Promise | 4th Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1 When the king was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent!”

3 Nathan said to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you are thinking, because the LORD is with you.”

4 But that very night the LORD’s word came to Nathan: 5 Go to my servant David and tell him: This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. 6 In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. 7 Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?

8 So then, say this to my servant David: This is what the LORD of heavenly forces says: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. 9 I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone, and I’ve eliminated all your enemies before you. Now I will make your name great– like the name of the greatest people on earth. 10 I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, 11 when I appointed leaders over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.

And the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make a dynasty for you.

16 Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. (CEB)


Another text that comes to mind when I read this is Isaiah 55: “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.” (8-9 CEB).

These words from the prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always more steps ahead of us than we’d care to admit. We might have our own agendas, but God has an agenda, too, and it’s not always the same as ours. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our agendas—no matter how honorable or righteous our intentions—can stand in contradiction to God’s own. In our text from 2 Samuel, King David has an idea. On the surface, it sounds honorable enough. Now that David is all settled, he wants to build God a house. He consults the prophet, Nathan, who tells him it’s a good idea and he should go ahead.

Yet, right there, the text leaves us with all kinds of questions. We know David’s story, and we know enough about people and human nature that we should be a little suspicious. Throughout history, people in power have used religion to push their own agenda. Over the past several years, we’ve watched in horror as some groups of people have pursued what they call righteousness through evil actions. So, while it appears that David wants to honor God, the statement leaves us wondering. (At least, it leaves me wondering). Might the king also want to build a house for God as a way to honor himself? After all, he’d be forever known as the one who built such a house. As long as it stood, it would be tied to his memory: an enduring memorial to King David of Israel.

And, why does David consult Nathan? Is it because he really wants to know what the prophet has to say, or is it because he wants a religious blessing for his pet political project? Nathan’s initial answer is a little odd, too. He gives David the blessing that the king wanted to hear without even attempting to consult the Lord about it. What we don’t know is whether this is Nathan’s genuine conviction or if he’s bowing to the will of the king like a good brown-nosing lap-dog. To Nathan’s credit, when God speaks to him—though he didn’t bother seeking the Lord’s counsel on the matter—he has enough courage to deliver the message to the king, even though it’s not a message the king will like.

It begs the question, how could both David and Nathan have misjudged God? They were both people of faith. They both knew Israel’s story. They’d lived parts of it. Yet, despite this, they both got God’s designs wrong. Everyone likes to think that God is on their side. But we, like David and Nathan, are prone to misjudging God’s character and purposes.

We should, perhaps, be a little hesitant to link God’s purposes with our own political agendas, like David, or our religious agendas, like Nathan. That doesn’t mean we should never act. But it means that, while we act in good faith, we keep an open heart and mind to the movements of a God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

I tend to wonder where and how God is moving now. And, I wonder in what ways our human agendas and aspirations, however noble they might look, might be hindering the things God wants to do. One thing I think we should always expect from God is the unexpected. Another thing we can expect is that, if we do manage to get in the way, God will work around us. At the same time, God is good enough to post WRONG WAY signs on our path, extend forgiveness, mercy and grace, and invite us to come along with God again.

That’s what happens in this story about David. God’s response to David comes as a warning. The first oracle reminds David about God’s character and freedom. God neither needs nor desires a permanent dwelling, as if God could be contained. “You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (2 Sam. 7:5c-7 CEB).

One of the verbs used in verses 6 and 7 is (הָלַךְ) halak which is move, travel, walk. The Lord has always been a God on the move. Wherever God’s people were located, that’s were God could be found. Abram was at Haran when God told him to set out for the land God would show him. God didn’t wait for Abram to get to Canaan, God sought Abram out in another land. That verb, halak, is one of self-determination. God chooses where God will go, no one chooses for God. The Lord’s message to David is that God is the one who did the walking and moving about in the wilderness. God says, I brought…, I have been traveling…, my traveling….

The same verb is found in Genesis 3:8 where God walked through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve who had hidden themselves. God goes where God wills, and God walks where we are. One of the problems with David’s decision to build a temple is that David is choosing for God. David is attempting to take away God’s self-determination, God’s ability to walk where God chooses to walk. David’s trying to contain God in one place: and since David is choosing the place, it becomes a place which David can control. But how do you contain the uncontainable and control what can’t be controlled? God tells David, I don’t need your house.

