The Potter | Proper 18

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1 Jeremiah received the LORD’s word: 2 Go down to the potter’s house, and I’ll give you instructions about what to do there. 3 So I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. 4 But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, so the potter started on another, as seemed best to him. 5 Then the LORD’s word came to me: 6 House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel! 7 At any time I may announce that I will dig up, pull down, and destroy a nation or kingdom; 8 but if that nation I warned turns from its evil, then I’ll relent and not carry out the harm I intended for it. 9 At the same time, I may announce that I will build and plant a nation or kingdom; 10 but if that nation displeases and disobeys me, then I’ll relent and not carry out the good I intended for it. 11 Now say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem: This is what the LORD says: I am a potter preparing a disaster for you; I’m working out a plan against you. So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions. (CEB)

The Potter

My only experience with doing pottery was in shop class at Oak Hill Middle School where I made this dreadful blue blob. I think I tried to make a lid for it, but it didn’t work out at all. I mean, my dreadful blob works to hold stuff, but it’s not exactly a work of art. It’s not pretty. And, it’s only useful if you can stand the dreadful sight of it on your nightstand or coffee table. Yet, it does have one remarkable property. It’s so dreadful and blobby that, as a candy jar, it will actually keep kids out of your stash.

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Sometimes, the word of the Lord needs to be seen in order to understand it properly. Jeremiah does what many other prophets have done before him. God tells him to go somewhere, so he obediently goes. What Jeremiah sees is a potter bent over his potter’s wheel working a lump of clay. But something went wrong with the piece while the potter worked it. So, the potter lumped it together and started over on a new piece.

What Jeremiah sees becomes an illustration for the Lord’s word. House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the LORD? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel!” (Jeremiah 18:6 CEB).

As much as we might like the song, Change My Heart, O God, where we sing, “You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray,” God’s word to Jeremiah is about the community of faith. Yet, while God’s word is focused on the community, it’s fair to say that any word about a community is also a word about the individuals who make up that community. In fact, when God calls for repentance, God says, “So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions” (Jeremiah 18:11 CEB).

This is, very clearly, a call for the community of faith to repent. The context behind the oracle Jeremiah speaks is the covenant between God and the people of Judah and the faithfulness of the nation to that covenant. The political leadership of Judah knew there was the potential for trouble. Egypt and Babylon were the rising powers in the region. King Jehoiakim switched his allegiance back and forth between Egypt and Babylon. He killed the prophet Uriah and burned the scroll Jeremiah had written that contained the oracles of God.

While the king, the court, and the people were arguing politics, Jeremiah and the prophets reminded the people that a king still reigned. The allegiance of the people should be to God, Israel’s King, rather than other nations. By flirting with political alliances instead of choosing faithfulness to the covenant, Judah was not following through with their end of the covenant.

God warns the people, through Jeremiah, that disaster looms just over the horizon. The Babylonians are out there. And if Judah doesn’t shape up, they’ll come, the people will be taken captive, and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Maybe the leaders of the community were convinced that the blessing of God upon them was their entitlement rather than a gift. Maybe the leaders didn’t believe religious nonsense would do any good in the real world. Whatever their reasons for ignoring Jeremiah and the other prophets, the nation of Judah would learn a hard lesson through disastrous defeat and exile.

The people of Judah later understood their exile as a consequence of their own sin. They believed that the destruction of their nation happened because they didn’t abide by the covenant. In one sense, that’s kind of refreshing. When people admit they were wrong and, as a consequence of their past failures, determine to do what’s right. That’s refreshing. To some extent, it could be viewed as a sign of spiritual maturity.

There are people in the world—we all know someone—who are never wrong, who never make mistakes, and are never at fault. At least, according to them. They’ll never admit a mistake (even when the National Weather Service says they were wrong).

It’s easy for us to sit in judgment of Judah and think, Well, why didn’t they just choose faithfulness to God? But we do this, too. We Americans are often guilty of the very same activity. We might even feel that our blessing by God as a nation is an entitlement. Whether we identify as a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or something else, some of us are guilty of putting more faith in our political parties than in adhering to God’s requirements.

In fact, what American Christians often do is substitute one or the other political party’s agendas for God’s requirements. We think that our party of choice is the so-called “Christian vote” while voting for the other party is patently “unchristian.” Somehow, we get our religious and our political values crossed and—somehow—we begin to think they’re the same thing.

