Don’t make me come down there: Dec. 3

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December 4, 2017

Year B, Advent 1                                                                    
Isaiah 64:1-9                                                                          

            Have any of you seen the billboards on the side of the highway with messages from God?  They have a black background and white letters.  They say things like:

 “That ‘love thy neighbor thing’—I meant it.” 

   Or “My way is the highway.”
  Or, one of my favorites: “I don’t question your existence.”

         While these are fairly light hearted, there are some that seem a little threatening. “You think it’s hot here?”  or “Don’t make me come down there.”  That 2nd one is a little perplexing to me.  It alludes to the threat of an angry parent warning rowdy children that if they have to come down there, things will get ugly.  That seems like a strange way to envision God’s 2nd coming.   Should we be afraid of God coming?  I always thought that we should look forward to the coming of God.  Isn’t that what we do during Advent…we anticipate the arrival of Jesus.

            If we look around us in our culture at this time of year we see bright lights, decorated trees and houses.  We smell homemade cookies and cinnamon.  We feel the warmth of a fire or a comfy blanket.  Our world is telling us that this time before Christmas is a time of joy and comfort.  It is a time to celebrate and enjoy the sweeter things in life. It’s a time to indulge. The Bible readings are telling us that this is a time to get serious because judgment is coming.  It’s quite a juxtaposition.

            Our Gospel reading is talking about the darkening sun and stars falling from the sky.  It’s essentially talking about the end of the world.  It ends with a slightly foreboding warning: “Keep awake.” The Old Testament reading (Isaiah) is a lament of desperate people begging God to tear the heavens apart.  It’s not exactly the kind of stuff that puts you in the holiday spirit.  Instead of talking about Mark’s vision of the end of the world, I thought I would focus on Isaiah’s depiction of present suffering.  Isaiah was one of the great prophets.  He is the prophet most quoted in the New Testament. The Book of Isaiah is also one of the longest books in the Bible.

Because it is such a long book and covers several decades, scholars typically break it into three sections.  The first third tells of Isaiah warning the people of imminent destruction if they do not change their ways.  The 2ndthird talks about the Hebrew people living in exile because they were attacked and forced to leave their home (because they did not listen to Isaiah).  The final third is supposed to be the happy ending.  It’s the time when the Hebrew people return to the land that they have been singing, praying, and dreaming about.  They are finally home.  But now it is in ruins and they have to rebuild.  This was not the happy ending they were expecting. 

I bet many of us have had that experience.  We have been in a difficult period in our life. Then we think, we just need to get through this period and all will be well. Then our prayers are answered and we make it through the hard time, but our problems are still there at the other side of the darkness.  Things are better, but there is still work to be done and by now, we are tired.  So it was with the Israelites. They were weary.  They had been through so much.  They did not have the energy or the will to start over. 

            In our reading for today, the first line is: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains will quake at your presence—as when a fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” The Hebrew people were facing the ruins of their former life and the land that they loved.  In desperation, they were asking for God to make his presence known.  Typically, when we think of God’s presence, we think of something warm of comforting.  Yet the Hebrew people were under no such illusion.  They knew what it was to be in the presence of God and it was not comforting.  It was quite the opposite.

This picture of the heavens being torn open and quaking mountains is most likely an allusion to the story of Moses and the 10 commandments.  In that story, Moses had led the people out of slavery and after about 3 months of wandering and complaining, Moses brought the people to the edge of a mountain to meet God.  A great cloud shrouded the mountain. There was thunder and lightning.  The people trembled.  They were terrified.  They asked Moses to climb the mountain so that they would not have to. They did not want to be any closer to God than they already were.  Thus, in our reading for today, when they asked God to tear open the heavens, they knew what they were asking. They knew that God’s presence would be holy and sacred, but it would be a challenge as well. But they also knew what it was to be without God.  They had experienced that.  They chose a holy fear, rather than an apathetic and numb existence. 

            In our reading for today, after begging God to come down, the people repented.  They admitted that they had been worthless.  They had sinned. Not only did they confess their sins, but they acknowledged that they were powerless to improve their situation. They said, “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 inequity.”   That admittance of powerlessness was probably one of the hardest things for them to say.  It’s something that most of us struggle with, our inability to control things, even though we try so hard. 

            Yet…yet.  That is the where the tone changes.  The narrative moves from the past to the present.  The Hebrew people were no longer talking about what was in the past.  With this simple word: “yet” they moved to something entirely different.  “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Yet.  They were saying: Whatever has happened in the past,  whatever way we sinned, You are our father…now.  You created us.  Even in our flawed and incomplete state, we are still yours. So you can’t be angry forever because we are all your people. 

            In the church, we often contrast the season of Advent with what is going on in the world around us.  Advent tells us to slow down.  The world tells us to overcompensate. Yet that slowing down isn’t a spiritual vacation, it’s a time to examine our lives, where we have succeeded, but also where we have fallen short—especially in regards to our faith journey.  It is a time of preparation not just for the sweet baby Jesus, but for a God who can tear the heavens apart and light up the sky…for a God who expects greatness from us because we are created in his image. 

While I would never want people to be afraid of God, I do think that we need to spend more time in awe of God…perhaps even tremble before his majesty.  It is one thing to confess our sins to God—it is an entirely different thing to throw ourselves at the mercy of our creator. In doing so, we are not only admitting our past sins, we are admitting that we will sin again.  We cannot save ourselves.  While God can be quite intimidating at times…in the end, he made us.  We are his children.  God will never forget that.  The question is, are we willing to live into that kind of vulnerability and trust—to be the children of God. Not only to be the children of God, but children who are willing to be molded and changed by God’s loving hands.  It is not enough to be created by God. We also need to be changed by God.

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