O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 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!When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 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. 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.
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. 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. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Where do we pin our hopes?
When we’re looking for the light in the darkness, where do we shift our focus?
The reading from Isaiah opens and closes with petitions to God. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 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! It’s a lament, a string of emotions and not necessarily a coherent and rational argument. There’s a strong invocation of justice – the God’s eye view of justice that flattens our false inequalities.
I spent last Monday night watching the news on Ferguson about a grand jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown. I read so many articles online and watched on social media as my friends responded, many with anguish and heartache. I too, wondered: Why? Why do a swath of my fellow citizens feel so powerless that they see rioting as their only outlet for a voice? Why do authorities request peace while withholding the necessary ingredients of their own repentance and reconciliation? Why do so many look to the few looters so they can dismiss the many nonviolent protesters? Why does a narrative of fear and mistrust drive a wedge between neighbors and citizens? Why are certain important parts of our nation’s history with race swept under the rug and conveniently forgotten about?
These questions have been swimming in my head all week and my search for answers has only brought more frustration. Perhaps the best conclusion I’ve found to give you this morning is this: We need Advent. Advent is about the reality of the darkness in our world and the need for a savior and that need remains with us to this day. When we’re in literal darkness, what do our eyes do to adjust and help us see? (The pupils dilate so they can take in more light) Perhaps our practice in Advent is about widening our spiritual pupils, taking in more of the world around us and seeing it. Seeing darkness that still plagues the earth in systematic injustice, in cyclical poverty that we turn a blind eye to, in ignoring the humanity in those we can label as ‘other.’
But if we’re willing to open our pupils wide enough, perhaps we’ll find that darkness isn’t so much a force ‘out there’ but something rooted in our own sin. I’ll stand up here and be the first to tell you, I did well in U.S. History, and I am about a 12th generation Kentuckian, but it took some time to add two and two together. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago, I sat down with an aunt who had done extensive genealogy work for our family and she had so many interesting stories to share, but also, she showed me some wills that our ancestors drafted in the 1830’s “bequeathing” their property which included some ‘negro boys’ in their estate — in no uncertain terms, my own ancestors’ livelihood, which was the foundation for my great-grandparents and my grandparents and my parents and ultimately for me, was built on the broken hearts and broken backs of slaves.
What do I make of this? These sins are not mine to confess, but if we take seriously the call to justice from Isaiah, these are my sins to repent. I love my family, and I’m grateful for the wonderful qualities I’ve inherited from them, but when my family narrative forgets the reality of the inhumane cost involved, we are diminishing justice.
What are the stories and narratives that bind us as families and as communities and as nations? Do these stories perhaps diminish justice? How do these stories inform our understanding of our selves and our role in the world? Where do these stories try to ignore or even justify collective sin and where does that collective sin manifest itself today? I may not know Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, but as the author writes in Isaiah, we have all become like the unclean and our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
This Isaiah reading comes from the time of the return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. It should have been a wonderful time. There were great expectations for favor and blessing in this time. But God’s absence is deafening. There’s anxiety and distress and they invoke God to act as warrior and champion for justice. They want a messiah and they want their Messiah to drive out the Romans and rebuild Jerusalem to its glory days. They want the muscles and the strength and the decisiveness and action. Remember that image in a little over 4 weeks when we meet an infant born in a manger.
The hope, the savior, the messiah that we’re preparing for this advent, he won’t return us to our glory days. Instead, he ushers in something new — the Kingdom of God.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Let us remember that network of mutuality in our own work to build the kingdom of God. Let us find the courage to listen with empathy to the difficult stories happening in our nation today.
The savior comes for all nations and peoples. The savior comes for the Michael Browns and the Darren Wilsons, the grieving mothers and the unsympathetic observers. The savior comes for the ones who know they need saving, and the ones who can’t recognize their own limits. For the slaves and the slave-owners.
The two petitions that open and close the reading from Isaiah? The second one is this: Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
We are all your people.
(Many thoughts here were inspired by a myriad of bloggers who’ve written well on the subject. One of particular note is Christena Cleveland, who you should check out now.)