Let me be clear. No vote for any political party or any individual representing a political party is the so-called “Christian vote.” We should each vote our conscience, yes, but we don’t get to compare our vote to a vote for Jesus. The politics of Jesus are beyond the ability—let alone the will—of any current political party to meet. The values of Jesus and the dominion of God are in direct conflict with some parts of every political party’s values and policies. Belong to a political party if you want to. There’s probably nothing wrong with that. Vote for your party of choice. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when we walk away from whatever vote we cast feeling morally superior. When we do that, we have supplanted God’s values with the bent values of human politics. And they aren’t the same thing.

You’ll hear me preach against policies and policy makers of both major political parties. And, I know that some people don’t like that. I’ve even been told by a member of our congregation that pastors should stay out of politics. If anyone can find a Biblical precedent for it, I’ll be glad to stop. But Jeremiah and the other prophets were preaching against the King and the King’s policies, as did prophets throughout the Old and New Testaments (i.e. John the Baptist).

Jeremiah wanted the nation of Judah to stop worrying about politics, about which alliance to make with which nation, and just be faithful to God. Focus on what’s truly important. What if the people of the church in America were to do the same? What if, at the beginning and at the end of every day, we simply got to the business of living faithfully to God by living out the very things God requires of us?

God requires a lot. Not just a small part, but everything. Faithfulness requires our whole selves. The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is because his yoke and burden are love. But love isn’t some small thing. It takes all that we have and all that we are to really love, and to love well. I believe I’ve said in a previous sermon that some political policies might be perfectly legal, but they aren’t loving. If they aren’t loving, then those policies are out of alignment with God’s values and should be opposed even by members of the political party that put it forth. Standing up for what is right, and standing against what is wrong regardless of political affiliation: that’s Christian faithfulness.

Jeremiah’s oracle of the potter is loaded with Deuteronomic thought, which states that when we sin, we suffer, and when we suffer, it’s because we’ve sinned. Judah has failed to keep the covenant, so Judah will experience disaster.

Yet, there are other voices in the Scriptures that sing to a beat counter to Deuteronomic thought. Job was blameless, yet he suffered unimaginable loss. The Hebrew people became slaves in Egypt, not because of their sin, but because a new Pharaoh forgot Joseph and feared the Hebrews’ numbers. God delivered the Israelites from slavery not because the people were righteous, but because God is righteous.

The refugees from Syria and central American nations aren’t suffering because they’re “Bad hombres” or because they deserve it. Veterans of American wars don’t become homeless because they deserve it.

Bad things happen in the world because the world is fallen and evil reigns. The Scriptures describe “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4 CEB) and “the prince of this world” (John 12:31 KJV) as Satan, the one who opposes God. Our call as Christian people is to resist the evil that reigns, to align ourselves with God and God’s values, to live love in our every day, and to rely upon God’s grace to give us strength to do so.

Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, we have example after example that show us how God gives us what we need rather than what we deserve. God’s grace abounds even when we fail at faithfulness. We even state in our Communion liturgy that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us.”

There is something beautiful about this analogy with the clay. When we don’t turn out quite the way God wants, God can gracefully reshape us into the vessel we’re supposed to be. Yet, questions we might ask ourselves are, are we still malleable enough to repent? Are we still soft clay, or have we hardened our hearts? If you read further into Jeremiah 19, the once soft clay is hardened into a clay pot that Jeremiah smashes as a sign of God’s judgment. Will we allow God to lovingly reshape us in the image of Divine love?

The message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 3:2 CEB). The message which Jesus preached at the beginning of his ministry was, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB).

Even with the word of the disaster preached and proclaimed by God’s prophet, Jeremiah, there is a thread of hope for the people of Judah. As much as God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, it turns out that God’s plans are not fixed, determined, and unchangeable. God can change God’s mind. Human actions of either sin or repentance from sin can influence God. God takes all things into account.

God’s people are called to repent, and we have the opportunity to do so every day. God gives us grace. In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to repent because God’s realm and dominion is near. The full reign of God is near.

In what ways do we need to repent so that the reign of God might show forth in us? Through repentance, God can reshape dreadful blobs into useful vessels.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Seek, Help, Defend, Plead | Proper 14

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

16 Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.

20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

The LORD has said this. (CEB)

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead

There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.

Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.

First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).

“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.

Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?

Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.

If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?

Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.

There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.

We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.

I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.

Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.

We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.

It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.

