Sunday, November 30, 2008

God's Coming - Isaiah 64:1-9

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.

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy New Year. According to the secular calendar, I’m about a month too early. But according to the church’s calendar, this first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year. Advent always marks, for us, a new beginning, a time for us to wait in hopeful expectation for the presence of God to be born in our midst.

In our text this morning, that’s exactly what the prophet is waiting for. He writes as part of a people in exile, a people who have been cut off and destitute, a people who have become strangers in a strange land. He writes as part of a people who have lost everything they have ever known, a people who have become increasingly fearful and uncertain about the future. He writes as part of a people who desperately need some fresh hope.

Given our need for hope in the midst of a fearful and uncertain world, it seems a timely word for us as well. In our post-9/11 world, the threat of terrorism seems ever-present, and Homeland Security reinforces that fear as the threat level moves from yellow to orange to red. Economic policies of greed have led us into the worst financial crisis of the last 70 years, and in the last year, many of you have watched your 401(k) shrink to a 201(k). Unemployment is rising, inflation is picking up speed, and we are uncertain about the future. Yes, there is a word in the prophet’s message for us, as well. May we pray.

In our text, the people of Israel had been conquered by Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed, and the proud people who had once understood their nation to be uniquely blessed by God were humiliated, defeated, despairing, and fearful. Most of the people had been dragged off into slavery to their captors, and those who remained were reduced to eating dogs and rats. It is in this world, this world so desperately in need of hope, that Advent begins.

Israel knew from experience that the journey from fear to hope begins in remembering. They recall God’s mighty deeds in the past, times when they knew God’s presence and witnessed God’s power. They remember. Now, an important note here: memory is not the same thing as nostalgia. Memory says, “1955 was a great time.” Nostalgia says, “1955 was a great time and I wish we could re-create it again.” Nostalgia is a sickness and should be numbered among the mortal sins. Longing for the “good old days,” which, by the way, were not good for everyone, might very well jeopardize the hope of the future because of our emotional attachment to the past. We can spend so much time trying to re-create significant moments and experiences of our past that we are blind to the possibilities God places into our future, and unable to act on them when we do see them.

Let me tell you my experience of the difference between memory and nostalgia this week. On Friday night, I attended my high school reunion. It was 10 years for the graduating class of 1998 from Niagara Falls High School. I was driving over to the school, thinking to myself about who might be there and what they’ve been up to. Yes, I will confess, I was wondering who got fat. I wanted to know who was now bald. Then I looked in the rear-view mirror and thought I’d wonder about something else. I wanted to know who had the most kids. I wanted to know who had become a real success, and I wanted to know who was pretty much where they had been when we graduated.

Now, I remember high school, but for a few hours on Friday night, I felt myself re-living it in some sense. I was there sitting with the same people I ate lunch with for four years, carrying on as if it hadn’t been 10 years since I had returned some of their phone calls. Someone looked across the room at a girl we all used to pick on, and said, “Oh, can you believe SHE showed up?” I was thinking, “Ummmmmm, are we still in high school?” And then someone leaned over to me and said it. “This is great, don’t you wish it was still like this? Don’t you wish we were still in high school?”

I just wanted to scream! Sure, I remember high school, but I don’t want to re-live it! I just wanted to say, “You know, we weren’t as cool as we thought we were. Look, they’re showing the senior class video and slide show right now! Look at us! We weren’t that cool then, and we’re not that cool now! Do you realize how self-centered we were? Do you remember how mean we were to some people?” Why on earth would I want to re-live that?

For some people, high school is a memory. For others, it’s a place they continue to live, holding onto golden memories that never happened. That’s the difference between memory and nostalgia.

For people of faith, memory gives us something we can hang onto in difficult times. Memory gives us a collective story that we can share with one another. Memory reminds us of difficult times during our times of abundance, and it reminds us of abundant times during our times of scarcity. Memory gives us hope when the world tells us to fear. The prophet calls on the past experiences of the people to remind them of the power and presence of God in their lives. Memory gives us a voice for our faith when it seems God is silent.