That leads to the question God asks in verse 7, Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (CEB). Here, the king is reminded that God was with Israel long before David lived. If God didn’t need Moses, or Aaron, or Miriam, or Joshua, or Caleb, or Deborah to build a permanent temple as a dwelling, then God doesn’t need David to do it either. If God wants someone to build a temple, God will be the initiator of that project.

This part of the warning reminds David that, though he is king of Israel, he’s still a little human being who needs to remember his place in God’s kingdom. God will not be controlled. God will not be domesticated. God will not be contained. God’s sovereignty and self-determination will not be infringed upon by a mere human. When God decides to have a temple built, it’ll be God’s choice, not David’s.

The second oracle changes significantly in tone. Instead of, “This is what the Lord says” (1 Samuel 7:5 CEB), it changes to “This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says” (1 Samuel 7:8 CEB). Instead of addressing David intimately, God speaks as one who holds the power of heaven’s armies. David gets an earful of a reminder about where he came from and how he got where he is now. God made David king. God took David from the pasture and following the flock. God has been with David wherever he has gone. God chose to walk with David and set him up as king over Israel. God is the one who gave David victory over his enemies and who settled David in his house. It’s God who will make David’s name great.

What’s more, God reminds David that it isn’t only him whom God favors, but all of Israel. The Lord says, “I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, when I appointed leaders over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:10-11 CEB). Then, God turns the tables completely. Instead of David building God a house, God will make David a house—a dynasty—that will last forever. Sometimes we forget that God has plans, too. God is way ahead of us in the planning stages and, more often than not, God’s plans surprise us.

Something else we should note about the books of First and Second Samuel themselves, is that the texts weren’t compiled during the days of David and Nathan. They were compiled during the years of exile in Babylon when there was no king of David’s line settled anywhere resting from their enemies. There was no temple; it had already been destroyed. It would have been important for the people living in that exile to hear that God might not be confined to the ruins of a building located in Jerusalem. That was actually a prominent theme of Ezekiel, whose visions described God moving about in a chariot with omnidirectional wheels rising up from Jerusalem and moving across the earth. The claim that God’s presence cannot be contained opens the possibility that God is there with the exiles, too.

Think about it this way: The exile to Babylon called God’s power into question. If God couldn’t prevent something as horrible as the exile from happening, then maybe God didn’t have a whole lot of power after all. Yet, the claim that God’s covenant is forever opens the possibility that God’s promises would continue after the exile ended. The exile also made people wonder if God really cared about them. It made them wonder if God had heartlessly turned against them. (We tend to think that way, too, when tragedy happens). But this story’s claim that grace was God’s answer to David’s arrogance—that grace is God’s answer to all human arrogance—suggests that God will always act in a way that redeems and saves.

Here, a people who were in the hell of exile, sought alternative answers to their questions about God’s power and love. When the evidence before them suggested that they might as well give up on God, they began to look at the world in a different way. Instead of forcing the world—or God—to conform to their already-made answers about what God should be doing and how God should have acted, they opened themselves to new ways of understanding how God works in the world, and how God’s love is made known.

As we approach Christmas Day, I want to leave us with a few questions:

What are our assumptions about what is pleasing to God, and how might God be nudging the church to move in new and unthought-of directions?

What are the ways that we—like David—seek to enshrine and confine God?

How receptive are we to the idea that God acts in ways that catch us by surprise?

This holy day we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow is just such a surprise. God was born as a human being to be Emmanuel—God With Us—which was, I might add, a most unexpected move on God’s part. The mother of God was a peasant woman in a backwater town in a backwater region of a mighty empire. Yet, this birth moved the whole world in a new direction.

I might add as a final note that one of the most significant verses of the New Testament, John 1:14, says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14a CEB). A better translation might say, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled” or “tented, among us.” It’s a reference to the tent in which God traveled with Israel long ago. Jesus Christ became the new tent in which God moves, walks, and travels among us. It’s a reminder that when God came to be Emmanuel, it wasn’t to sit idly in a permanent home or human kingdom. Jesus told us that “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 CEB).

God came to walk with us. God came to move among us and, importantly, to get us moving in ways we might not have imagined.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Good News | 3rd Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.

8 I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9 Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.

10 I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11 As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. (CEB)

Good News

 These verses from Isaiah express themes of mission, righteousness, and salvation. Of course, my first questions are about what those words mean and how we, as the church, are to apply them. Sometimes, the definitions we assume don’t quite jive with what the Scriptures say. We like to narrow things, pare them down to Cliff’s Notes, so we can get the gist without having to dig deep or think too much. Honestly, it’s easier that way. It’s simpler not to have to wrestle with hard truths. If we can get the basics figured out, then we can assume we’re all set.