So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.

The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?

As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.

On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?

[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]

“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).

True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.

I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Return | Proper 13

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.

4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me.

6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes.

7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.

10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.

11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. (CEB)

Return

In some of the most deeply emotional poetry in all of Biblical prophetic literature, Hosea tells one of the oldest stories in human history. The story gets told in many different ways throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Revelation.

As a storyteller, myself, I’ve heard experts in the field of fiction writing, at almost every writing conference I’ve attended, drill into our collective heads the phrase, Show, don’t tell. Show us what happens in the scene, don’t tell us. Don’t tell the reader what happened by saying, Christopher picked up his pen and notebook and began to write a story about another world. It might be exactly what happened, but it’s boring.

Instead, put the reader in the scene by showing what happened. Say, The saga of life on an alien world poured from Christopher’s mind as his black pen scrawled slanted letters, hurried and barely legible even to himself, across the pages of his notebook. Showing is much harder work than telling, but the result is worth it. Showing is painting a portrait with words. Showing allows the reader to see in their mind’s eye, feel in their heart, and perceive in their soul what’s unfolding on the page they’re reading.

This story is about God, who loves us completely. God created us. God provides for us and delivers us when we’re in trouble. But the more God pursues us, the more we turn away. This is a story about our shame. Yet, as much as this story is about our shame, it’s even more a story of God’s grace. Hosea proves himself a master storyteller who doesn’t tell us so much as he shows us. He puts us in the scenes of human existence from God’s perspective and allows us to feel the depth of God’s pain as the tragic story of divine love and human rejection unfolds.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:1 CEB).

Yet, it was God who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea shows us a scene in which a mother and father hold out their arms to a child who can now stand and encourages them, “Come on. You can do it. Come to me.” The child grins and takes a step before crashing to the floor, wailing. That mother or father quickly scoops their child up in their arms and kisses the small hurts until their child is comforted and calm. The child won’t remember this moment: neither their fall nor their parent’s healing touch. But the mother and father will remember.

How many times did a scene like that unfold until the child could walk? How many of the child’s unremembered wounds would God kiss away?

The next scene shows a child who can now walk, and a mother and father who lead the child carefully, gripping the child’s chubby fingers as she or he toddles unsteadily at their parent’s sides. The parents walk at the child’s pace because that’s all the child can manage. Getting anywhere would be quicker if Mom or Dad simply picked the child up, but the child wants to walk, and the mother and father savor how their little one is growing and learning. Soon, their child will walk on their own, but mothers and fathers secretly hope their child will still want to hold their hand when their child is older; to maintain those cords of human kindness and bands of love throughout their lives.

Another scene shows us those tender moments when a mother and father pick up their child and hold them close against their cheek. Quiet snuggles. Soft kisses. Maybe even blowing gentle raspberries on the child’s chunky tummy rolls to get them giggling. It’s love that this scene portrays. Amazing, perfect, love.

The next scene shows a mother or father feeding their child, perhaps making a game of it with zooming noises as they move the spoon around and around until sticking it in their child’s mouth and laughing. Maybe it’s also the memory of a mother breastfeeding their child close-held to her body, or (for us more modern fathers) maybe it’s a father feeding their child with a bottle while the child is cradled in his arms.

These are scenes of deep intimacy that only an involved parent knows. These are scenes of parents who love their child in the most profound ways; parents who would do anything to protect and care for their beautiful child. This child is adored, and these parents have pledged everything for the child in their care. Because this child is theirs. Their love for their child flows in ways they never imagined possible, because the parents made this child. They’re a family.

Hosea shows us story after story in a child’s life that the child can’t remember when grown. But the mother and father remember. God is that mother and father. We are that child.

The next scenes are moments that we, as that child now grown, might want to not see again. Scenes of when we ran when God called. Scenes of the tantrums we threw, the hateful things we shouted in the heat of the moment. Scenes of the promises we broke. Scenes of the wreckage we made of our life and our relationships. Scenes of our violence, our hatred, our self-loathing, our often self-made despair.

We are children who were loved from the start. We’re also children who turned away from God. God, our loving mother and father, ran after us calling our name as we sped away but, in our rejection of the one who loves us more completely than we can possibly know, we kept going. We sought our own path. We are the children who broke God’s heart.

