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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 3, 2017, 1st Sunday of Advent

 Praying for God to Do Something

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

            Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Rabbi who took God very seriously.  He wrote a book on the prophets simply entitled, The Prophets.  It is a book that in many ways changed the course of my life, by changing the way I think.  Part of what Heschel said about the prophets of Israel was that they were, each of them, people with a foot in two worlds, straddling this world and God’s world, the one we often refer to as heaven – this life, and the life which is to come.  Heschel said that the prophets had one foot planted in God’s world, and from that world they spoke a word that came to them from the Lord.   But he also said the prophets also had a foot planted in this world, and from this world, the prophets spoke a word on behalf of the people of Israel to God.  I mention Herschel because this is how this morning’s prophesy begins, in this first Sunday in Advent, these four weeks in which we wait, to prepare ourselves for the birth of God into the world at Christmas.  The words give me chills to speak: “the birth of God into the world at Christmas.”

            Isaiah stands in his world and he cries out from this world, our world, to God: “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down … so that the nations would tremble at your presence.”  Isaiah’s cry is somewhere between a lament and a desperate plea.  Three times in this morning’s passage Isaiah asks for God’s presence, for God to make His presence known today, as God had done so dramatically in Israel’s past.  It is as if Isaiah wants God all over again to open the Red Sea once more, and to make once again the mountains tremble with God’s presence.  

            I think I know something of what the prophet feels.  Not once, but twice in this passage, Isaiah laments that God seems to have “hidden Himself” from the people of Israel.  Isaiah is saying here that God seems more absent from the world than present in the world.  We all know what that feels like, don’t we?  When Christians and faithful Muslims are slaughtered in Egypt by some sick version of the so-called Islamic Brotherhood, and we are helpless to do anything to change it, I want to cry out: “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God, and make things right!”

            In our own nation, when killings take the lives of fifty-six people attending a country music concert in Las Vegas, or when thirty-two students in Blacksburg, Virginia attending class are shot and killed, or when twenty elementary school students and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School had their lives taken from them, or when twenty-six worshipers on a Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, Texas are shot and killed, I want to cry out, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  I want this whole world to feel God’s presence, to tremble before the Holy One of Israel, and above all to know the Prince of Peace.

            When Isaiah wrote these words, things were desperate for Israel.  The people were in exile in Babylon; their Temple, their beloved Temple, the place that marked more than any other the presence of their God in the world, lay in ruins.  Everything that was familiar and a source of security to them was lost, or so it seemed.  Can you sense the prophet’s desperate desire for God to come down and to do something?  He says, “though you have hidden your face from us.”  Medieval saints taught about this, the hiddenness of God, they called it Deus absconditus – the God who is hidden.

            I have just finished reading a spectacular novel, written by William Kent Krueger, called, Ordinary Grace.  It is a beautiful story because it is story about loss and death, about human dignity and family, and above all, it is a riveting novel about the struggle to believe.  At one point in the novel, Nathan Drum, who is a Methodist minister, has just lost one of his children.  He goes to church by himself, and his thirteen-year-old son, who tells this whole story, Frankie Drum, sees his father entering the sanctuary.  His father walks up to the altar and lights two candles, one on either side, with the cross of Jesus in the center, and he kneels to pray.  He kneels so low that his forehead seems to touch the ground.  His best friend, Gus, who lives in the basement of the church, hears something, and comes up into the sanctuary and says, “I thought maybe you’d like some company, was I wrong?”  And Nathan says, “I did come looking for company, Gus, I hoped that God might have something to say to me.”  I know that feeling, and I bet you do as well.  We want God to say something; we want God to do something.  In his movie, Love and Death, Woody Allen says, as the narrator, “I wish God would do something to prove that He is there - just clear His throat!”

            If only God were at our beck and call!  But then God would not be God.  Isaiah in this passage reminds us that God is not our possession.  God is not our Divine errand boy, not someone who can be controlled, or contained by us.  And strangely this fact does not make Isaiah lose faith.  If anything, the hiddenness of God makes Isaiah believe even more, and long even more, for God to be God.  He cries out: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for Him.”  That is where Isaiah is.  It is probably where many of us are today as well.  Isaiah is waiting for God, the God who seems hidden, and in his waiting, Isaiah does not give up on God.  He believes instead that God is the One “who works for those who wait for Him.”

            This is the season of Advent.  It is a season of waiting, of longing, of yearning for God to make things right in the world.  Even when our world seems so far from right, when “peace on earth and good will towards all” seems like such a distant and out of sight reality, still we are called to wait, believing, trusting, that “God works for those who wait.”

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer wondered the same thing that Isaiah wondered, when he found himself in a German concentration camp as a prisoner in 1944.  You can read some of the words that he wrote from there in his Letters and Papers from Prison.  Let me read just a few.  “God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without Him.  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.  The God who lets us live in this world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.  Before God and with God we must live without God.  God lets Himself be pushed out of the world, and onto the cross.  This God is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us.”

            For Bonhoeffer, this hiddenness was not a denial of faith, but a retrieval of faith in the God of the cross.  This is the God who did not “tear open the heavens and come down,” but rather the God who entered the world as a helpless little baby born to peasant parents.  This is the God we pray to; this is the God for which we wait.  God comes to bring peace, but God came as a baby.  He came as the Son who could cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  He would also cry, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

            This is how God chooses to be God, to relate to this world by entering fully into it, and by taking the vulnerable path of freely given love and of suffering service and of frail, human flesh and blood.

            I think Isaiah gets this completely.  This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament where God is actually addressed as “Father.”  It was Jesus’ favorite way of speaking of God, but honestly, that personal language in addressing God is almost absent from the Old Testament.  Almost!  But here, Isaiah says, “Yet, you, O Lord, you are our Father....”  Isaiah senses in the God of Israel the tender, intimate, personal love of a father.  And Isaiah longs for Israel to be clay in the hands of this loving Father, this Potter God.  Isaiah longs for us to be shaped and fashioned by this vulnerable, tender God of love and of light.  That is to say, “the God who works for those who wait for Him.”

            The God we wait for is not always the God for whom we find ourselves praying.  God is not Clint Eastwood; God is not Superman; God is not the genie we rub for everything for which we wish.  The God we wait for, the God of the cradle in Bethlehem, the God of the cross of Calvary is precisely the God we need.  And this God is a loving Father, and we are clay in the Father’s/Potter’s, hands.  So we pray, and we wait, in the assurance that “God works together for good in everything for those who love Him, those who are the called according to His purposes.”

                                                                                    Amen.

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