Remember Your People - A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B (Isaiah 64)
Isaiah 64:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
64 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 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!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
“O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” With these words, we begin the season of Advent, a season that is easily subsumed in the rush to Christmas. If we’re honest, even the most liturgically pure among us find it difficult to resist the lure of the upcoming season. But there is a message here that shouldn’t get lost in the rush. We may have to be alert to it, but it is there. Yes, it is thee in the words of Isaiah, who always seems to have a word to say during this Advent season.
As we approach this reading from Isaiah 64, we hear a word spoken to a people who have experienced exile and have now returned him to a land that had experienced devastation. They walked into Jerusalem, their capital. It had been the location of their Temple, where the elect of God had gone to worship, but it lay in ruins. All around them were signs of God’s absence. The people felt alone and abandoned. They knew the stories of how God had once been present to Israel. There had once been powerful signs of that presence. When God came down, the mountains quaked, and the bushes burst into flame, and the water boiled. Stories abounded of the days before Israel’s sin had pushed God away, now was a time for lament. It was time for the people to cry out and plead for God to remember God’s people. Yes, this is a lament, a plaintive cry for God’s intervention.
As we begin a new cycle in the liturgical calendar, with the bright lights of Christmas all around us, are we prepared to share in this lament? Does it feel like God has absented God’s self from us due to our rebellion? As Amy Plantinga Pauw puts it: “Though the church’s existence is predicated on the fact that Christ has come, many parts of God’s world seem bereft of Christ’s healing and transforming presence. Church also longs for the fullness of Christ’s presence in its midst, mending all that is broken and bringing the joy of salvation to its promised fruition” [Church in Ordinary Time, p. 120]. It is in the context of this longing for the coming of Christ’s full presence to mend what is broken in our world that we hear this word from Isaiah. Although we might wish to sing boldly “joy to the world,” we still await that time when “from our fears and sins release us; Christ in whom our rest shall be.”
Traditionally Advent is a penitential season, that invites God’s people to engage in self-reflection, so as to put away those things that hinder one’s relationship with God and creation. It’s not a comfortable season. That may explain why we want to move so quickly to Christmas. Nonetheless, we have before us a word from Isaiah that acknowledges the brokenness of our lives and laments the seeming absence of God. “You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5b). Perhaps due to this hiddenness of God, the people no longer call on the name of the Lord, for they have decided that God had delivered them into their iniquity. That is, they had made their bed, and now they will sleep in it. At the same time, Isaiah acknowledges that God is the potter, and the people are the clay. From this clay emerges a people, the work of God’s hands. Yes,, God our creator, we are the clay and you are the potter. With that confession, Isaiah asks God to set aside God’s anger, and forget the people’s iniquity, for “we are all your people.”
The question for us as we head into this Advent season is where is God? There is a feeling of being an exile in the land. These are strange times. Yes, we might even call them God-forsaken times. As we navigate this moment in history when the political structures of the country I call home seem to be crumbling. We're tempted to pull back, letting the world take care of itself. At the same time, we may find ourselves crying out to God, asking God to intervene on our behalf. But, maybe that is not the God we have encountered in Jesus. Perhaps God our creator is not truly absent, but we are not looking for God in the right places. That is, maybe look for the God who shakes the mountains, when the God we know in Jesus comes to us through the cross. Perhaps the source of hope is already amongst us, we just need to take hold of it. It will not come with quakes or fire, but much more quietly. With so much noise in this season, it will be difficult to hear, but let us open our ears, and follow God’s lead.
Picture attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. A potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56317 [retrieved November 27, 2017]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.