Verses five through seven show a God whose heart continues to break because God’s child has continued to rebel. Hosea describes how God sees the consequences the child will bear because of that rebellion. The child turned to other nations when God was right there in their midst. And those consequences are dire. “The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up” (Hosea 11:6-7 CEB).

We might wonder at the harshness of these words, that the God who loves so profoundly won’t raise the people up when they call. But, in reality, there comes a time in our rebellion when it’s too late. This is like finally realizing we should have listened to Mom and Dad only after the judge has slammed the gavel post-sentencing. We can call out all we want as the bailiff takes us away but, at that point, Mom and Dad are helpless and heartbroken. And we’re stuck paying for the consequences of our actions. In Hosea’s story, that’s exactly what God sees happening to Israel.

And God’s heart is shattered. God is in agony. God is the one who cries out now, saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment” (Hosea 11:8-9 CEB).

If you don’t recognize the two cities mentioned here, Admah and Zeboiim were two cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (c.f. Deuteronomy 29:23). How can God, as a loving parent, can give up God’s own child? The very idea causes God’s heart to recoil. God can’t give Ephraim up. Instead, God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

Yes, the portrait Hosea paints is one that shows God as angry. Every parent knows that anger is a part of being a loving parent.

God, in this moment, is deeply wounded by Israel’s rejection. God is ready to give Ephraim a spanking, but God pulls back and chooses not to come in wrath. That, too, is love.

One of the stories I wrote, The Sign of Psyche, is about young woman named Eupeithis who offends Eros, the god of love. Eros curses her to fall in love with the first man she sees, so the goddess, Psyche, protects Eupeithis with a blindfold. Eupeithis runs for freedom with a hunter she befriends, but Eros pursues her, and his pursuit—for a long time—looks to Eupeithis like hatred. But, eventually, Eupeithis changes her mind about Eros’s anger. Here’s an abridged excerpt of that moment of realization:

—–

“Why did Eros come to me?” I ask. “He was angry, I know, but what was the reason for his anger? Was he truly motivated by hatred and revenge, as I have most often thought, or was he motivated by what he, himself, is?”

“You mean love?” Orthios asks.

“Yes, exactly! Did Eros truly hate me, or was his anger a form of himself?”

“I’ve never thought of anger as a form of love,” Orthios says.

“What is anger but love at its most sorrowful moment?” I ask. “When our hearts are broken, what’s our response?”

“Ah. I see.” Orthios squeezes my hand. “Anger.”

“Yet, the hope of anger—love when it’s injured—is reconciliation. How can a child know the difference between anger borne of love and anger borne of hatred? Often, the child sees a parent’s anger as hatred because their understanding of love is too limited for them to see the true reason: that their parent loves them, wishes the best for them, and desires to teach them so they can grow out of childhood.” I sigh heavily.

Orthios stays silent.

I turn my face toward him. “If Eros had not come to me in his hot wrath, what would have become of me? I might even now be dead, having suffered some horrible end. I was so foolish, Orthios. As it is, his anger—and punishment—brought me to you.”

I touch my blindfold. “In one sense of the matter, Eros’s anger became my greatest protection. If his nature is love, then how can Eros hate me? Is hatred not counter to his very being? I’ve begun to think his anger came upon me as a shield, and that Love, himself, has given me you.”

—–

We shouldn’t be surprised when we read in Scripture that God gets angry. When someone loves as deeply as God loves, anger will happen when that love is wounded. But love pursues the beloved even through anger. That’s what God does for us. That’s why God came to us and continues to come to us every day.

While the consequences of our rejection and betrayal of God would inevitably lead to our own destruction, God’s compassion for us will not allow us to be destroyed, “for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst” (Hosea 11:9 CEB). So, God will call again. God will roar like a lion, and this time God’s children will hear and obey. This time, surely, they’ll come home.

And someday, so might we. God’s love will not let us go.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Rejoice! | 3rd Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. 15 The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy. The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil. 16 On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. 18 I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach. 19 Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time. I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. 20 At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD. (CEB)

Rejoice!

How many of you knew there was a black prophet of African ancestry in the Old Testament? Well, if you didn’t, then meet Zephaniah. He was the son of Cushi, which, in Hebrew, means African, and usually refers to the upper-Nile region south of Egypt. Whether Cushi is the name of Zephaniah’s father or a racial designation, we don’t know.