The problem with this kind of faith—I’ll call it lazy faith—is that we miss out on the life-giving richness the Scriptures offer to us, and the way it can shape and reshape our lives and our community.

Let’s take the idea of salvation as an example. What is salvation? Most people think it’s getting into heaven. It’s about making the cut. I think most of us are fairly comfortable with our level of commitment and aren’t too concerned about not making it in to heaven. I mean, if there’s any question on judgment day, we’ll just plead “Jesus” and God will let us in.

Yet, we conveniently overlook the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong,’” (7:18-23 CEB), and Luke 6:46, where Jesus asks a simple question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” (CEB).

There is, undoubtedly, an ethical component to salvation. That ethical component is found throughout the Scriptures. Every place where judgment is mentioned in the New Testament, we’re told that we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done, said, or failed to do. Not once do the Scriptures say that we’ll be judged according to what we believed. There is a tension between belief and action. Our belief in God had better inform our behavior and, more importantly, result in behavior that’s consistent with God’s understanding of right and wrong.

Revelation 14:13 tells us that our “deeds follow” us when we die. Yet, the prevailing notion among Protestant Christians since Martin Luther is that works, deeds, actions, words we speak—however we may want to describe the ethics of how we live—don’t have any bearing on whether we’re saved or not. That’s why Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Luther preached salvation by faith alone. But the only place the phrase “faith alone” is found in the entire Bible is James 2:24, where James tells us, “So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone,” (CEB). One of my professors used to say, “Faith alone and fifty-cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop of you-know-where.”

I think the price of coffee has gone up a bit since then.

It is God’s grace that saves us—God’s extension of love, mercy, and forgiveness to us, God’s incredible desire to be with us—but how we live, our ethics, matter to God. To think otherwise is to ignore what God tells us over and again. Verse 8 of our text tells us that God loves justice and hates robbery and dishonesty. What God loves and despises about our behavior matters.

To tack in another direction, the word salvation is something that’s difficult to nail down. It’s one of those churchy-religious words that we use but don’t quite get. We struggle with what it means. It may be helpful to know that saved also means healed. The forms of the Greek word σώζω (sodzo) which are often translated in our Bibles as “save” and “saved” are, in different places, also translated as “heal” and “healed.” The Greek word for salvation, σωτηρία (soteria), can mean deliverance or preservation from impending physical death, as well as salvation in the sense of a mystical future reality (which is that whole Heaven and Hell thing).

So, the essence of salvation, or being saved, is healing. The disease from which we are healed, so to speak, is sin and sinfulness: our penchant for choosing and doing things God doesn’t like. Salvation means that our “bent to sinning,” as Charles Wesley called it (c.f. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling) will be healed because of what God has done—and is doing—for us. While salvation is ultimately something God accomplishes, and wants to accomplish for us, we have a part to play. That’s why Paul told us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Philippians 2:12).

Another aspect of salvation that we Christians often overlook is that it’s meant to be, in part, a quality of life that we experience here, now, which reflects God’s desires for our community. In Isaiah 61, salvation is good news. It’s justice instead of oppression, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, release of the prisoners, and a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication. It’s comfort and providence for those who mourn. Garlands instead of ashes. Praise instead of discouragement.

This all points to community as God desires. The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which was every fiftieth year. It’s when slaves and indentured servants were set free. Property sold had to be returned to the ancestral owners, and everyone had to return home to their family property. It was supposed to be a complete reset of the Israelite economy, and it was meant to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor in ways that led to injustice and disparity. The word liberty here means more than freedom. In the context of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, it’s a complete socioeconomic reconfiguration. It was God’s reset button on the kind of wealth accumulation that led to oppression and injustice in Israelite society which led to a destruction of God-intended community.

Salvation is described as a restored city and an abundant garden. This isn’t a vision of pie in the sky after we die. While Christian theology does speak of a future reality of salvation, the Christian community is supposed to look like a reflection of that future reality in the present. We’re invited to participate in salvation-style living right now. Jubilee is what Jesus came to proclaim. That was his mission, and it’s the mission of those who follow him.

Remember when Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? “The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,’” (Luke 4:17-21 CEB).

Jesus came to make every year a year of the Lord’s favor. His good news is that we can live out salvation even in a world that’s still broken. We can. And we do it by living our mission in our community.

