If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Unexpected Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9

*This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! (Isaiah 64:1). I can understand the feeling of the prophet Isaiah. And maybe you can as well. There have been those times in my life when I wished God would rip the paper sky open and come down, do something dramatic, speak in a clear voice. There have been periods in my life when there was a stark silence, a deafening absence of God.

Church historian Martin Marty has given voice to my experience in his book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. Upon the death of his first wife Elsa, Marty turned to the Psalms in his grief. I have often turned to Marty’s reflections and to the Psalms in the frigid seasons of my soul. The psalms of lamentation cry out from the winter of the soul for God “to tear open the heavens and come down!”

The prophet Isaiah gives voice to the cry of absence from Judah in Babylonian captivity. He speaks a lamentation for the winter of Judah’s heart. The elite of Judah had been taken captive into exile in Babylon around 587 B.C. They were dragged off to a foreign land with its foreign gods and foreign customs, strange neighbors and strange foods. Judah felt defeated, displaced, and disoriented.

The prophet interprets the exile to Babylon in terms of God’s anger against Judah. He confesses to God on behalf of the people, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away…you have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Isaiah 5b-6, 7b).

The captives in Babylon also feel like God has hidden his face from them (vs 7b). Where is God in our captivity? Have we left God behind in our homeland? Where is the God who with a powerful arm led us out of their bondage in Egypt? Where is the God who came down in fire and shook Mt. Sinai like a baby’s rattle and spoke with a clear and powerful voice through Moses? Where is the God who once defeated our enemies, Pharaoh and Egypt? Where is the God who miraculously fed us with bread from heaven and quail in the desert? Where is our God in Babylon? It was if the gods of Babylon had defeated and sent the God of Israel into exile away from them.

Isaiah gives voice to the cry of their heart in an anguished prayer to God: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Show yourself, God. Make the mountains quake and let the nations shake before your presence! Reveal yourself to those who would scoff at us. Judah was longing for an advent of God

Where is God? Why doesn’t God do something earthshaking? Why doesn’t God come to our rescue? We have all been in life situations that give rise to those kinds of questions that are turned into prayers of anguish. In the struggles of a divided church someone cries out, “Lord, if only you would split the sky open and come down into the midst of this mess and heal us!” In a marriage teetering over the abyss of divorce a prayer goes out, “O God, why have you allowed this to happen?” In continued sickness and the increasing limitations of old age a wife prays, “Merciful God, where are you now that my husband needs you most?” In the persistent financial crisis, an unemployed man prays, “I haven’t had steady work for a year now. Where are you God? Give me a sign that you’re still there.” O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Here is an important spiritual truth to remember. We only have a sense of God’s absence if at one time we have experienced God’s presence. We can talk about the silence of God only because we have, in some sense, heard God speak. The prophet Isaiah reminds God, “You did awesome deeds we did not expect.” He remembers when God was powerfully present and at work in Israel’s history. He points back to the wondrous works God performed in the Exodus, Sinai, and their wilderness wanderings.

Isaiah can only speak of Judah’s present experience of God’s absence and inaction because his people have experienced the awesome and unexpected deeds of God in the past. As so often is the case, in our experience of God’s absence and inaction within our lives, we often forget God’s awesome deeds we did not expect in the past. God’s movement in our lives comes to us as moments of grace, deliverance, and provision; unearned and unexpected. But, then we expect God to act and be present in the very same way and according to our timetable this time, in this situation. And if God does not act in the same ways, we experience God as absent, silent, or inactive. God may be present and acting, but not in the ways we expect.

I can testify to this truth. My call into Christian ministry was an unexpected and powerful experience; so powerful that I gave up my dreams of becoming an illustrator to enter pastoral ministry. Along that journey of being a pastor and a human being, I had periods of anguish when I cried out, “Where are you, God?” I would look at the difficulties I faced in life or in my ministry and God seemed to be silent, an absentee landlord. And I would pray something like the prayer of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Right after seminary I resigned from a position as an associate pastor at my home congregation due to staff conflicts. After languishing for three years outside pastoral ministry, though I searched and searched for a position, I ended up doing odd jobs, and I do mean “odd” for someone trained as a minister. I literally shook an angry fist at the heavens and cried out, “Where are you, God?” Unexpectedly a chance meeting with a Hollywood actor-turned-pastor landed me in on the stage of a creative church ministry position in Burbank, California.