Zephaniah the prophet went beyond naming the usual two generations of his genealogy, expanding it to four. He was the grandson of Gedaliah, and great-grandson of Amariah, and the second-great-grandson of Hezekiah (c.f. Zephaniah 1:1). It’s assumed that his second-great-grandfather was King Hezekiah. So, Zephaniah was a distant part of the royal family: maybe second-cousin to King Josiah.

After all, King Hezekiah had strong political ties to the 25th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs, who were Nubians of the Kushite Empire. The Scriptures mention several people of African descent living in Israel in the days of the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah. It was common for marriages to be made between royal families to seal political alliances. It’s possible that a daughter of Gedaliah, who would have been King Hezekiah’s great-granddaughter, was given in marriage to a Nubian noble named Cushi as part of the continued alliance between Judah and Egypt. If that’s the case, then Zephaniah was born from that political union. And, we have a black prophet in the Old Testament.

This section of Zephaniah’s writing stands out as a sudden and unexpected shout of joy. The first eight oracles are only bad news for, and judgment against, Judah and Jerusalem. While King Hezekiah “…did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3), his son and successor, Manasseh, was one of the worst. And, while Josiah was described as a faithful king who tried to reform the Kingdom of Judah by returning to the laws of the Covenant at Sinai, Zephaniah saw a different reality on the streets.

The people neglected the matters of justice and righteousness. They didn’t take care of the poor. They withheld their tithes and offerings from God. They treated their neighbors with disrespect. They worshipped idols. They put their trust in wealth, power, and prestige. They believed that God wouldn’t act on account of these things. They thought they were secure.

But, through Zephaniah, God said, “I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD. I will destroy humanity and the beasts; I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins; I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3 CEB).

Not only did Zephaniah suggest the destruction of the earth, but he said that the Lord would invade the darkness of Judah’s heart like a person who takes a lamp into a dark place to ferret out secret and hidden sins (c.f. Zephaniah 1:12). The people thought that God didn’t see the things they did or read the thoughts of their minds, or know the sinful desires of their hearts, so they did whatever they wanted. But Zephaniah declared that the day of the Lord is coming: a terrible day of judgment, and a bitter day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom.

It’s almost-but-not-quite astonishing that the last oracle of Zephaniah is one of rejoicing. To be sure, Zephaniah doesn’t foresee everyone rejoicing here. God declared that the corrupt priesthood which was more worried about appointed feasts than justice for the poor, lame, and outcast, would be removed. Their concern was for ritual. But they neglected the weightier matters of righteousness, namely, caring for people.

This was a problem that persisted to the time of Jesus, who said, “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters” (Matthew 23:23 CEB; c.f. also Luke 11:42).

It’s somewhat ironic that the lame would have been considered sinners according to Deuteronomic theology. They would have been outcasts. Their infirmity would have been proof, in the minds of some, that they were sinners. Yet, it’s the lame and the outcast whom God will deliver, gather, and change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. These are the very people who were neglected by the king and by the priesthood. He tells those who were being oppressed, “Watch what I am about to do to your oppressors…” (Zephaniah 3:19a CEB).

One thing we need to understand is that, in the Scriptures, promise does not come apart from judgment. The Scriptures do not offer comfort to the comfortable. Rather, God’s promises, like that declared by Zephaniah, come after dark times of death, destruction, despair, and pain. Yet, twice, in the imperative for the people to rejoice, Zephaniah tells the people not to be afraid, and he says that the Lord is in their midst.

But, if we’re honest, we’re afraid of a lot. One scholar suggested that, if we read between the lines of verses 16-20, we can see something of our own souls. “We fear that God is not in our midst… We fear that our hands are weak and powerless… We fear insignificance, doubting that we matter in the course of events and dreading that we will be crushed by them. We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach, that our faults… will be discovered and render us less than the person we had fooled ourselves and others into thinking we were. We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough. We even fear that God may keep God’s promises, and interrupt the safety of our fears and the familiarity of our enemies with something new” (D. Block in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, pg. 54-55).

Zephaniah’s oracle acknowledges our fears and dispels them with a promise of restoration and joy. It’s as if the prophet has brought us forth to the very lip of the chasm of judgment and doom, only to draw us back at the very last moment. Our joy is made all the more intense because of the absolute hopelessness out of which it springs. The word of God which began as irredeemable judgment has been transformed into transcendent gladness! That which once anticipated the silence of the people (c.f. 1:7) or, worse, our cries of sorrow (c.f. 1:11), now celebrates with a song of joy (c.f. 3:14).