For the author of Isaiah and the people of Israel, God had been silent lately. Isaiah cries, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” Now, I don’t believe that God is ever silent or stops speaking. I do think that the noise and distractions in our lives, as well as the receptivity of our hearts, can keep us from hearing God. Just as there are radio waves constantly bouncing through this room, we can’t hear them unless we have a receiver and are tuned in to the right frequency.

From the pit of despair, from the absolute bottom of the barrel, Isaiah calls for God to come to earth. We all know that’s exactly what happened 2000 years ago. God tore open the heavens and came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah called for God to come down, and Jesus was the fulfillment of that request.

No doubt, we will hear the Christmas story told many times and in many ways over the next month. In many of those tellings, it will be a sugar-coated sentimental story complete with smiling animals, angelic choirs, and wisemen who racked up a whole bunch of camel caravan miles. But as we re-tell that story, let us remember what was actually taking place. Let us not forget that the baby to be born is none other than God come to earth. The baby to be born is going to bring in a brand new world order. The baby to be born is going to establish a new kingdom whose values are completely opposite the values of the world. The baby to be born is going to save the world from itself.

Jesus’ birth is not going to be an isolated event happening to a poor couple at the edge of the empire. His birth is going to turn his family into political refugees. They will flee for their lives as every existing base of power, every institution, every preserver of the status quo is threatened to its core. Sure enough, as that baby grew, he threatened every power he encountered. If you are comfortably identified with the party in power, and someone comes along and declares a new order, you’d have a lot to fear. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God – that rough places were to be made plain, every valley exalted, every hill made low. He bound up the broken-hearted, he healed the wounded, he offered hope to the hopeless. He proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed. That’s good news if you’re one of the captives, the blind, or the oppressed, but it’s not such good news if you’re one of the captors or the oppressors. The kingdom of God comes as good news to those on the bottom, but it sometimes appears to be bad news to those on the top. His kingdom continues to threaten every power and principality of this world.

In that light, it makes it difficult for us to over-sentimentalize the events that will take place in Bethlehem. We are not preparing for the birth of one baby among many; we are preparing for the messy and intrusive introduction of God into the world. We are preparing for everything to be turned upside-down and topsy-turvy.

But a word of caution for us here. When we locate ourselves in the Christmas story, as much as we think we want to be, we’re not in Bethlehem. We’re back in Rome, back in the bosom of the empire, cozied up around the fire with the powers and principalities. As a nation, we have enjoyed economic prosperity and security while other parts of the world have known poverty and vulnerability. We’ve bought into the idea that the more we can buy and the more security we can obtain, the happier we’ll be. We feed a system that tells our happiness is intrinsically-linked to how much stuff we obtain; the more we feed it, the more it demands of us. The more it demands, the more we feed it.

But, don’t you feel a certain emptiness from that system? I know I do. Don’t you feel that system is somehow broken? I know I do, and I think the events of the past few months illustrate this. Our current economic crisis is evidence that our appetite for economic expansion was greater than could be sustained. Advertisers have promised us that happiness lies in the purchase of that new car, that new home, that new electronic gadget, and this time of year we launch into our annual yuletide tradition of overspending, overdrinking, over-getting and over-giving, just hoping that this will be the year our emptiness is filled. Yet, the cold gray of January credit card bills will come, the tinsel will fade and the lights will come down, and once again, we’ll find the promised “Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward all” never materialized, and all we have are a few more trinkets and a mountain of bills. It’s hardly the happiness we expected.

But friends, there is hope. The prophet Isaiah looks for hope in a God who comes to earth, a God who self-empties, a God who, though he is rich, yet for our sakes becomes poor. The hope to which we look forward will be born in a stable in Bethlehem, and will bring in the kingdom of God. Hope that comes not from our political system, or our new toys, or our drugs, or our weapons, or our white Christmas. When the promises for happiness made by the powers and principalities of this world are proven to fail, hope comes to each of us, to the entire world, in fact, in the way of Jesus.

