Nov 30, 2014
“Change My Heart, O God” vs. 1-2
The Book of Isaiah, from which many of our Advent scriptures come, is divided into three parts. The first part was written before the Israelites were conquered and taken into exile in Babylon. The second was written during those 70 years in exile; and the third part, which we hear from today, was written after their return to Jerusalem, as they tried to put their lives back together. As we hear in this lament, it was not going to be easy.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes 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.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
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 for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
“Change my heart, O God” vs. 3
(sung) You better watch out.
You better not cry.
You better not pout.
I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
I’m sitting in the hot tub at the Y and this song pops into my head. Not surprising, as it’s probably imbedded into my sub-conscious after hearing it over and over again this time of year. But it did take me by surprise. Why did this song enter my consciousness at that moment?
Ideas for this sermon had been coming to me while I swam laps that morning. Then these old familiar lyrics broke through, and a strange connection came to me: Replace Santa Claus with Jesus Christ, and you might have God’s reply to Isaiah’s lament. “Isaiah, stop crying and pouting - and keep watching. And this is why: I’m sending someone to make your life better. He will be known as Jesus Christ.”
For years the Christian celebration of Christmas, and even the Advent Season, has been co-opted by our secular culture. It’s time to start taking it back. While the secular world is waiting in anticipation for Santa Claus and all those gifts they will receive during the holidays, Christians are waiting for something more profound - the presence of God - the incarnation of the Holy in our lives; and the hope, and peace, and joy, and love that comes with that recognition. However we approach this season, it is a time of preparation, waiting and anticipation.
For the secular world, that time used to begin at Thanksgiving. Thanks (or no thanks) to the commercialization of the season it now begins sometime before Halloween. But for Christians it begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. And in the Christian scriptures and liturgy, it doesn’t begin with Carols and presents and parties, it begins in a time of hopelessness and repentance and doubt.
The Israelites in Isaiah’s passage today had been waiting for 70 years in anticipation of their return to Jerusalem, and now the time has come. Cyrus of Persia has given them permission, and resources, to return and rebuild their lives and their Temple once again. But like many of us have discovered over the years, you can go back, but it’s never going to be the same.
They returned to a city and a temple in ruins. All they had dreamed of during those 70 years was not being fulfilled. The Jewish people had gone through decades of what my grandmother would describe as “hell on earth.” And it’s easy during such times to lose one’s connection to God. Isaiah seems to be insinuating here that they had lost their way and their connection.
And now he is desperate for God to once again show God’s presence; “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” Israel is seismically active, and they associated the earthquakes they experienced with God’s presence or judgement.
Generation after generation had handed down the stories of how God had worked for good in their lives, and now, in their time of need, God seemed hidden. Isaiah pleads: You are our father. You’re the potter. We are the clay, the work of your hands. We are all your people. Don’t desert us now.
What a scripture passage to begin our Advent journey, filled with lament, remorse and pleading with God, at a time when our culture tells us we’re supposed to be filled with joy! And yet, much of the world is not a joyful place on this first Sunday of Advent.
Exploring this scripture I couldn’t help but think of the 51 million refugees in our world right now, 51 million waiting, praying for peace in their homeland so they can return. And what will they return to?
I couldn’t help but think of the citizens of Ferguson, and the millions of people across our country who have taken to the streets this past week demanding a more just country, and criminal justice system, where all its citizens are not only created equal, but treated equally.
For me there is a real poignancy to the season of Advent this year as we look for signs of hope in a world filled with fear and feelings of helplessness;
faced with wars that seem to keep multiplying and re-starting, instead of ending,
with threats of terrorism perpetrated by men who seem to have lost all traces of their conscience and humanity,
with people living in denial or feeling helpless to do anything about the threats to our environment;
with worsening poverty while the concentration of wealth remains with a few;
as racial tensions continue to divide us, erupting into violent protests;
with intractable divisions in our political system resulting in the inability to reach any common ground for the good of all.
These are not easy times.
