Trying to Get Our Own Way
This Sunday, we begin the Advent season of waiting for the promised Messiah. The first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope. This week’s passage from Isaiah brings us a lament about a people in dire need of hope. They feel distant from God, but as Vernon writes, they may not be ready to take full responsibility for their own role in their current troubles. In order for a turning, a change of heart must happen. That turning, and the waiting required for it to happen, is what Advent is about.
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.
This is the first Sunday in advent. Contrary to the secular festivities of the season, liturgically, advent is a time of waiting and a time of darkness. In order to understand it, we need to look through the eyes of the Hebrew people. Things had not gone so well for them. The promises of their faith were not matching up very well with their real life experiences. Their collective history included far more travail than triumph.
Hopefully you are familiar with the history. In the time of Abraham (around 2000 BCE), Abraham’s people were a tiny nomadic group. Through Abraham they had been promised land, told they were the chosen people, that they would be a great nation and that all people would be blessed through them. This wandering group of nobodies would be great. But in real life, the journey would be circuitous and for much of their history, the promises did not match their experience. For every success, there were major setbacks.
Faced with famine, Abraham’s grandson Jacob migrated to Egypt where his son Joseph had risen to power. But, in a few short years, this ‘salvation’ became enslavement. Then, after years of slavery. Moses led the people out of Egypt through the wilderness, toward the promised land. That journey was so difficult the people wished aloud that they could return to slavery rather than move forward into uncertainty. Upon arrival, the land’s occupants were not too keen on ceding their land. It took generations of assimilation and warfare, but finally the tribes became the nation of Israel under David and Solomon. Had God’s promises finally been fulfilled? Not so much. It wasn’t long before the kingdom divided, was conquered, and the people sent in exile. Their golden age lasted about 100 years—5% of their history from Abraham to Jesus.
The people were not happy. And that brings us to this lament in Isaiah. It was written as the people were returning from exile to a defeated land. We’ve all been in this predicament. We seek the promises of God but discover all kinds of real life contradictions to those promises.
There are a couple of features I want to focus on. First, the lament itself reflects a particular set of assumptions about who God is—-that I do not believe are sustainable in real life. Second, based on those assumptions, Isaiah uses a variety of familiar tactics to flatter, blame and implore God to be the God they expected and needed. Whenever we try to hold on to the God we expect and need, we are likely to miss out on who he is. It is not all clear what is in the heart of the writer. Is he primarily trying to manage God or is he coming to grips with his own limitations?
If it is the former, the prophet is calling out for God to do his job better. He has the power, he just isn’t using it for his people. If it is the latter, Isaiah finally gives up telling God what he should do for him and he confesses a new relationship with God in which he must trustingly wait. He must give up the idea that his circumstances indicate God’s care.
We all want a God who protects and cares for us in the ways we would wish. One person in FIRL called such a God, the Santa Claus God. He brings us presents (or a lump of coal) and he knows who is naughty and nice. We must give up such a God to be open to Emanuel. Our faith does not protect us from suffering. It gives us a way to live through it. Nor do the gifts we receive indicate how much God loves us.
But typically Emanuel is not the God we seek. It is nearly impossible not to think of God in parental terms. Though there are plenty of examples of bad parents, most of us have some idealized idea about what a good parent is. We need someone to take care of us. Every child is profoundly vulnerable and without care will die. That need does not disappear as we age. At every stage of life, we will have times of fear, despair and hardship when we feel lost and bereft. The not so subtle belief is that such difficulties would or should be avoidable. A good parent loves us; a good parent provides and protects. Even if our parents failed us or we failed as parents, there must be some parents who can do it right. Surely there must be such a God.
And at least part of this passage is addressed to such a God. The people needed relief and call for God to intervene—as he should, if his promises are reliable. The strategies the prophet uses are all too human and familiar. I see them in my office every week. In the first four and half verses, he begins with praise—or is it flattery? You have the power to move mountains. We remember your mighty acts. Be what you used to be. In ordinary relationships it sounds like: ‘You’re not the man who courted me. You’re not the woman I married. You used to be kind and considerate. I know you can do it. You just won’t.’ The same words can be words of grief or attempts to shame another into compliance. The heart and the tone make all the difference.
But in the middle of verse five we have a very large ‘BUT’ and the writer explicitly tries to shift responsibility to God—’ you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.’ Human shortcomings are now God’s fault. God should know that and quit being so angry. It is reminiscent of Adam’s evasion when confronted—it was the woman you gave me. It is really God’s doing. Or in marriages, ‘if you hadn’t been so distant, I wouldn’t have started drinking.’ If you had been more sexually available, I wouldn’t have had an affair.’
I could go through the rest of the passage in the same vein. Just because the words are written or said doesn’t mean we know what they are saying. The very same words can reflect contrition or new relationship. The very same words can be manipulative or humble. The meaning depends on the heart. And that is not always obvious.
We should always be aware that we bring our personal histories and context into every passage. My own take this year has been greatly influenced by some specific clients who are excellent at saying the right things but have an entirely different agenda. Even their confessions are attempts to manage outcomes and to bend other people to their point of view. My most egregious example is the man who embezzled from his wife’s business but now argues that his wife is unchristian because she is not ready to forgive. After all, he apologized. He wants things as they were. He does not want to seriously engage his complicity or that her forgiveness can not be required.
In real life, we can only do what we can do. As in life, scripture doesn’t always have neat conclusions.. We often take many wrong turns to get to our destination. The Bible is about real people struggling with their God. I have no trouble imagining Isaiah in such a struggle. Life is messy. We have many examples of wheedling, entitled behavior. Even the ‘I am the clay you are the potter may have been a last attempt to tell God to quit being so harsh—after all if it is he that has made us, we are not truly responsible.’ But, whether or not Isaiah is an example of such complexity and/or an example of his surrender to God, remains to be seen. Eventually we have to let go. We may do so very reluctantly but we must yield to God if we are ever to find him.
Many times the only way we yield is after we’ve tried everything we know to hold on to what we know. But, the shape of our lives is in God’s hands. We may not like where we find ourselves but that is not our call. Ultimately waiting for God means giving up our way of thinking about God—and waiting, often uncomfortably, for new possibilities. Apologies and contrition require a willingness to be accountable—and once again, waiting. We must give up the idea we can control outcomes or fix things. Both require a turning, a change of heart. And in real life that change of heart is often the product of fierce resistance and darkness.
That is what the time of advent is for.
May we wait and trust—-no matter how uncomfortably for the God who is coming for us all. Let it be so.