Comments, Observations, and Questions:
At their honest best, biblical writers—psalmists, prophets, and others—are seldom able to call down judgment on others without also, in utter humility, admitting that when it comes right down to it, they aren’t any great spiritual shakes themselves. You see this at the end of Psalm 139: after so many verses of lyric praise of God for his all-encompassing knowledge and care, the psalmist suddenly—almost as though he unexpectedly burped up a throat-full of bile—goes on a rant about God’s need to slay the wicked and go after those rotten so-and-so’s over there. But then, as though he then swallowed the bile and took a deep cleansing breath, the psalmist looks in the mirror and as much as says, “OK, enough already about them. Just see, O Lord, if there be any wicked ways in me so that I may gain a heart of wisdom and just walk before you with love, reverence and humility.”
Something like that happens in this Year B Advent selection from Isaiah 64, too. Here the chapter begins with a plea for God to set the heavens to roaring and the mountains to quaking by coming on down in power and might and holy shock and awe to shake up all those wicked folks out there among the nations. “There is no true God but you!” the people say in prayer as Isaiah articulates it for them. “You’ve got all the goods. You’ve shown this again and again in the past and so come on down now and do it again. Make the self-absorbed, the selfish, the godless, the feckless, the reckless sit up and pay attention so that they’ll shape up and serve you at long last!!”
The prayer in Isaiah 64 goes on like that for a bit until finally it comes back around to who they are. They look in the mirror. They bone up a bit on recent Israelite history. And then they know: what good is it to focus on the sins of others when our own house is not in order?
“At the same time, O God, we’re sorry to say that our hands are pretty dirty. Even the best we have to offer comes to you soiled and smudged by the time we are able to offer it up to you and, to be honest, that’s not all that often as it is. Folks around here don’t pray much these days. Still others of us know that you’ve seen our sins, how they are so great that they all but carry us away like some fierce hurricane-force wind. And so we’re getting what we have deserved. So listen, O God, we know what we are. We know what we’ve done. And we’re sorry. You are still our Father. We are still your children, your people. We’re just lumps of clay who are nothing unless you sculpt and mold us. So do that. Make us look like you again. Come down that way and be gentle with us so that we may follow you again.”
All of that provides quite the contrast with the thunderous opening verses of this chapter. We pivot from a call to make granite mountains shake like a leaf to images of how we are just clay ourselves and without God’s help to forgive us, it is we who shake like leaves and blow away just as easily by the winds of our own sinfulness. We pivot from a cry for God to terrify all those folks “out there” to a plaintive plea for a Father to come and be gentle with all of us “in here.”
This is piety at its best, and it’s instructive to see on the First Sunday in Advent. Advent always begins with a focus on the Second Advent of Christ, as is evident in the Mark 13 Gospel lection with which this Old Testament text is paired. And that second coming of Jesus is the kind of thing that can fill us believers with a kind of eager anticipation to see Jesus slam dunk all the evil folks out there, bringing justice at last to all his enemies (and that is something we are eager to see since most days we are sure that our enemies list matches God’s list person for person, group for group).
So we, too, are tempted to ask Jesus to roar on back, make the earth quake and reel, scare the living daylights out of the folks who now sneer at us for being Christians and for having religious faith of any kind. But if that is our temptation, then Isaiah 64 offers a needed corrective: maybe a little more time in front of a spiritual mirror is in order. Before we get all hot under the collar about those rotten folks “out there,” maybe it’s a good time to remember that the only reason Jesus ever advented into our time and space in the first place was because of our own sinfulness, our own weakness, our own vulnerability to temptation with which even now as Christian believers we still struggle every single day of our lives.
Maybe the first Sunday in Advent is a good time to remember that although Jesus is coming back to judge the quick and the dead, our own standing in that judgment will be a gift of grace alone—one we did not deserve the hour we first believed and one we don’t much deserve now either, all things in our lives being equal.
Maybe it’s enough to begin Advent remembering the gentle and quiet way the Father sent the Son to this world the first time and so remind ourselves that we’re nothing without the gentle touch of the Potter’s hand now. We need grace as much as anyone, and it should be our dearest hope and desire that we become ourselves such fonts of grace, such shining examples of the goodness of grace, that those folks “out there” about whom we can get so exercised now and then will see us and be drawn to the gentle love we evidence in our own living.
That is perhaps the best witness we can provide the world in Advent or at any time. Because the remembrance of how God dealt with us in our own sinfulness leads us to hope that exactly this will characterize how God deals with the rest of the world, too.
The most famous line from the old Pogo comic strip came in the one the cartoonist Walter Kelly produced for Earth Day back in 1971. As Pogo and another character try to make their way through a supposedly “beautiful” forest, they find walking increasingly difficult. The second frame reveals why: the forest is littered with old car tires, broken cinderblocks, broken old chairs and discarded bathtubs. Pogo Possum observes this and says, “Yes, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”
How easy it is to point the finger, to blame the other, to demonize individuals and groups that are not like you or your group. Republicans claim the root of all evil is government regulation and if the Democrats got rid of it, corporations would do great and never need any reminders not to pollute or produce dangerous products. Democrats claim that corporations are evil and need all the regulating the government can muster and why can’t the Republicans see that? Christians claim the ACLU is ruining the country by advancing an anti-family agenda. The ACLU accuses the church of intolerance and a disregard for personal liberties for all. On and on it goes as one group accuses the other group of being the root of all problems. The implication is always, “If only everyone else thought like we do, the world would be a sweet place to be.”
But it is self-deception to think we are always the solution and never the problem, and never more so than inside the church when it comes to sin and God’s need to deal with it. If we think God needs to get tough on only those folks beyond the walls of the church, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. Lord, have mercy.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 30, 2014
Isaiah 64:1-9 Commentary