Oh yes, there is hope! Hope, says the prophet, comes not in wealth, security, pride, or the dizzying spiral of self-determinism. It comes when we realize that the prosperity and protection promised are empty and hollow. It comes from repenting of all these things and believing that a new way of healing and mercy can and will be born within each of us and within our world.

Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the people of God do the things of God. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we forgive, when we welcome, when we heal, when we establish peace, the presence of God is born in our world. Of all the things Jesus did when he was on earth, he promised that his disciples, his followers, including us, would do even greater things than he did. I believe he meant just that!

Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the Church acts like the Church– the redemptive community ordained to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We as the Church are not here for our own interests. We are not a country club. We are not a social service agency. We are not solely a non-profit organization. We have been called and established by God to be the agents of healing and hope in the world, to be the hands and feet of Christ, to bring light into dark places, to invite people on the margins of our society right into the center of God’s community, to freely and abundantly share the love of God. We are here not for our own interests, but for the world God so loved that he sent his one and only son that whoever believed in him would have life in his name. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world would be made new.

Friends, the transformation of the world hangs in the balance, and we are the ones called to bring it about. If we’re waiting for the government to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for the financial institutions to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for someone else to do it, it’s just not gonna happen. The hope of advent is that the kingdom of God really will be established on the earth, and this is an active hope that begs our participation.

I ask you, do you want to sit idly by and hope that something is going to happen, or do you want to be part of transforming the world? I ask you, do you want to be part of transforming the world? Somebody tell me, do you want to be part of transforming the world? This Christmas, when we celebrate how God has & continues to tear open the heavens & come down, do you want to be part of transforming the world? You can be.

This Christmas, I challenge all of us to live a little simpler in order that others may simply live. As December 25 draws near, I challenge each of us to cut what we’re planning to spend on Christmas gifts in half. Then, give half that amount to an organization or charity of your choosing that is directly involved in bringing hope into the lives of people without hope. Or, if you choose to spend the same amount on Christmas gifts as before, I challenge you to give an equal amount to one of these organizations. There are many good organizations you can give to. Samaritan’s Purse, right here in Boone, is obviously a good one. We’ve already heard about the Shoeboxes that are sent through Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse is also involved in the Children’s Heart project, sustainable water and agricultural projects, education, and a host of humanitarian services around the world. Several folks in our church work with Samaritan’s Purse, and I know they could tell you some of the areas of greatest need.

For myself, I will be giving half the amount I would normally spend on gifts to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for ongoing humanitarian work in the Darfur region of Western Sudan in Africa. Right now in Darfur, civil unrest, hunger, and disease have taken the lives of between 300,000 and 400,000 people since 2003. More than 2 million men, women, and children are refugees with little drinkable water, food, protection, or hope. The United Nations has identified Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is already in Darfur, working on sustainable agriculture and clean water projects, as well as training teachers and providing education for the hundreds of thousands of displaced children. 100% of what I send will be used directly in relief as administrative overhead costs are funded through other sources. If you would also like to contribute to this cause, tell me, and I’ll make sure you get the information on how you can send your gift in. We can all make a difference in the lives of people without hope.

During this advent season, we prepare for the coming of God into the world. We remember the way God freely and radically gave himself for the salvation of the world. You and I can be part of a solution to bring hope into the places where it is needed most. We pray constantly for God to tear open the heavens and come down into our world, which, in its pain and hurt, forever needs the touch of heaven.

1 comment:

  1. AJ, I'm greatly enjoying your sermons, in a squirmy oh-dear-I'd-better-change-my-life sort of way. ;-) You are an excellent writer.

    This sermon particularly caught me, as it mirrors a lot of what God's been throwing into my life and heart lately. I copied some of it into my personal journal to meditate on this coming week.

    Thank you.

    ~Annie Laurie