11/29/20 “Waiting for God’s Return”

Isaiah 64:1-9

I had an interesting experience on Thanksgiving Day. I’d been feeling pretty blue about the whole thing. My extended family had agreed with my brother that our large gathering at his house wasn’t a good idea this year. Then, last Sunday, we decided that Peyton and Chris should also forego their plan to come to our house for the holiday weekend. So, although we’re among the fortunate people who have plenty to eat, a secure home to eat it in, and are healthy enough to eat it, I was still feeling a little sorry for myself because Thanksgiving wasn’t going to be what I had hoped for.

But, you know what? It actually turned out to be a lovely day! Early in the morning, I got a group text from my brother David, which included my brothers Craig and Doug, and their wives and children. And my aunt. And my cousins. And my daughter. All the family members who normally would have been gathered in person kept up a running conversation by text—all day! How the turkeys were coming along and how would we use all those left-overs. Who had tried making Grandma Greenlee’s noodles for the first time, and some teasing about how I felt like I was being replaced as chief noodlemaker. A video of the prayer from the first group who sat down to eat.

When it was time to eat at our house, we put the computer on the table. Peyton and Chris joined us by Zoom, and we enjoyed our dinners “together.” Then, it was off to the zoo for Marc and me to see the lights and walk off our dinner before a Zoom gathering with all our family. It turned out to be so much more than I expected.

But, often that’s not the case, especially when we have high hopes for the future rather than low ones. That’s the starting point for our Advent Study, “Almost Christmas.” The leaders talk about how we prepare and plan for and picture a wonderful, perfect, meaningful Christmas, but when it’s all over, it feels like something’s missing. It just doesn’t end up being all that we expected.

This is the situation the speaker in our passage was experiencing. Isaiah is a long book by different authors, and it covers quite a long period of time.  Scholars sometimes divide it into three parts. First Isaiah includes chapters 1-39, where the prophet speaks words of warning about the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The rest of the book is called Second Isaiah. It focuses on the time after the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and many of the skilled and wealthy Jewish people had been taken to Babylon as exiles.  The first fifteen chapters look forward to a future when the exiles will return to Jerusalem. The last ten chapters, sometimes called Third Isaiah, are about the reality of that return after it’s happened.

When the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians, King Cyrus made the prophecy of return come true. The Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem to live and rebuild the temple, just as Isaiah prophesies. But once they got there, everything wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The city was in tatters. The poor and unskilled who had been left behind now owned the land and resented the returnees. Faithfulness to God had eroded, and there was dissension about who the true people of God were. The returning Jews had high expectations for their freedom from exile and a new life in Jerusalem, but what they found was that they had become exiles in their own land. Reality didn’t live up to their expectations.

That’s a feeling I think we can identify with.  When the pandemic initially prompted restrictions and changes, we were like exiles—taken out of our normal lives into a strange new world. As the situation improved, we had hope that we would soon return to the landscape we knew. But, here we are, still estranged from what we would consider normal life.

The prophet wonders where God’s hand is in this situation, much as we might wonder where God’s hand is in ours. The author has clearly reached a breaking point. His patience with God has run out. And so, he rails at God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he says. After all, God had done that very thing in the past when the people least expected it. God’s appearance had made the mountains tremble, thunder roar, and lightning flash. Unlike the other gods that littered the heavens, the God of the Jewish people had been quick to work for those who waited for God, and more than waited—longed for. As a result of God’s past actions, God’s name was known throughout the world. Where was that God now, when things among God’s people were in such a sorry state?

They say that introverts think to talk, and extroverts talk to think. Our author must have been an extrovert, because now he begins to think out loud—to process why God seems to be missing in action. He begins by accusing God. If things are bad, it must be God’s fault! God turned away from the people. As a result, the people began sinning, and their sins led to the current mess. “Because you hid yourself, we transgressed,” our translation says. A different translation suggests that it was the people’s sins that caused God to turn away, but still, how can they be saved if God has checked out?

But then, it begins to dawn on the speaker that everyone has become “unclean.” No one is ethically or religiously upright anymore. Even the good things they manage to do are tainted by their unfaithfulness. As he follows this train of thought, he realizes that the people have forgotten God. They no longer call on God. But still, why should they, if God’s face is turned away—that face the psalmist prayed would shine on God’s people and save them?

Are God’s people then without hope? No. The prophet goes on to affirm that God is their Father. God has the power to reshape the people—to mold them as a potter molds and shapes the clay in his hand or on his wheel. A people who desire forgiveness and come to God with repentant hearts can be re-formed into the people they once were and that God desires them to be.

This has to be more than an individual effort, though. The prophet speaks only of a community—of “all of us,” he says. The people together must make a change in their collective hearts. Together they must resolve to place themselves in God’s hands and allow themselves to be made new.

This doesn’t require a dramatic re-entry of God into the world, accompanied by thunderstorms and earthquakes. Instead, God chose a much quieter way to come down. God chose to return as a baby born in a backwater town. The Master Potter came with human hands and a human voice that reshaped lives through a healing touch and guiding words. That touch and those words continue to remold and reshape us today by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We look forward with confidence to the day when God in Christ will come again. In the meantime, we wait. And as we wait, we examine our hearts to see where they’ve become unclean. We reflect on our lives, to see where even our good deeds have been done, not out of love for God, but from other, lesser motives. Advent is a time that we set aside for that kind of waiting—waiting that helps us prepare to celebrate God’s coming in Jesus, waiting that helps us prepare for his return.

Each year, the lectionary readings focus on a different Gospel. In the year that begins today on the first Sunday of Advent, we turn our eyes to the Gospel of Mark. As he told the story of Jesus, perhaps the author of Mark had Isaiah in mind, because Mark begins and ends with the division between heaven and earth being torn in two. In Chapter 1, Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by John. As he comes up from the water, the heavens are torn apart as the Spirit descends. At the end of the story, as Jesus breathes his last on the cross, the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom—a dramatic affirmation that God cannot be confined to one place but is present in the world through the power of the cross.

The demand from the prophet of Isaiah that God return to earth, tearing open what divided God from God’s people, was indeed fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One day, the book of Revelation tells us, God in Christ will return, coming down out of heaven to make a home among mortals and to dwell with us. Until then, we wait.

High expectations can often lead to big let-downs. That’s what the prophet of Isaiah and the Jewish exiles discovered. That’s what we may experience when we plan and prepare and dream. But I can promise you this: our expectations of what the God who came down to earth in Jesus can do in our lives can never be too high. And, our dreams of what the world will be like when God in Christ comes again can never be too glorious. So, go ahead. Plan and prepare and dream as we wait to celebrate the day when God opened the heavens and came down to a stable in Bethlehem. Go ahead and plan and prepare and dream as we wait for God to open the heavens and come down once again. God is faithful and will not let us down. What lies ahead will be worth the wait. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young