s steadfast love as many typical laments do. Notice, however, that the act of lamenting in itself is an expression of trust in God. When the Psalmists were going through difficult times, they turned to God. In the communal lament in Isaiah, despite being troubled by an overwhelming sense of God’s absence, the prophet Isaiah and the people of Israel turned to God and gave voice to what they were experiencing.


They wanted God to come soon in a dramatic way and set things right. But they also realized that they needed to wait for the Lord. As Jesus explained to his disciples, no one knows when the Lord will come, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In the Hebrew mind waiting is not simply a passive posture. Waiting and hoping are all part of the same concept. The people of God are not called to wait passively. They are to wait with hope-filled anticipation for God to act decisively. They are to be attentive to what God is up to and to name it and participate in it as best as they are able.


This week North Korea engaged in another missile test. It is extremely troubling how Kim Jong-un and President Trump have been talking about using nuclear weapons. It is not clear that either of them understands how horrifying the use of nuclear weapons would be. It is deeply unsettling how some military and political experts are saying that war is almost inevitable. In a moment we will be singing “Come Now, O Prince of Peace.” If there ever was a time to lament and pray “Come Now, O Prince of Peace,” this is it. It is not a time to wait passively. We may not know exactly what to do. But doing nothing is not an option for those who wait for the Prince of Peace. Advent is a time to act for peace.


On Tuesday evening we had over sixty people show up for the second Sanctuary Forum, over half from the community. Two Dreamers were on the panel, Monica and Luis. Monica had quite a contingent with her from her workplace. Lloyd Meyer had heard Monica speak at a Toastmasters’ meeting and had invited her to our forum. Scott Taylor had met Luis at the swimming pool and invited him. It was moving, even heart-wrenching, to hear them tell their stories and to share how the uncertainty about their DACA status is impacting them. In the second verse of the “Hymn of the Day” we will sing “Come now, O God of love.” If there ever was a time to lament and pray “Come now, O God of love,” this is it. It would be hard for anyone who attended the forum on Tuesday to be comfortable waiting passively. Doing nothing is not an option for those who wait for the God of love. Advent is a time to act for love.


The theme of our Advent Evening Prayer services is “Waking Up to God’s Call to Justice.” We will hear meditations on waking up to God’s call to racial justice, ecological justice, and immigrant justice. Seeking racial justice, ecological justice, and immigrant justice can truly feel overwhelming. If there ever was a time to lament and pray “Come now, O God of justice,” this is it. It is not a time to wait passively. Doing nothing is not an option for those who wait for the God of justice. Advent is a time to act for justice.


As we begin this Advent season, be assured that those who lament and pray “Come now, O Prince of Peace,” “Come now, O God of love,” and “Come Now, O God of justice” and who act for peace, love, and justice will be well-prepared on Christmas to celebrate the good news that God is with us.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.