Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 3, 2017

2017.12.03 “Watching, Waiting, Hoping” – Isaiah 64: 1 – 4

Central United Methodist Church
Watching, Waiting, Hoping
Pastor David L. Haley
Isaiah 64: 1 – 4
December 3rd, 2017

Advent 1

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”

– Isaiah 64: 1 – 4, The New Revised Standard Version


Today, as we arrive at the 1st Sunday of Advent, the start of another Christian year, I feel more like a runner at the END of a race, than ready to START another one. More like a coach in NEED of a half-time talk, than ready to give one. More in need of an inspirational sermon, than ready to deliver one. Here’s why.

I – and others, I am sure – feel an escalating anxiety and fear regarding the state of our government and country. Centuries’ old traditions and norms are being broken, both in the Executive Branch and in Congress. Former newsman Dan Rather described it this way:

“The sheer audacity of the rushed and cynical tax bill which shatters so much of our legislative norms feels like an assault on the workings of our republic. The brazen hypocrisy of all those Republicans in Congress who used to sanctimoniously lecture the nation on the danger of deficits is enough to fuel a slide into despair. The lies, after lies, after lies, coming out of the White House – and normalized by Congressional allies – gives our age a feeling of being adrift from truth. And as the Mueller investigation grows ever closer to the President and his family, one wonders whether our Constitutional framework will hold.” (Dan Rather, Facebook post, December 2, 2017)

For those who have not been paying attention, it’s time to begin. Once again, our country faces a constitutional crisis like Watergate, except worse; will our Constitutional framework hold? The prospect of this does not make me happy, it makes me sick, fearful for my children and for my grandchildren and my country, all of which I love. Democracy is fragile; you can only erode the institutions that support democracy so far before they cease to function, and eventually fail. Some are beginning to wonder if we have reached that time.

For others of us, these things may seem way over our head, beyond our pay grade. We may feel like it’s all we can do to make ends meet, keep our family together, raise our children, deal with disease or addiction or whatever personal struggles life has given us, without worrying about government; perhaps this is why many do not vote. Sometimes, in the midst of our own struggles, we get discouraged, maybe even tempted to despair.

Thankfully, the season of Advent welcomes such feelings and confessions, especially in regard to our faith. And it does so in two ways. (1) Through the acknowledgment, that while there are times we feel God’s presence, there are other times – maybe even much of the time – when we do not, and we wonder where God is. (2) With the result that, the seeds of our spiritual lives are planted in the fertile soil of our longing and yearning for God, and for God’s presence in our lives and in the society in which we live, especially in such times as these.

Given this, it should be no surprise that we begin a new Christian year with Scriptures which express such feelings, which we learn are both ancient and contemporary, personal and universal. Hear, for example, the text we read earlier from the ancient prophet Isaiah, imploring God:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

The situation is this: Isaiah is an old man, returned with his people from exile in Babylon. Once released, the Jewish refugees were allowed to return to Jerusalem only to find a city in ruins, a temple in ruins, their lives in ruin. In his youth, Isaiah had had a powerful vision of God in the temple, calling him into service. But now perhaps he stands in the rubble of that same temple and cries out amidst the devastation: “God, tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah prays the prayer of all people who long for God, people who feel God’s absence more than God’s presence.

“Where is God?” thus becomes the question with which Advent opens. It is the church’s wisdom that the best way to prepare for God’s coming among us – at Christmas or anytime – is to first spend some time waiting in the darkness, acknowledging our need, emptying ourselves. As we wait, we pray that most primal of prayers: “Dear God, help us,” perhaps the oldest and most often prayed prayer in history.

At some time or another in our lives – maybe even today – all of us have prayed it. When we prayed it, we may have felt like we were only talking to ourselves. Or maybe we prayed it at the bedside of someone in pain or dying, asking for God’s help for them, but nothing happened. Maybe we prayed in the midst of a disaster or tragedy, “God, tear open the heavens and come down” but there was no response, at least none that we could perceive. Is it a comfort to know that this is a common experience of people of faith?

But perhaps what’s most amazing of all is that even at such times, thanks to the bedrock of our faith, we do not give in to resignation and despair, but maintain faith and hope. Indeed, even Isaiah’s invocation of God ends in such a way:

“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Today, as we light Advent candles that give voice to our longings, we say, both, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and “Dear God, help me,” because deep in our hearts we believe God hears our prayers and – in God’s own way and God’s own time – answers.

Deep in our hearts we believe that in the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago, God did come down.

Deep in our hearts we believe that at his baptism in the Jordan River, God did tear open the heavens.

Deep in our hearts we believe that as he walked the dusty roads of Galilee and healed the sick and welcomed the outcasts and restored the unclean, as he taught that it is better to give than to receive, and that the highest and best any of us can ever do is give our love and our lives away as he gave his away, God came down to us.

Deep in our hearts we believe that as he died in humble obedience, God did tear open the heavens and come down, such that on the third day, death could not contain him, and the love and power of God defeated the powers of violence and injustice, the sin and death that had captured him, and inevitably capture us all. (with acknowledgment to Rev. John Buchanan, “Dear God, Help!”, Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, November 20, 2005.)

But even though ultimately defeated, these evil powers over us continue to raise their ugly heads – like zombies who keep coming back from the dead: hate and injustice, racism and sexism, bigotry and bullying, lies and greed, not to mention the zombie theory of “trickle down” economics, which keeps coming back even though it has never, ever, worked, anywhere.

As for our current situation, I agree with something else Dan Rather said: that at such times as we are going through now we have to reach back into our history, and remember the hard times our nation has endured in the past, and survived. George Washington holding together his ragged army in the cold of Valley Forge; Abraham Lincoln guiding us through the crucible of the Civil War; Susan B. Anthony fighting for women’s right to vote; Dr. King pursuing the way of non-violence through a time of violence and turmoil. Our country has survived wars and assassinations, political scandals and terrorist attacks; somehow, we will survive what we face now, too.

Meanwhile, we ask, as Isaiah asked so long ago, “Where is God?” In Advent, we remember that sometimes there is no immediate or apparent answer to this question. And, while there are times that there are things we can do about our situation, there are also times where there is nothing we can do but sit in the dark and watch and wait.

In a previous time such as this – a time which our own increasingly resembles – Nazi Germany in the early ‘40’s, German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis for his role in the German resistance, for which he would eventually be executed. But a year and a half before that, in November of 1943, he wrote from his prison cell to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in words that have become my favorite description of what it is we do in this time called Advent:

“My dearest Maria, by the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me. A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.” [21 November 1943, Love Letters from Cell 92, 118].

In Advent, we watch and we wait and we hope, for ourselves and for our country, for the God who works for those who wait. Amen.


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