That brings us to another term we need to re-examine. What is mission? First, it might help to dispel a common incorrect understanding of mission. Mission isn’t only something that goes out from the church, whether it’s money or people sent as missionaries for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. Mission is also something that defines the church, in that we exist for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners.

Mission isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’s our identity. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us over and over that God is deeply concerned for the least, the poor, the oppressed, the broken, the captive, the weak. Shouldn’t we reflect that concern, too? The church exists for mission. Church is not an end unto itself. If we think we’re here only for ourselves and what we can take away from the sermon to get us through the week, we’re severely missing the point of what Jesus came to do. We aren’t here to maintain a building, or run programs, or fellowship with like-minded individuals. We’re here to be the mission of the anointed one—the Messiah. Our building, our programs, and our fellowship should serve and support that mission.

But, when Christians only exist as people who are divided, who are judgmental, who fight amongst ourselves, who exclude others, we’ll fail to be the mission of Jesus Christ no matter how much money we throw at ministries, and no matter how many missionaries we send.

We’re here to live as Jesus Christ lived. Which means we’re here “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB). The church exists so that we can be the kind of missional force that transforms the world here and now by being a reflection of the Kingdom of God that’s coming.

When we do that, when we are that, the world will take notice. And the result will be joy. Not some superficial happiness, but deep and abiding joy; like wedding-day level stuff with brides and grooms dressed and ready. Our mission is righteousness. When our community faithfully lives as the mission of God, God causes transformation to happen all over the place. When mission is authentically lived, this stuff spreads. Good news is worth sharing and, when others see it, they know it’s worth emulating.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


The Advent | 1st of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.

3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

8 But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9 Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. (CEB)

The Advent

When I go to the grocery store, I usually walk down the entire checkout row to find the shortest line. I don’t like to wait. It makes me wonder how I ever survived the days of rotary-phone dialing, and dial-up internet when it took ten minutes to load up a single webpage.

And I’m not the only one. Waiting isn’t something that any of us like to do. Oh, sure, there are people who don’t mind waiting so much, but I’m not one of them. And it’s not like any of us seek to wait. That’s why I think the Black Friday shoppers who camp out at store entrances are crazy. Seriously, think about what they’re doing. They’re waiting in line so they don’t have to wait in line when the store actually opens. Who thinks that’s a logical idea?

Right now I’m waiting for five books to be published so I can read them. They’re already pre-ordered, and they’ll be at my door the day they’re released. But they’re all sequels, and I want to read them now. I don’t want to wait. Waiting is not on my list of virtues.

I don’t know that it’s on anyone’s list, quite honestly. We are a people of hurried, if not instant, gratification. We don’t even want to wait for Christmas to get here. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you, “I can’t wait until Christmas!” and they mean it! I think some kids would rather hunt Santa Claus down than wait for him to show up at their house.

It’s no wonder that Advent is not a very popular season on the Christian calendar. Some of us would prefer to skip Advent and get right to Christmas. We want these four Sundays to get out of our way so we can get to the Christmas family gatherings, the food, the candy, and the presents!

What’s Advent about, anyway? Why does it feel like some ogre-saint of old put this season in the way to block our path to Christmas joy? What’s this inconvenient season even doing here? Can’t we just shove it aside? Why do we have to bother with Advent?

I don’t like to wait, and yet, Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the Christian calendar. I think it’s one of my favorites because, in part, Advent tries to teach us how to do the very thing I don’t like to do. Advent tells us to learn how to wait.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet laments this very thing. Terrible stuff was going on all around the people of Israel. Horrible things were happening to them. They were waiting for God to act, to intervene, to get involved. But God wasn’t appearing. For Isaiah, this became an active waiting. He cried out, he prayed, he looked, he searched. The people suffered in exile, their cities had been laid waste, their Temple where they once worshiped the Lord had been burned to the ground. And still they waited for God to appear. But waiting is hard.

He cried out for God to come down, to make God’s presence known and felt, to do awesome deeds of power like God did in ages past. Isaiah remembered what God had done and cried out for God to show up again. After all, no one has ever heard or seen any God besides the Lord. Isaiah confessed that God works for those who wait, and meets those who do what is right and who remember God’s ways.

But something had gone wrong.

Isaiah looked around him and saw abandonment. From his point of view, God had simply stopped showing up. His prayer turns in a direction that sounds surprising to us. Isaiah acknowledged Israel’s sin, but claimed that God, too, must share some of the blame. Isaiah said, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

How can human beings not sin when God is absent? How can we possibly do what is right when God hides from us? God can’t brush these sinful people off for this very reason: God’s absence initiates sin in human community! We might be sinners, but when God disappears, we sin more!

