Creekside Church
Sermon of November 29, 2020

"Tear It Up"
Isaiah 64:1-9

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! You have already heard that it is the first Sunday of Advent. For this Sunday and the two which follow, I’ll be preaching from Isaiah, a long collection of writings which addressed a people in difficult circumstances and pointed them toward the hope of a coming Messiah and Savior. This morning I want to talk about faith and hope and if those things are ever in conflict with each other. I think this passage and what we can learn from it is relevant to where we are today.

There have been some dire warnings, and perhaps you have even thought or said out loud that Christmas is going to be cancelled this year. I guess that depends on your expectation of what Christmas is: if Christmas is a big gathering in a small space of a lot of people from different places who are eating and drinking and talking together for several hours -- then yeah, there will probably be events like that which will be cancelled or postponed. If your expectation of Christmas is a service at Creekside where this Worship Center is filled with family and friends and guests from the community, and 200 people singing carols and a choir and trumpets -- that is not going to be happening either. There is nothing wrong with longing or hoping for either of those things; your pastor loves to see this building filled, especially on Christmas Eve, but we won’t be doing that this year. But it’s important to remember just what it is that we celebrate at Christmas. We remember this best when we go back to the Bible and read not only the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but when we take the time to reach back into the Old Testament and the prophecies which would have been the basis of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, and the heritage of the Jewish people. Christmas is about covenants kept and faith fulfilled. At Christmas, we celebrate the wonder of God’s activity -- and that is always appropriate, but our traditions and expectations don’t cause Christmas to happen. It is by the grace of God that Jesus Christ has come into the world, and nothing we do or don’t do changes that reality.

I don’t know what you are hoping for this Christmas: maybe you want a pony; maybe you want to have all your family around your dining room table for Christmas dinner; maybe you want this pandemic to simply disappear so life can go back to what it was before. Those are all fine things to hope for, but if you live in an apartment, the pony might not work out so well; you may have family members who are quarantined or ill or in a nursing home who can’t be with you for Christmas; and it seems likely that the coronavirus will be here for the foreseeable future. How can we have faith in a God who doesn’t give us everything we hope for?

The writer of Isaiah 64 voices some hope and faith which I can relate to. There’s some significant movement within this longer passage which Steve read for us, which I want to pull apart. The opening verse has words which resonate for me; they’re addressed to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” God, get down here and fix this. Get rid of our enemies, whether they’re military or viral, heal our bodies, heal our nation, put food on our tables and money in our pockets. If you’re all-powerful, do something about our troubles. I think of this as kind of Chuck Norris image of God: why doesn’t God just come down and kick some butt and put things back in order? After that, God can just head back up to heaven, and let us get on with running the world -- ‘Hey, could you pull that ripped up sky closed behind you? Thanks.” And then God could just stay up there until the next time we’re in trouble. I trust you can see both why this is such an appealing image of God, as well as why it’s all wrong. This “God As New Sheriff in Town” works pretty well for us if we’re the good guys; but what if we’re the problem? Verse 6 suggests that at very least, we are part of the problem: We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. Ouch. That is a tough image right there: it isn’t even as if look pretty good on the outside-- wearing a nice outfit with dirty underwear; this verse suggests that even when we think we’re looking pretty good, what God sees is filthy rags. But do not give up hope: our clothes are not who we are. Verse 8 says Yet O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand . . . we are all your people.

Advent is a time to recognize the hope and the longing of God’s people. Of course we long for healing and wholeness and peace and salvation, but part of that longing is the acknowledgment that we do not have the power to save ourselves. We do not have the power to save ourselves because we are part of the problem. We have tried to fix things ourselves, but we are flawed and sinful and filthy, and all we’ve done is gotten ourselves into a fix. If the world is a damned mess, we have no one to blame but ourselves. And until we acknowledge that reality, our hope will always be misplaced, because our hope is in ourselves, and not in God. It is God who shapes us, as a potter shapes clay -- we are made in God’s image, and not the other way around.

I love this passage from Isaiah for its bold imagery; I especially love when it comes around in Advent because of the irony of that opening verse: Isaiah is pleading for God to tear it up -- rip open the heavens, make the mountains quake like boiling water, do awesome deeds that we do not expect. That is a risky prayer, right there; it takes a lot of humility and a lot of courage to ask God to do something we don’t expect. And the irony is, for those of us who know and believe the New Testament and the story of the birth of Jesus, that God does something awesome which we do not expect. Christ does not come as Chuck Norris, tearing down from heaven to kick the world into shape and teach us once and for all that God is the boss. God slides in quietly under the hem of a still night in a sleepy little town, to a couple of ordinary people, and God comes to the world as a newborn baby; vulnerable and perfect. The people of Israel didn’t see that coming: I doubt if Isaiah saw that coming -- at least in that way.

I believe we have a challenge, and a charge as people of hope and faith. I think it is OK to hope for things which may not happen: miraculous solutions to intractable problems. After all, God is God, and you never know. But in that process of praying for God to take care of things, we must never lose sight of the fact of who is in control: God tells us how to behave; not the other way around. If our faith is based on God doing what we want, our faith is shallow and doomed. It’s like being a kid living in a fifth floor apartment and telling your friends that your parents don’t love you because you didn’t get a pony for Christmas. Maybe your parents have an understanding of what’s involved on owning a pony that you are unable to grasp. Holding God to the standard of what we want is not faith, it is assuming that our righteousness looks pretty good, when God might actually have something different--much better--planned.

And finally, I believe that we need to be open to God working in ways we do not expect. Ways that might even include us. This is great vision to have at any time, but it is especially important this Advent season. Christmas Eve is going to look different this year -- probably in some of our homes, and certainly at Creekside. Our Worship Team, at the direction of Maryann Zerbe, has been talking since August about what we can do for Christmas and how we can do it safely for anyone who wants to participate. Prayer has certainly been part of that process, and flexibility has to be. If you think that because you haven’t heard all of those conversations that nothing is happening, you’re wrong. I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution, and I certainly wouldn’t claim that we’ve found it. We always work within limitations: limitations of financial and human resources, as well as the limits of our own vision and our own willingness to cooperate. We can still be faithful even when we have limitations: in fact, I believe we are most faithful when we confess our limitations and rely on one another and rely on God. What is not faithful is to blame other people or to blame God for our limitations. It is worth reminding ourselves -- repeatedly, if necessary -- that God chose to come to us as an infant. Helpless, limited, in need of care, but as God With Us, not God in some galaxy far, far away. If God had enough faith in us to come to us as a child instead of simply tearing open the heavens, then we need to have faith that God can accomplish God’s purpose, and we are invited to be part of that purpose. Our charge is not to control God, but to partner with others to bring God’s vision closer to reality -- with whatever resources we have been given.

Our Advent theme is Give Light. Whatever kind of light you are: a tiny candle, or a sparkler, a bonfire, an LED bulb -- the world needs your light. We did not create that light; it comes from God and it came into the world with the birth of God’s Son Jesus Christ. What kind of light has God given you? Slow and steady? Low energy, but reliable? Brilliant and brief? If you imagine yourself as a light source, I’d love to hear what kind of light you give. I’d like to be one of these beautiful pillar candles on our chancel table. Now imagine where your kind of light is needed to shine in the darkness, because that is where God is calling you to serve. If you can’t think of anything you could possibly do, please talk to me. We’ll pray about it together. There is so much need and so many opportunities if we are willing to look for them.

With God’s help, we can shine together. Amen

 

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