The roots of this song of joy don’t lie in the strength or sudden turn toward goodness of the people. Rather, this song of joy is rooted—absolutely—In the grace and benevolence of God. The God who is Israel’s judge is also Israel’s lover and faithful partner in a holy covenant. The coming of the Lord looked like a moment of disaster and fear, but all that has changed. Now the presence of God among us removes all of our fear; it brings salvation.

This song promises us a day of great joy and exultation. It’s a day of renewed love, gladness, singing, salvation, gathering in, and the restoration of fortunes. It is the Lord who has championed the cause of God’s people. Because our God will now rejoice and exult, we, too, can be caught up in this same celebration. Since the Lord our God will renew us in his love, we are invited to accept this love and to participate in this love with gladness and joy.

Today we are called to rejoice! Rejoice in God our Savior! Rejoice in the one who comes to save us, to heal us, who comes to BE our joy. Christ our Savior not only gives us reason to feel joyful, he IS our joy.

Every December, I hear people lament that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit, that they don’t feel like they should at Christmas time, that they’re missing a feeling of joy. I can relate to that. I think we all can admit there are times in our life where the feeling of joy has been absent. Yet, while joy is a feeling, it’s also a response to what we know to be true. That’s one of the beautiful things about this Sunday: we are reminded that no matter what trouble, trials, or tribulations are going on in our lives, there is reason to rejoice!

Rejoice!

Rejoice that God loves you!

Rejoice that God has put God’s own love into us so that we might share it with everyone around us!

Rejoice that God has redeemed us!

Rejoice that God remembers your sins no more!

Rejoice that God calls you by name as his beloved daughters and sons!

Rejoice that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes!

Rejoice that God has given us each other, to bear with one another through whatever happens in our lives.

Rejoice that God came into our very midst as a human being, born so many years ago, to dwell with us and share our humanity!

Rejoice that Jesus, the Christ, has gone to prepare a place for us where there will be no more sorrows!

Rejoice that our Lord will one day return and make God’s home among us.

Rejoice that we will live forever in the presence of the living God who is Love!

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

This Sunday, we are invited to rejoice and exult with all our heart in the salvation of our Lord and God. Don’t fear. The Lord our God is in our midst.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Coming | 1st of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.

Coming

Advent seems like a strange season to many Christians. Not only is it strange, it’s maybe not-so-strangely misunderstood. It casts an unfamiliar vibe. Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of the Advent season is undoubtedly due to Advent’s conflict our cultural mindset which occupies the same time. After all, most of us are getting ready for Christmas before the dishes from our Thanksgiving meals are put away. I admit that I did my Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, albeit from the comfort of my chair in front of my computer.

Another oddity with Advent is that it messes with time. During the weeks of December, most of us are paradoxically looking forward to the birth of a baby that has already been born—and is yet still being born in us. And, we’re looking forward to the New Year when, for Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year.

The reality of Advent, however, is that it has no star in the east to guide magi toward the child born in Bethlehem. It has no choir of angels singing refrains of God’s glory, and no shepherds watching their flocks by night. Advent has no birth in a cattle stall, no swaddled baby in a manger, and no Blessed Virgin Mary who ponders in her heart the words of the angel as reported by those shepherds.

The Scripture verses we read during the season of Advent are sometimes strange and difficult to hear. The Gospel readings are all focused on adults who speak about the coming of God’s dominion in apocalyptic overtones. The readings from the New Testament letters all point to the nearness of the Lord’s return. The Old Testament readings speak of a future time of restoration and peace with the coming Day of the Lord which are spoken to a people who are facing the terrors of exile with their crushed hopes, dashed dreams, with a trail of blood, tears, and burned livelihoods either before or behind them.

Advent is not filled with the feel-good stories that we love. These are not the childhood favorites that draw the waters of bubbly nostalgia up from deep within our hearts. Even the songs we sing in Advent, with their minor keys and tempered tempos, fail to gratify our desire to sing the carols of Christmas joy and gladness. Advent can be frustrating to us. It can be confounding to those who simply want to get on to the joy of Christmas with its gift exchanges and family gatherings and well-prepared feasts.

For me, Advent is one of my favorite seasons—it always has been—probably because the theme of the season matches most closely to how I feel all the time. I may not always feel joyful during Christmas. I may not always feel a sense of wonder during the season after Epiphany. I may not always feel remorseful or repentant during Lent. I may not always feel like I’m living out the glories or the victory of Easter, or feel alive and empowered by the Spirit in the season after Pentecost.