Our world needs a strong dose of the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that this season is supposed to usher in. Like Isaiah and his people, we need to feel God’s presence working in our lives. Where do we find it? How do we find it? I don’t think it’s going to be in an earthquake. Having lived through many, I certainly hope not.
For some of us it requires turning our lives around, repenting and turning back to God. Advent is a season of repentance. I read in one commentary we are in danger of becoming a country that wants to feel good instead of one that wants to be good. Some will claim we’re already there. Might this require refocusing some of our activities during this holiday season?
Might it require looking at some of our laws, and our justice system to examine if it is really ‘just’. Might it require taking a look at our gun culture and not buying Johnny that toy gun for Christmas that he really wants.
James Brenneman wrote in the Christian Century warning us not to greet God “prematurely … until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter’s hands, people chastened by God’s silence, ready to be molded anew as the ‘work of (God’s) hands.” In what ways can we be molded for the good of all this Advent season?
Jack touched upon it in his Thanksgiving message last week. It’s a time of opening our hearts to give thanks for the many blessings God has bestowed on us; then opening our hands to share those blessings with others in need. God works through our hearts and our hands.
During Advent we wait in hope, looking for that sign of God’s presence in the midst of all the trials and tribulations in our lives. So often we’re looking for something earth shattering, but Patricia de Jong, the pastor of our UCC church in Berkeley reminds us, “At Advent, God’s people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily.” Is the Holy breaking into the protests on our streets this past week?
Just look around you. The Holy is there. I sent out an email a couple of weeks ago asking you to finish this sentence: “I see God’s presence….” A few replies came in and I’d like to share them with you:
“I have seen God in my dad. He was a good man. I miss him.”
“I have seen God in the eyes of my children.”
“I have seen God in my own life when the right person came at the right time and helped put me on a path to health and wellness.”
“I have seen God in the smiles of people I meet. Not always, but sometimes a person’s smile seems to be filled with the love of God. I feel like this is a blessing I am being given through the person. They may not realize that God is using them in this way but when it happens, it gives me hope that God is alive and working through the actions of others.”
“I have seen God in the health workers, both native and foreign volunteers, who are trying desperately to save the lives of ebola victims while putting their own lives in jeopardy. The conditions they work under are so primitive and deplorable yet they continue to strive with amazing hope.”
And Zac Mason, who worshiped with us while he was studying at the … for the blind saw God “in the calf battling sickness. In my work on the farm, I’ve learned to never give up on an animal. It is those who you can’t believe will ever recover that most often surprise you.”
I will leave you with the story Patrick O’Reilly send me. He thinks it came from Albert Schweitzer, but we’re not sure.
Two children left Sunday school in a small village.
Tommy said, “They keeping talking about God, but I've never seen him.”
“Me either” said Sally
They decided to ask the wise old man, who lived at the edge of the village. When they approached him, he seemed to be sleeping.
“Err, sir. Excuse me”
“What” said the old man; “what do you want”
“Well”, Tommy said, “ We have been learning about Jesus and God and stuff, but we have never seen God. Maybe he doesn't exist.”
“So”. The wise old man said, “You want to see the face of God.”
“Oh yes”, said Sally. “We do indeed.”
OK- take the road out of town, and when you get to the fork in the road, take the right fork,, and go, oh about 50 yards, and then turn left into the woods about 100 feet, and you will see a well. Look into that well and you may, you just may see the face of God.
Off they went – down the road, right folk, turn left into the woods and here was the well. They went up to it slowly, and looked in. For a moment, they saw nothing – and then when the sun broke out between the trees and shined down into the well – they saw----
Their own reflection!
“What!” they both shouted. They kept looking but all they saw was their own face.
They ran back to the old man who was still sitting outside his house.
“Hey, you said that if we looked into the well, we would see the face of God. Well, all we saw was our own reflection.”
“I know”, said the old man. “I know. You will always see the face of God when you look at your own reflection, and when you look into the faces of others.
Then he closed his eyes….