This sermon was preached by Justin Moore, at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship, on December 2nd, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Is.64:1-9.
Advent begins not with cheer, but with a cry for help. It is a season of remembering Israel’s waiting (which was answered in Jesus’ arrival, in Bethlehem) and heightening our own anticipation for that day when God’s promises, given through the prophets, will be finally fulfilled, and the world will be a place not of conflict and lack but of peace and wholeness. So Advent is about expectant waiting. In Advent we admit that we, and our world, are adrift, and that only God’s action—begun in Christ’s first coming, to be completed at Christ’s second coming—can save us from ourselves.
In this passage from Isaiah, the people of Israel—who have barely survived foreign conquest and exile and the loss of everything they thought was permanent—beg God to show up, in a world that seems like a Godless mess (vv. 1-2). They cry out to him, asking him to prove himself to be the same God they heard about in their ancestors’ stories: in old times, you did unexpected things to help our ancestors…please do them again for us!
But very soon, as they are reminded of God’s justice and holiness, they admit that they, too, stand guilty of Godless ways. Their sins have made shriveled them up; they don’t care much about seeking God; and even the good that they do is bloody and polluted. Can they be saved? Or will God give up on them?
They can only rely on God’s merciful relationship with them…so they begin to speak not only of his powerful, landscape-smashing deeds in the past, but also of his committed love for those he has created: You are our Father…you are the potter, and we are the clay; we are the ones you are crafting. Look on us. So this lament, which started out with “Why won’t you show up in righteous fury, to blast those wicked people over there?” ends with “Please show up in mercy, to shape us into the people we ought to be.”
Advent begins, then, by lamenting God’s seeming distance from our lives and our pain. It gives us language to say, honestly, something that may have been running through our minds already. Perhaps you have said it yourself: we stand at the bedsides of friends and family who are sick, or in pain, or dying…we listen helplessly on the phone as we hear of yet another good life crushed and twisted by tragedy or cruelty…we shake our heads as promising young people go off-course; we open the newspaper or the internet browser only to read another story of genocide, injustice, and greed…and, in the brief instant before we numb ourselves with some distraction (and December is a very, very easy time in which to find such distractions) we say, or think, “God…where ARE you?! Why don’t you rip open the one-thing-after-another that our days are muffled and smothered in, and end all this mess!?” Or maybe we’ve gotten too cynical to pray even that much, and our hurt only gives God a sideways glance: “If you’re there, this is your fault, but I don’t think enough of you (or trust you enough) to ask for help.” Advent texts, like this one, give words to the lack we feel.
But like the people who first prayed this prayer—if we are honest about ourselves and about who God is—we quickly realize that it’s not just “those problems” or “those people” out there who need setting right. We are part of the problem. We have become frail and unrooted from the life-source we need, like withered leaves blown away by the wind (v. 6b). We’ve stopped looking for God or asking how we can show his holy love to the world (v. 7). Even our good deeds, which we use as a fancy costume to make everyone think we’re OK, turn out to be filthy and bloodstained. If God does show up, then, to smash wickedness, we’re not going to escape unscathed.
How, then, do we lament in hope? By calling out to God, not merely as avenger, but as our Father, the one who made us and is still shaping us like a potter shapes wet clay—beginning with a lump of mud, and shaping it into something beautiful. We admit that we are not what we should be or could be, and we ask God to “look on us” (v. 9) with a grace-full gaze.
We know now what the prophets didn’t know that God did “tear open the heavens and come down,” but not in a way that made the mountains shake. He came in a surprising, quiet way, to share in the sorrows of this cruel world, to end the threat of ultimate judgment we lived under, and to heal the pollution of our hearts.
This morning, we begin the season of Advent by lamenting, honestly, the sorry state of our world and of our lives. We remember God’s loving care, which he demonstrated 2000 years ago by showing up with mercy instead of judgment, and which he continues to demonstrate in his moment-by-moment remaking of our lives. We eat Christ’s meal, which is both a tangible reminder of God’s merciful love and a nourishment that helps us to act out that love in the ruined places of our world. And we sharpen our anticipation for the day when God’s healing will extend “as far as the curse is found,” and the world will experience God’s good future.