You see, I’m the type of person who sees how messed up the world is and I long for something better, something more, something to heal the hurts of the world. I’m the type of person who grieves deeply with each injustice I hear about on the news: every life cut short with all the hopes, dreams, and potential that’s destroyed with them; every injustice against women, minorities, refugees. My heart hurts for every person living in the midst of war or poverty or violence, who suffers at the hands of nations and powers, and the inhumanity they inflict all for the sake of the illusion of control. I grieve for the trauma that each person with these experiences and in these situations will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, and for all they lost and won’t ever get back.

I know that all sounds rather bleak. Maybe even pessimistic. Maybe my words sound like those of someone on the brink of despair. Despair would certainly fit with those who heard Jeremiah’s words. They were facing exile. They were living in the midst of war and death and destruction.

What keeps me from the brink of despair is my faith in God’s promises. When I hear about the horrors people have endured or are enduring, these things fill my prayers. And my prayers for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, for renewal: they shape my despair into hope and hopeful imagination. Instead of the paralyzation of despair, my soul cries out in longing and hope, Maranatha! The cool thing is, that word from Aramaic either means Come, Lord, or The Lord has come. One points to the source of our longing for God. The other points to the source of our hope in God.

I long for the day when the poor have everything they need, when no more children cry because they’re hungry, when cancer and other illnesses don’t cut lives short, when death is no more, when mourning and crying and pain are no more. I long for the day when refugees no longer have a reason to flee, and all are welcomed as friends no matter what insignificant border they happen to cross. I long for the day when every tear is wiped dry. I long for God’s dominion on earth.

It’s a sense of longing that runs through the season of Advent. The name of the season, itself, means coming. And that’s what we’re longing for in the season of Advent: that the Lord will come and set all things aright. We sing the mournful-sounding hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a minor key because only a minor-key fits when our unfulfilled longing for God’s righteousness can no longer be contained.

“The time is coming,” the Lord declares, when God’s gracious promise to Israel and Judah will be fulfilled. Jeremiah spoke this word of God’s promise to the People of Jerusalem when their world was crumbling around them. Jeremiah shouts to us that, even when things look bleak, we can trust in God’s promise that a new day is coming, when righteousness is the norm.

Jeremiah foresaw a future king of David’s line who would be righteous, who would do what is just and right. You see, Jeremiah blamed the unrighteousness of the Davidic monarchy for the exile that the people faced in his day. The Davidic kings exploited their own people, and they were unfaithful to God. They let justice and righteousness fall to the ground when they were supposed to be its defenders.

The righteous branch was also foreseen by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:1-5 CEB).

God promised to raise up a branch from the stump of a kingly line that had been cut off. Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last kings of David’s line. In the middle of hopelessness, Jeremiah offers the people hope. Jeremiah promises them days for which they might long: days when everything that the people have lost will be restored, and the coming-one of David’s line will govern the people with righteousness and justice so that they live in safety.

But, what does the word righteousness even mean? It’s a churchy word that we’re sometimes afraid of because we usually hear it used when we think someone is being self-righteous. Righteousness isn’t an attitude. It’s not an absolute standard. It simply means acting in accordance with God’s purposes. It’s doing the Godly thing. Righteousness is doing good instead of doing bad. It’s also doing as opposed to being. Righteousness is humility, and the ethics of living with and for others in relationships that are loving and just. Self-righteousness is the opposite of righteousness. It’s inflated ego and self-approval. Advent is an invitation for God’s people to remember that we are called to practice righteousness, now, even as we yearn for the future of God’s dominion.

Speaking of our longing: Holy Communion, this meal we’re about to share together, it’s a foretaste of our longings fulfilled. But we need to remember that this meal doesn’t point to magi, or a star, or the things of tender nostalgia. Instead, it points to a world gone mad: a world that desperately needs and longs for the salvation of our God. This meal is of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose body was beaten, broken, and bled out by people and powers also for the sake of the illusion of control. This table is set with food paid for at a costly price. Yet, we’re invited to partake, to share in this meal with each other so that we are reminded that our longing for God is not in vain.

God declares that “The time is coming.” Maybe Advent isn’t so strange or unfamiliar after all.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

(c.f. Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, pg. 2-7).

Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

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

~Pastopher

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!

~Pastopher