Friday, December 05, 2014

Waiting For God

Waiting for God
Isaiah 64:1-9[1]
In 1966, the cover of Time magazine asked the question “Is God Dead?”[2] In fact they were not the first to raise that question. Philosophers and Theologians have been debating the issue for at least a couple hundred years, and the debate continues. At various times in history, traumatic events and cultural upheaval, coupled with what can at best be called a superficial faith, have caused many to question whether God exists, or at least whether God still cares. The gas chambers of Auschwitz, the killing fields in Cambodia, the rise of diseases like AIDS and Ebola, natural disasters, and our own personal tragedies all challenge our faith in a God who cares and works in our lives to bring grace and peace and love and new life. It can feel very much like we’re on our own in this world at times.
The people whom the prophet was addressing definitely felt like God had forgotten them. After losing everything at the hands of the Babylonians, they had kept up at least a whiff of faith during their exile with the promise that God would again “let his face shine” (Ps. 80:3) upon them and graciously restore them to their homes and their lives and their land.[3] But when they got back to Judea after their long years of exile, the reality of their “new life” fell far short of what they had hoped. The temple lay in ruins. Even the city of Jerusalem had no walls to protect them. Instead of returning to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” they returned to a land that had been devastated by war and left a wasteland. Their lives were harder than ever, and it seemed that the God of their deliverance was nowhere to be found.[4]
In that situation, the prophet speaks aloud the questions that must have been on the minds of the people. After all they had suffered, he asked “where are your zeal and your might?” (Isa. 63:15) and “will you keep silent?” (64:12). Their circumstances and God’s seeming silence and absence contradicted what they had been told for generations, that God “will never forsake you.”[5] They simply could not comprehend being abandoned by the God who revealed himself time and again as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). And yet there they were crying out to God, asking why God had forsaken them.[6]
The prophet could have given them a lot of different answers. Like many in that day, he could have assured them that God would shortly make all their hopes come true. But that is not what this prophet does.[7] This prophet moves from lamenting God’s silence and absence to the confession of sin. In the name of the people, he confesses “We have all become like one who is unclean” (Isa. 64:6). The prophet omits no one from his heart-wrenching confession: “we all” echoes throughout the passage like a bell tolling: we all, we all, we all.[8] Regardless of their situation, “we all” leaves no one out. The people had forsaken their God, time after time for centuries. No one could protest, “but I never did anything wrong.”
And yet, though the confession of sin at this point might seem only to make matters worse, it is precisely the way to recover hope. After pouring out his heart in confession, the prophet returns to the faith that they who had stumbled badly still remained God’s people. He recalls that “you are our Father,” and he calls on God to act accordingly (64:8). Just as “we all” had turned away from God, the prophet reminds both God and God’s people that “we all” are your people (64:9). The prophet points out to God that their lives and their lands remained in ruins, and asks, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:12).[9]
It would seem that when it feels like God is absent and all hope is lost, one path to restoring our hope takes us through confession and repentance. In this season, I’m not sure we want to hear about confession and repentance. We’re ramping up for the festivities of shopping and cooking and gathering and celebrating. The last thing on our minds is confession and repentance. And yet that is precisely what the season of Advent is: a time to “prepare the way for the Lord” by examining our own hearts and lives. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, like the people of Judah, “we all” have fallen.
The season of Advent is a time when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves, whether we want to or not. If you look at our society, it seems that more and more we as a people are living as if God were dead. So many in our culture are disillusioned and seem to be just fine living what can seem almost a God-forsaken existence. Even for those of us who still look to God, the feeling of having been abandoned by a God who seems absent and silent can provoke feelings from guilt and shame to fear and even anger. But the season of Advent calls us all to confess that we have fallen short, and in doing so to entrust our lives again to the God who remains our Father no matter what.[10] Advent is a discipline that calls us to wait in repentance and faith for the only one who can restore us: God our savior.[11]


[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/30/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Time Magazine, April 8, 1966.
[3] Cf. Isa. 35:1-10; cf. also Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-10; 49:5-13.
[4] Cf. Roy W. Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” Interpretation 62 (Oct  2008): 418: “With great expectation and hope the exiles headed home to reestablish their distinctive way of life as God's people, seen chiefly in the reconstruction of the temple. However, a crisis arises because of the contrast between the lavish promises recounted in Second Isaiah and the reality they encounter in Jerusalem. The burning question now is "Where are you, God?" What has become of the promises for restoration proclaimed in exile?”
[5] Cf. Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16.
[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 531: “How hard it is to genuinely recall God’s pure love and goodness when these are absent, and when distress is the governing condition. How much easier it is to assume that we were led astray by descriptions of God’s character, or that the good God has done for us in the past was not really divine goodness at all, but a stroke of fate. Yet Israel’s hope is genuinely grounded in God’s character as God. ... Whatever confusion or distress we may feel under the hand of God, God remains truly God and truly good. We must interpret God’s absence as a request, a demand, that we come to terms with God as God is.”
[7] Cf. Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word & World 17 (Fall 1997): 442: “The dark side of God is not explained away; rather, it is prayed against with questions that God must address and with imperatives that God must carry out. ... False prophets announced a hopeful future that claimed exemption from the dark side of God .... The hope of which the canonical prophets spoke was grounded in the reality of human sin and consequent exile and judgment .... It was a word that needed to be authorized by God because only God could bring it about. ... The canonical prophets were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.”
[8] Cf. J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 906. Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 419: “Everything must be laid bare with language that leaves no one unexposed to the untamable God who will not be assuaged by false piety or illusions of moral righteousness. Everyone is unclean. The community’s standard for righteousness has itself become toxic.”
[9] Cf. Kathleen Norris, “Apocalypse Now ,” The Christian Century (Nov 15, 2005):19: “The good news is that we are all in this together. ... How remarkable that God refuses to give up on us.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “With this naked faith, he humbly pleads with God to be God (w. 8-9). At the heart of the covenant is the relationship now tenderly evoked: ‘... you are our Father.’ Without the One who begets, Israel is nothing. As clay is to the potter, so the people are to God: utterly dependent, the work of God’s hand.”
[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:390, where he describes the righteousness of God in the face of the people’s sin, affirming that “In the process of judging, rejecting and punishing, God does not break but keeps His covenant, and therefore comforts, helps and saves.”
[11] Cf. Will Willimon, “Going Against the Stream,” The Christian Century (Dec 19, 1984):1193, where he says that “The hope for us, says the church in Advent, is that we are out of hope, and we know it.” Therefore he urges that it is a time to “Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us.” And he prays “God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.”  Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 240,  “The doubts, the contradictions, the tensions, the pains that have been expressed in the lament are not thereby resolved. But they are lifted up in one final impassioned plea to the only one who can help.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “The people pray, yet God is the Holy One of Israel who cannot be tamed and whose actions cannot be guaranteed. All that remains is a people exposed and dependent upon God who is bound to them, no matter what, and them to God, again, no matter what. Odd as it is to our ears, this is astonishingly good news.”

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