November 29, 2020
On this first Sunday in Advent it is not surprising that for our second reading we hear from the prophet Isaiah. What is surprising, perhaps… is that our reading today is a lament. Coming off of Thanksgiving, perhaps a lament isn’t what we want to hear right now. Maybe it would be better for us to hear a word or two about gratitude… or some other positive word now that we’ve entered into the holiday season. That’s likely more where our hearts want to be. In fact, reading a lament this morning maybe shows how out of step the church is during the holiday season officially kicked off by Thanksgiving especially as we’re trying to have everything as normal as possible… all the holiday traditions that we’re used to having. The radio stations have switched over to 24/7 Christmas music… and yeah, I’m listening to it… listened to it on the way in this morning trying to lift my spirits with their familiar visions of Christmas in America. The stores are trying to decorate and fill the shelves. They’re doing their best with all the sales and commercials that are supposed to be trying evoke a little of that Christmas magic even during a pandemic.
If we’re being honest with ourselves… the Advent season never fit well into the post-Thanksgiving holiday season anyway… what with its introspection and talking about the God who is to come… not just the child at Christmas… but the God who is coming in our future… and all the futures of those who came before us.
Still… how much of this holiday season are you finding is falling flat? Somehow our consumer Christmas season is feeling a bit thin this year… thinner than usual… as we’re supposed to be holly and jolly in an uncertain time. What’s become the usual holiday season… this veneer that we trot out every year… works best when things are reasonably good… when our problems are just the normal life stuff… when there is some money in our pocket and everyone is in reasonably good health. But with uncertainty and… again to be honest, real lament… the usual holiday season doesn’t have enough substance to lift our hearts… to take our lives seriously… to move us outside of going through the regular motions of seeing that all the usual things are done. I can’t seem to give it much heart at the moment.
Thanksgiving this year… while we still celebrated around smaller tables with the familiar foods… it was lacking. Not the food. The food was great said the man who cooked little and was thankful for those who did the bulk of the cooking on Thursday. Even while we did our best with what the times required… there was still something lacking. Now I know some forged ahead… pandemic be damned… and I pray for all those large get togethers that they do stay safe in the days and weeks to come… I pray for that large segment of my own extended family who met like nothing else was happening… I pray that none of them find themselves in the hospital over Christmas time… that they don’t become a point of contagion for others. I pray that no one dies because of the choices that were made. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t want any of them to come to harm. Because we know… we know numbers don’t lie… that not all families will be so lucky in the days ahead. While some will go through this whole pandemic unscathed… the coronavirus will not even get close to them… others will not… others will have their whole world undone. Over 250,000 and their loved ones have already had this experience.
So… on this first Sunday in Advent… through the prophet Isaiah we lament wondering where is God and what is God going to do next. Will God even do something next? Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Isaiah 64:1-9
In our last Zoom Bible study we took a quick look at the prophet Amos. Amos spoke to the people in the northern kingdom of Israel before the Assyrians came and destroyed the kingdom taking the people into exile. Amos spoke to the leaders of Israel during a time of prosperity when even the thought of their downfall was inconceivable. He spoke against the rich who prospered by rigging the system in their favor… who made their money by cheating the people… who made their wealth by promoting unfair debt practices that moved wealth from the larger numbers of the poor and working farmers into their own coffers. Seizing land and making sure others would never be out of debt, what money they could make going up the economic ladder while they struggled to survive there at its lowest rungs. The rich of Israel sought to soothe their conscience by holding grand religious spectacles in the different high places of the northern kingdom. The high priest likely gave messages that justified their wealth… that told them how their wealth and the prosperity that was happening in… well, at least some sectors of Israel… were a sign of God’s blessings upon them. In good times, the veneer of the message was thick enough to keep what needed to be hidden away from the conscience.
Amos’s prophetic message wasn’t so supportive. “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob, says the Lord God, the God of hosts: On the day I punish Israel for its transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground. I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord. Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” But the words of Amos fell of ears that could not hear because they were too full of words that praised their prosperity and took away their accountability to the society they were creating. So Amos was invited to leave Israel by the high priest. Amos’ message was neither wanted nor needed. And Amos gave what is perhaps the most chilling of his prophecies… warning that “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
As I said before… when the Assyrian empire came into Israel… the riches of the rich did not save them… the privilege of the privileged did not save them… the religiosity of the religious did not save them. The words of the Lord were not heard.
Which brings us finally to Isaiah and the lament we read today… a lament… a crying out to hear the words of the Lord. For later on the southern kingdom of Judah also fell. The empires were different… now was the time of Babylon. But the kingdom of Judah fell just the same because the people had forgotten the words of the Lord. They had forgotten the words of Amos who had pleaded with Israel… “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Instead of trusting in God’s word, they trusted in the walls that surrounded Jerusalem. The walls would keep them safe even as they ignored God’s word. But the walls were breached. They trusted in the Temple of God standing there in the middle of Jerusalem. God would never allow the Temple to fall. The Temple was eternal like God. The presence of the Temple will keep them safe even as they ignore God’s word. But the Temple was looted by the Babylonians and burned to the ground. Like their cousins in the north, everything in which they put their trust… everything was taken away from them and now in exile they were left with nothing.
So when they finally turned to God all they found was silence. The same silence God had found as he sent prophet after prophet urging the people to repent… repent and feed on that which no one can take away. Let God’s word be written on your hearts. Instead of filling your hands with riches, fill them with God’s love. But the people did not heed the prophets then. The people listened instead to the words that told them what they wanted to hear… the words that would not transform them… the words that would not reveal to them the ways the potter was still trying to shape them and form them. Their ears were still more enraptured by the numbers of the DOW rather than moved by the numbers needing help from food banks across the nation. Their ears still preferred the lies they sought rather than the truth they needed.
And now God was silent.
So Isaiah, instead of giving voice to God… speaks the lament of the people in exile who have nowhere else to turn… the people who now long for God to be in their midst. But look at what they desire… that God come to them in smoke and in flame… that God come to them in power and in might like the great theophanies of old when God appeared on the mountain… God’s holy presence causing the mountains themselves to quake. They want to make sure that God’s name is known to their adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at God’s presence. Even in their lament their eyes are not cast inward. Even in their lament they are still not opening themselves to the work of the potter’s hand to reshape and form them in God’s own image. They dream of the spectacles of old so that they might share in its glory… that in such a way they themselves might be lifted up.
While they bemoan the silence of God… the words of God are already there before them. Prophetic words are already there in their midst. But still they cannot hear. How will they hear God speak afresh if they still can’t listen to the words God has already put before them for generations?
Isaiah gives voice to their lament, but their own lament… even while trying to believe that they are the work of God’s own hand… reveals that… in practice… they are their own creation to their own continued detriment.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… O that you break open the gates of Hades and rise up! In Christ, God came into our midst… not in the way expected… not in the way wanted. Even though they still had the words of the prophets… even though Christ himself was the incarnate Word of God… they couldn’t make enough room in their ears to hear… they couldn’t lift up their eyes enough to see. So they told Jesus to go away… the High Priests and the leaders of the day… we don’t need your prophecies here. The laments of the generation rose up but they denied the comfort sent by God.
As we start our Advent season… as we look expectantly for Christ to return… as the laments of our hearts go out… praying to God to be delivered from the hand of our inequity… will we this time allow the potter to shape the clay that we are or will we put our trust in veneer and in all those places that have shown us time and again that they do not have the power to redeem? Today we light one candle in hope… the hope that through lament recognizes that while we are all the work of God’s hand… we still have so far to go to being God’s chosen people. Maybe one day God’s silence will be broken through us. Amen.