SJF • Advent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGO that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence... You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We come today to the beginning of a new church year, on this the first Sunday of Advent. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas — which falls on a Sunday this year — we will be hearing many texts of Scripture dealing with the theme of preparation for the Lord’s coming, both his first coming among us in Bethlehem as a child, and the second coming when he will return in power and great might to judge and rule the world.
Today we heard, and on the next two Sundays we will be hearing, passages from the prophet Isaiah. I will be taking them as my primary theme for reflection in this season of anticipation.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Isaiah both in Jewish history and in how the Christian church made use of his prophecies — many of which came in short order to be understood as explicitly related to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Passages from the book of Isaiah are threaded through our Advent and Lenten seasons in particular: for Isaiah is the prophet both of the Lord’s coming and of the Suffering Servant.
For the Jewish people, the prophecies of Isaiah were a source of comfort and reassurance in the times leading up to their captivity in Babylon and through it and beyond. So extensive are these prophecies that some modern scholars suggest that there may well have been two or even three different “Isaiahs” all contributing to this collection of prophetic writing over as long as four hundred years.
But my purpose here is not to engage in literary criticism or historical speculation — my interest is in asking what this text meant in its own time and what it means for us today.
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The text we have before us comes from the later chapters of the book of Isaiah itself. In its form it represents a good example of a fairly common biblical model: a personal encounter with God, combining elements of accusation, confession, and petition. Confession and petition we are all fairly familiar with — as it forms a major part of our own ordinary Sunday worship. But accusation? We Christians don’t normally display that Jewish characteristic of chutzpah — evident in people such as Abraham and Job and Jeremiah — to stand up and wag our fingers in God’s face.
But Isaiah does. In the first part of the passage he is basically saying to God, in a challenge, “Why don’t you show yourself if you want people to believe in you? Especially to those who deny you — those pagan nations that have been persecuting your people? Why don’t you act as you did back in the old days; when you tore open the heaven and came down like a mighty fire; when you split open the earth and made it quake?” Isaiah is challenging God to act as he did when he brought his people out of Egypt, when he brought about tumult and destruction in the land of Canaan, leveling the walls of Jericho, and delivered his people from the hands of those who sought to destroy them, bringing them to and settling them in a land of promise: that promised land of milk and honey.
Now, so far, in all of this Isaiah has been saying the kinds of things that appear elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture, especially in the appeals made to God in the Psalms. He is lamenting the fact that God seems to have hidden himself; that God is no longer manifest to the world, no longer helping his people. But then Isaiah says something rather astounding: “You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” I’m tempted to say, “Oh now it’s God’s fault!”
But fortunately, Isaiah doesn’t stop with blaming God for the sins of the people. As he makes clear in the rest of the passage, he is simply trying to show how completely dependent the people are upon God. Without God helping them, of course they fall into sin — without God’s constant help and support, even the best and most righteous of them is like a filthy cloth. The autumn season of this people is well underway: they’ve faded like leaves and their iniquities like the wind have blown them all away. They are like a tree that has been uprooted and removed from its soil. They are no longer planted in God, and so they wither away and perish. They have even given up praying — they are so disappointed and despondent because God has not shown himself for so long, has hidden his face from them for so long, that they have given up. They have despaired.
And then, of course, out of the depths of this despond, Isaiah turns to his affirmation: and yet you are our God. In spite of all of the feelings of abandonment, even of betrayal, God is still God and this people are the work of God’s hand. God is the potter and they are the clay. And Isaiah ends with an appeal to God to remember and forgive his people. The uprooted tree will be planted once again.
What Isaiah, and the other prophets and poets who wrote and spoke in the same way have learned is precisely how powerful are those words, “You don’t love me anymore”!
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This is the appeal that a loving God cannot and will not resist. For of course God loves this people, loves them as dearly as any lover ever did, loves them with the fiercely jealous love of a husband who suspects his wife has strayed, loves them with the powerful and protective love of a mother for her child in danger.
This appeal reminds me of a very powerful scene in a Yiddish film that was produced in Germany just before the Nazi assault on the Jews began in earnest. In its own way it was, sadly, as prophetic as Isaiah.
The film is set in a nineteenth century shtetl, in Eastern Europe in the era of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when and where the main enemies of the Jewish people were Russians and Poles, not Nazis. A village has been reduced to rubble by a marauding band of Cossacks. They’ve burned down the synagogue, raped the young women and killed most of the young men in the village. One old man is left sitting in the midst of the devastation, having rescued a precious Torah scroll from the fire. He sits in the ashes with the Torah scroll in his arms like a wounded child, rocking and weeping. And like a modern Isaiah, he raises his voice to God in a lament:
Why have you done this to your people, O God? Why have you allowed this to happen? Down through the ages, again and again we are persecuted and killed for your sake! I will not be silent; I will raise my voice and cry out to you, like a child who calls out to its mother. “Mama, Mama; it hurts!”
That old man, like Isaiah, hoped that God would hear and respond to this lament — though the response might be delayed, God the just judge — and even more the loving parent to these children — would hear this plea, and ultimately save and deliver his people. When all else fails, when other defenders are ready to give up, when human justice fails, the only plea that makes sense is to appeal to the highest court of all, before the judgment seat of the Almighty, even if it means calling out, “Don’t you love me any more?”
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So, while appearing to blame it all on God, this is actually an appeal to God, a way to evoke a response from God who will not ignore or reject the appeal of those whom God does love so much. It is an appeal to God to be God. For God is love, and is always more willing to forgive than we are to pray. So, then, let us pray that God will be God. And in our own times of trial, personal and communal, and feelings of loss or abandonment, kindle the fire of hope that God will save those whom he loves, and has called to be his own. That God will plant our leafless trees by streams of living water.+