There’s a story behind why I couldn’t stand up to preach…in short, I had a case of vertigo and wasn’t physically capable of standing to deliver my sermon. So at the last minute my wife volunteered to do deliver it for me. She had heard me rehearsing it the night before and fortunately I had a manuscript of what I wanted to share. So she courageously stepped in and delivered this text that I had prepared for the first Sunday in Advent.
The primary Scripture was Isaiah 64:1-9, and I used the Common English Bible, which was crucial to illumine a couple of points that were made in the sermon.
So today begins a new church year as we kick off the season of Advent this morning. I’ve come to cherish Advent more and more as the years go by. It’s not that it is my favorite because it means Christmas is so close, which was likely what I felt growing up, but because, as I see it, Advent is the season that probably gives us the most honest assessment about the way things are in the world. At its best the season of Advent and its relationship to Christmas mirrors that of Lent and its relationship to Easter. Advent, for some time, had seven weeks (not four), and was designed to be a season of repentance, fasting and preparation for the great mass, or worship celebration, for Christmas. But it was and is also a season that prepares us for the second coming of Christ, when all things will be summed up and the new heaven and new earth are joined together at last.
Now, if we can learn to fully appreciate a season of anticipation, of expectation, and waiting and not rush to December 24-25 as we are so prone to do, then we will be able to really allow the sense of aching and hope to linger long enough for us to get genuinely thirsty for the coming of the Lord. For this reason, in recent years I have found myself drawn toward the words of the prophets who so frequently spoke as people in waiting, longing for God’s appearance, during the season of Advent.
Simon and Garfunkel quipped that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.” At the beginning of the song, they sang, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” Advent meets us in the darkness, in the silence. So do the prophets.
Polish-born Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel, who lost many family members because of the holocaust, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wrote what is in my mind the best summary work of the lives and writings of the prophets. Here are a few of his comments that I thought fit particularly well given the context and content of our passage from the prophet Isaiah from this morning:
• “This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible.”
• “Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.”
• “The prophet’s ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others. The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”
• “Instead of cursing the enemy, the prophets condemn their own nation.”
• “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…he begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
• “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”
There are many more that are worth quoting, but something Heschel challenges is the notion that has gotten in some of our minds that prophecy has to do with a distant, impersonal, implacable God who serves as judge and who uses these obscure persons to serve as a sort of mouthpiece, which renders the work of the prophet as a mere technical function. Heschel wrote, “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God,” and that what is behind the message of the prophets isn’t merely an emotionally detached discussion about justice, but is rather the pathos, or feeling, of God with regard to the events of the world and the behaviors of God’s people. Heschel continued, “it is more accurate to see the prophets as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice. Divine concern remembered in sympathy is the stuff of which prophecy is made.” Indeed, “God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement…The God of Israel is never impersonal.” If this is true – if God is so concerned with the plight of the people and passionate about the cause of justice and at the same time is all-powerful – then the question that rises to the surface is, what is behind the complaint of Isaiah this morning, “if only…” or “why haven’t you torn open the heavens and come down? All would be settled, mountains would quake, enemies would flee or at least tremble.”
It comes as a cry from a people who have experienced the redeeming power of a God who overtook oppressing enemies to make things right. So where is this God? Heschel said, “in a stricken hour comes the word of the prophet. There is tension between God and [humans]. In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.” So Isaiah reminds God of the former deliverance that the Lord procured for his people. “From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” That was the distinguishing mark of the God of Israel: patience and deliberative involvement in acting for those who wait on God. As far as the prophet could tell, there weren’t any other gods who were patient or longsuffering. And this has been evidenced in cultures throughout history as the greatness of a god was directly related to the greatness of the king and his army. When the people of a god were conquered, that god would disappear and usually the survivors wouldn’t hesitate to wreck the images of the gods in whom they had previously trusted.
So in a stricken hour, will we wait on the Lord? I don’t mean sitting down twiddling our thumbs. Nor did Isaiah. John Oswalt said it well when he wrote, “biblically speaking, ‘to wait’ is to manifest the kind of trust that is willing to commit itself to God over the long haul. It is to continue to believe and expect when all others have given up. It is to believe that it is better for something to happen in God’s time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time.” It is an active type of waiting that seeks to live rightly with relation to God and neighbor.
To get there we have to come to grips with something about ourselves that is really quite difficult, and this is the part no one really enjoys preaching or hearing about. But it’s something that is absolutely necessary and is evidenced in what Isaiah admits about the behaviors and attitudes of the people – sinning and doing wrong, being unclean – to such a degree that all our righteous deeds have become like filthy cloths, or as you heard it read this morning, a menstrual rag.
I didn’t read this version to gross you out, but there is something in this statement that illumines our own brokenness as we approach the God of compassionate mercy and justice. You see “sin” is like a contaminant that infects the whole body and it had become such a problem among the people of God that it infected even those things that we would typically deem as righteous acts. Even those had been contaminated to such a degree that the works weren’t signs of new life coming, but of the lack of conception (hence, “menstrual rag”), because all they do is self-serving and self-enhancing. They’d become a charade of the real thing.
Okay, I think I’m done with that analogy for the day. I suspect my email inbox will be filled with many messages from parents letting me know their children will be coming to ask me some questions that came up because of today’s Scripture.
Now let’s get really uncomfortable and see where this passage really addresses the darkness that remains in our world – Ferguson. What is the response of the people of God to the tragic death of Michael Brown and the events that have unfolded there and elsewhere since? Chances are when I simply mentioned the name of the town just now, there were several different internal reactions and emotions among the people in this congregation. Yet let us be honest that while our political ideologies and opinions on this and related problems are various within this church, we are nonetheless a rather affluent congregation comprised primarily of white people.
We also ought to recognize that systemic injustice still exists despite our lofty dreams and naïve ideas that we have somehow arrived at a utopian society where all are equal. It is true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than white men. And if that causes us to shrug our shoulders in apathy, then we are not in tune with the God of justice. If we think it’s no big deal, we are tone deaf to the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote from a prison cell that, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we are numb to the reality of privilege and of the responsibility that comes along with it, then we are a far cry from our movement’s founder John Wesley, whose last letter was written to encourage William Wilberforce to persevere in his cause of championing the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. If we remain apathetic, or even worse hold onto prejudices and fear of others because of the color of their skin, then we will be like the people for whom Isaiah and the prophets wept because they did not call on the name of the God of justice.
If only…if only you would come, God, Emmanuel. The cry of Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas, it is really the final cry of the New Testament in the Revelation. “Maranatha! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” If only you would come; I mean fully and really come all this would be reconciled. No more death, no more need for protests or riots, no more destruction, just the fulfillment of all our hope – a place of eternal shalom!
But as we cry, “Maranatha!” let us at the very least be the people who actively wait. And that involves listening – for God, to our neighbors – for they have a story to tell and experiences to share that are often very different than our own. Are we willing to be clay in the potter’s hands in this season? Take us, mold us, use us.
To close this morning, I want to share with you a blessing adapted from a Benedictine prayer. It’s not any normal blessing, though; it is one that carries with it a challenge to be a prophetic witness in a world that doesn’t often care much for the prophets. So here goes:
May the Spirit bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.
In the name of the Father whose pathos, love and compassion burned hot for the people of God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God; and of the Son, who didn’t consider his privilege as something to use for his own gain but emptied himself to become human and really the lowest of the sorts—a slave; and of the Holy Spirit, who with open arms embraces us and welcomes us into the holy mystery of being the children of God. Amen.