Now, what we need to understand about Isaiah’s prayer is that Isaiah is not saying this in order to excuse the people’s sin. He’s not passing the buck by blaming God. Rather, Isaiah is trying to make the claim that God has a stake in them as a people. He’s trying to motivate God to act in a redemptive manner on behalf of the people whom God took for God’s own self and made God’s own inheritance.

It’s like marriage. When Joy and I got married, I knew that I was hers and she was mine: the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Isaiah fully acknowledges the people’s sin. He admits that they’re unclean, that their righteousness is like a menstrual rag in need of washing. He admits that the people have turned away, that no one calls upon God’s name or attempts to hold on to God. God’s face is hidden.

Isaiah describes the punishment the people are currently enduring as a result of their own iniquity. They are reaping the consequences of their sin. He says, “You have melted us into the hand of our iniquity,” (Isaiah 64:7d my translation).

This is what we chose, and so this is what you allowed us to have. The guilt of the people, Isaiah suggests, is a guilt so insidious, so all-encompassing that it engulfs and overwhelms both Israel and God.

Then Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are all the work of your hand,” (Isaiah 64:8 CEB). Isaiah is trying to remind the Lord that Israel has a claim upon God because they are FAMILY. The Lord made Israel what they are: children of God. So the Lord is bound by an irrevocable covenant to act on Israel’s behalf. God cannot abandon them. The relationship between God and Israel requires God to act.

Gaze now on your people,” Isaiah says. God cannot, God will not let the people be wiped out any more than a loving parent would abandon their own child to death, or a potter shatter the prized work of their hands. God must act. Isaiah knows it, and Isaiah is waiting. He’s even screaming his head off about it, God, I’m waiting!

When I read this, I hear Isaiah’s longing and Isaiah’s anguish. I hear Isaiah’s prayer, and I find that it echoes my own prayers of late. I read the news reports where men, women, and children are being slaughtered. I read about so-called “honor killings,” rape, kidnapping, murder, sexual slavery, and violence against women and girls. School children are murdered in classrooms here, and kidnapped from classrooms in other lands. Captive girls are sold as brides. Children are gunned down by police officers. Nations play power games by inciting violence in other nations. And the lives of people who, like any of us, just want to live are destroyed.

And I find myself asking God, Where are you? How long will you let this go on? Get up off your couch, rouse yourself and get involved! If you’re going to hide away from us, of course this is going to be the result! Where are you, God? I’ve prayed this prayer because I feel helpless. I feel abandoned. And it seems to me that only God can fix this.

It sounds like an impertinent prayer. But it’s a prayer that I learned from reading the Psalms. My heart echoes the words of Psalm 44, “No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love,” (Psalm 44:22-26 CEB).

It’s a prayer of desperate need for God’s presence.

And yet, I must acknowledge that I, too, am guilty. Even in this community at First UMC, I haven’t loved as well as I ought to love. I haven’t cared as I ought to care. I haven’t always been the father or husband I ought to be. And those are just a few of my sins of omission.

When we’re surrounded by such violence, injustice, and oppression it’s easy to forget that God is with us. It’s easy to forget that God has torn open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh, the Son became a human being in order to be Emmanuel: God with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and is with us in the midst of everything. God is with us.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s about how we wait, hope, and watch. It’s been almost two-thousand years since Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but still we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom to come. We await Christ’s return and the day when every wrong that has ever been shall be set aright.

In the meantime, Isaiah reminds us that our waiting is an active endeavor. This kind of waiting requires action. It requires that we seek God.

Advent reminds us to seek the Lord. But it tries to do so in the midst of the very weeks of the year when we’re encouraged to go crazy. It’s the season in which our culture invites us to—in some sense—lose control and lose patience. It’s a season of excess.

We need to seek God, but it requires action on our part. It takes active waiting where we watch and hope with joy. We are God’s people, and God has torn open the heavens and come down to us. God is here. But God’s presence is not always what we expect.

Advent invites us to wait as Isaiah waited: to wait with action. Like Lent, Advent is a time to renew our dedication to God and the disciplines of the faith. We are invited to grow closer to God; to pray, to seek, to study, to search, and to serve others. It’s the Christian New Year, so make a resolution. Christmas will be here soon enough, and the Kingdom of God is on its way. Let’s wait for the arrival of both with action by loving and caring for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!