A dying congregation struggling to survive puts the future of my pastoral work in jeopardy and causes me to cry out, “Lord, where are you?” Unexpectedly I get a phone call from a friend of Iris, who I briefly met at a conference, asking if I would consider the position of Minister of Peace and Justice for Mennonite Mission Network. His name is John Powell and he is on the cover of the most recent Mennonite magazine. My ministry of peace and justice and drumming for peace flourishes for seven years.

An economic recession impacts church giving, my whole department at Mennonite Mission Network is cut. At the same time Iris gets the Pacific Northwest Mennonite conference minister job and we move to Portland. I spend two years feeling like I am in exile. No ministry opening. There were few opportunities to use my gifts, calling, and training. I struggle against depression (with the added weight of Oregon’s dreary winter weather). Many times I cry out, “Where are you, God? Why don’t you rip open the sky and come down. Do something, anything!” At moments I wonder, “Have my sins brought this upon me?” Then, I get an unexpected call from a congregation and you know the rest of the story.

Get the pattern? During each crisis period I forgot something from my previous experiences of God’s absence. God had already done awesome deeds in my life. God had come to me when I least expected it. So, I just needed to wait upon the Lord.

You know what I mean, don’t you? The boss calls you in to his office and in a somber tone tells you, “We’re going to have to lay you off.” Your world is turned upside down. You pray to an empty sky. Your words don’t seem to make it past the ceiling. Then, sometime later a call comes unexpectedly over the phone, “Can you come in for an interview?”

A congregation is going through some intense struggles. They can’t seem find their way out. Old negative patterns just seem to repeat themselves over and over. During a Sunday morning service a member dares to pray out loud during the prayer time, “Lord, where are you? Why don’t you just come down from the sky and help us!” Several months pass. Some estranged members meet and offer each other forgiveness. Others let go of old grudges and confess their lack of trust. In their open sharing a new spirit begins to spring up, like a flower growing up through a crack in the cement sidewalk! Lord, you did awesome deeds we did not expect!

Now, I don’t want to negate experiences of anguish and the real sense of God’s silence and absence. The Bible doesn’t censor those feelings and experiences, but allows God’s people to express the cry of absence and to even throw jagged, anguished questions in the face of God. Just read the Psalms.

But, I do want to remind myself, and all of you, to remember that those experiences of anguish and absence are real because we have previously experienced God’s presence, God’s spontaneous grace, God’s awesome deeds, God’s unexpected advent in our lives.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father….who works for those who wait for you. There is that divine “yet.” In spite of our sense of absence and our sin…yet, God is our divine Parent, still responding to us in love. In spite of our lack of trust, our impatience, our wanting to control the shape of our life experience, yet “we are the clay, and God is the potter” molding and shaping us.

The prophet Isaiah may begin with pleading in anguish for God to rip open the heavens and do some awesome deeds, like in Israel’s past. But, he soon moves back to a position of faith, trust, and hope that God will work for those who wait. Waiting calls for patience, faith, stick-to-it-iveness, hope, anticipation, and attentiveness to the subtle moments and movements of our lives.

Isn’t this what Advent is all about? Waiting? Eager anticipation? Isn’t that why we light a somber purple candle each week until we finally light the white Christ candle symbolizing Christ’s coming. Isn’t Advent about waiting upon God who comes into our lives gracefully, unexpectedly and works for us, for our good?

Advent is about waiting and hoping for the one who comes to our world of exile with good news of great joy. Through hopeful waiting Isaiah’s anguished cry of absence can be turned into an Advent cry of longing expectation: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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