Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yearning for Presence, Sermon on Isaiah 64, 1-9

“Yearning for Presence”
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 30, 2008
First Sunday in Advent

Listen. Listen to the voice of the prophet. Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong. Listen to the moan, the cry of distress that calls out from the pages of scripture in this morning’s reading.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence…! ~Isaiah 64:1-2

This is a desperate voice, a voice of one at the end of his rope. This is the voice of someone who is yearning for a change, a rescue, a complete reversal of fortunes. This is the voice of someone in need of a savior.

We are reading this morning from the second to last chapter in the book of Isaiah, a passage that dates to the time after the exile, when the people of Israel had returned home to Jerusalem. The whole time they had been in Babylon, all the people had thought and dreamed about was coming home. They imagined returning to their houses and their fields. They prayed about returning to their Temple. They dreamed about returning to life as they remembered it. But when they did come home, their dreams collided with stark reality, and the dissonance between them was heartbreaking. They found their city in a shambles; they found their Temple, the place where the very presence of the Lord God was supposed to dwell, a ruin. They were devastated. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

Looking at the world around us, I think it might be reasonable to come to the same conclusion. Something is very wrong. There is the wrath of nature: there are hurricanes and tsunamis. There are wildfires and earthquakes and floods. There is famine and disease. Hardly a Sunday goes by when one of these isn’t lifted up for our prayer. And then there is the suffering brought on by human behavior: We Americans watched in horror on Thanksgiving day as a terrorist siege unfolded in Mumbai, India. There are wars and rumors of wars. There is corruption and greed, about which the candidates spoke at length during the presidential campaign. There is tremendous fear and anxiety as our nation and the world seem to slip inexorably into recession. There is a grossly unfair allocation of resources that results in a tiny portion of the population hoarding the vast majority of the earth’s resources and wealth, while the vast majority of the population has to stretch and share our leftovers. And the term Black Friday, which normally indicates the hopes of retailers ending the year in black ink and not in red, took on a new, terrible meaning this week, as Christmas shopping turned deadly for at least three people. Something is wrong, very wrong.

And what about our own lives? We struggle every day with difficulties we know and difficulties we don’t know. We struggle with illness, with depression, with grief and loss. We struggle with job insecurity, and the constant battle to make ends meet. We struggle with the loss of friendships and relationships and lovers and spouses. We struggle with addiction. And these are things we know about. We struggle with the unknown too: with that 3 AM fear and anxiety that can’t even define itself. “We all fade like a leaf,” says the prophet, “and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6b). A poet put it like this:

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Something is wrong, very wrong. The prophet weeps and wails and wallows in the uncomfortable truth of Israel’s responsibility for the mess it is in. He acknowledges, not only the gap between where the people want to be and where they are, but the chasm between who they are as creatures and who God is as Creator. Given that chasm, the prophet gives voice to our yearning for the presence of a savior, the time when Someone will come in great majesty and splendor, with unmistakable power and force, tearing open the very heavens to set things right.

But listen. Listen, as something turns, something shifts for the prophet. And instead of big, scary, apocalyptic imagery, suddenly the scale is intimate and personal.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter.
We are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8

Suddenly, instead of asking God to put on a big fireworks display, the prophet makes an appeal to closeness and intimacy. This voice in distress is talking about presence. He is talking about relationship. The image of God as potter and God’s people as the clay breaks this passage open. It takes us into new territory. No longer are we talking about God bursting in from outside the established order of things. Instead, God is invited in.

What does it mean if God is the potter and we are the clay?

If God is the potter then God touches us. We are not alone, we are not left on our own. It is not the case that God is “up there” and we are “down here.” God is in contact with us. God has God’s hands on us. We are made warm just resting in God’s hands.

If God is the potter, then God wants to shape us. God wants to use the events of our lives—our homes, our upbringing, our work, our relationships, our choices—to shape us, to mold and fashion us.

If God is the potter, then God wants to make something useful and beautiful from us, and it is not entirely up to us to determine just what that is. The potter works with care and precision to make us into exactly who he wants us to be.

If God is the potter then God might need to place us in the fire in order to make us strong and durable. No one wants to be in the fire. It hurts. It burns. There’s a lot of smoke in there, and it’s hard to see. But when we come out of the fire we can be stronger, even more useful, even more beautiful than when we went in.

If God is the potter, then, from time to time, God has to deal with the issue of broken pieces of pottery. This is not a problem for the potter. No vessel is beyond rescue. Once the pottery is broken it can be mixed in with clay that is still soft, it can be molded once again. If God is the potter, then we are never beyond God’s skill to create with us.

What really strikes me about the prophet’s turn from wanting God to tear open the heavens to calling upon God as potter is that it seems to get to the true root of the problem. The problems of the world are the problems of people—individual people. People called upon to join in community, yes. People called into covenant with God, yes. People joined to one another by virtue of their shared humanity as well as by virtue of the One who created them, yes. But individuals nonetheless. And the cataclysmic changes we are yearning for God to make all start with changes of heart, and changes of mind.

There is a song played at the end of a movie I love, a movie in which a sort of hapless guy looks for help from without—big, cosmic help—only to understand at the end that the help he needs is to be found deep within. The song asks,

Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better
Just feel better about today

Ultimately the song concludes,

If you want to be somebody else
If you're tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind...

This is the wisdom of the ages, from the prophets of ancient Israel to Jesus to Alcoholics Anonymous. We are all looking for the fix from outside—the pill, the job, the diet, the lottery ticket, the person who will make us just feel better about it all, especially about ourselves. But the wisdom of the ages tells us that the God who comes—the savior who is perfectly capable of tearing open heavens, clouds, car doors and all the rest of it—prefers instead to work on us quietly, diligently, hands-on, like the potter at the wheel.

I think we are yearning for the presence of God, not just to tear open the heavens, but to reach into our hearts. Yes, something is wrong. We are homesick in our homes, and strangers under the sun. And no one knows how or when the sun will be darkened, when the stars begin to fall in our eyes and our souls. We might not witness a savior tearing open the heavens. But we will meet God in the still and quiet places within. We, the clay, will meet the potter, to the extent we are willing to entrust ourselves to be held, and to be handled. We will meet God, as we allow ourselves to be molded and to be shaped. We will meet God, who will knead our broken and fragmented selves together again, who will hold and mold us tenderly, who will welcome us home at last. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “The House of Christmas.”
[2] “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel, used in the film Bedazzled.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I know it was not for me, but you were preaching to where I live these days. Thanks.

Gannet Girl said...

You are on a roll these days.

Choralgirl said...

Mmmmmm. Intimate and tender and lovely.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I quoted you in my sermon this morning, but could only attribute it to Magdalene. Do you have a last name? A parishioner loved it and wanted to know "Magdalene who?"