A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church for Advent 1 Year B on Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!Isaiah 64:1-2
These are great and terrible words. Words of longing; words of hope; words of expectation.
They are also words from the ancient world – spoken by unknown people in a culture deeply remote from our own: a world of peasants and slaves supporting a tiny hereditary ruling caste. All of whom lived in imminent danger of death from disease, violence, or starvation. A dangerous, alien world.
Our own modern world seems so different. Or, at least, it seemed different at the beginning of the year. Now, with disease ravaging the world, great power rivalry threatening peace, and upheaval in the imperial court, it seems a lot closer to home.
Like the writer of this passage, we long for God’s justice: and we know the achingly paradoxical truth that we are part of the problem.
A year ago, this would have been a harder sermon to preach. It doesn’t seem so long ago that we had a lot more confidence in our ability to control the world – to shape things as we liked them. Plague and disaster and wars seemed so remote from our Modern, Western world. Figures from history, or ancient problems which inexplicably lurked at the margins of our world. We’d see something on the news, or on our newsfeed, about an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and shake our heads and tut, and then turn off our devices, perhaps making a donation to a charity if we felt especially moved, and then go on with our lives.
This year it has been dramatically brought home to us that, in spite of our technology, destroying the tyranny of distance; in spite of the social progress of which we are so proud; in spite of the freedom of our cultures, which seemed so indestructible; we are vulnerable. Our world is not as strong as we had assumed. The year began with vast fires which burned out huge areas of bush and rained down ash and smothered our cities with polluted air, and continued with plague, an enemy which we had long since forgotten. And, in the midst of this, a fresh awareness of the injustice which plagues every society.
Even now, as we see things improving here in Melbourne, things look bad in a lot of the world. Disease running rampant in the US, fresh lockdowns in the United Kingdom, and starvation in Bali, to take just three of many possible examples.
Things might seem to be getting better here, but it seems all too likely that we are just at the beginning of the fallout from COVID.
In this situation, the words of the prophet really speak: Oh that God would tear open the heavens and come down and sort everything out.
The last year has showed us graphically what has always been true: That we live in the awkward, in between times of waiting. Between the “now” and the “not yet.”
The “now” of God’s presence with us, revealed in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Expressed through our ongoing collaboration with the mission of God in the world.
And the “not yet” which acknowledges our distance from the world which God wants for us. The world where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Even though Jesus has destroyed the power of sin and death, a brief glance at the newspaper reveals that sin and death abound. Things are not as they should be, and God can seem absent.
And, worst of all, we are complicit in the problems of the world. We do not, in fact, love our neighbours as ourselves, and we are powerless to overcome even our own self-interested greed, lust, and pride, let alone the complex, multi-generational trauma and injustice which drives so much behaviour in the world.
As far as our culture is concerned, our world has no meaning, no over-arching plan. Events follow events – the sun rises and the sun sets and nothing new ever happens. We look to the heavens and they are dumb. We look to our ancient traditions and they seem powerless to speak into this new world which we have created for ourselves.
Alienated from ourselves and each other, alienated from our history and alienated from the natural world, we are reduced to living among the ruins. It used to be comfortable enough for us to ignore the bigger picture, but disaster and plague and lockdown has revealed us to be not the self-made, self-sufficient individuals we thought we were, but dependent on one another, and in need of a bigger story to be part of. In need of help.
It was a vastly different world in many ways. But, surprisingly, the disciples of the original Isaiah, who wrote the prayer of longing and complicity which we read today, were in a situation which is not entirely unlike ours.
Just what was this situation, I hear you ask? Good question. I am glad you asked.
A generation before, Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, and the people taken away into captivity. This led to a lot of problems. For instance: how did you worship God when the only place where you could legitimately do so – Solomon’s beautiful temple – was hundreds of kilometres away and had been burned to the ground to boot? This was in turn part of a broader problem: what did the exile mean for God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac, and to Moses and the children of Israel that he would give them a land to dwell in? What did it mean for The Lord to be their God if the people of Israel were defeated and humiliated and exiled from the land? They were forced to live among an alien people, with alien gods and alien customs.
What had happened to the promises of God?
This situation endured for several generations, until the Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Israelites to return to Israel, and to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
From the perspective of the Exiles, this was what they had been longing for. Surely it meant that God would be truly with them, that the long, lonely, doubting Exile was over? That God was going to finally show his face again?
It must have been with high hopes the exiles made their slow way across the empire to get back home and get started on this astonishing confirmation of God’s faithfulness.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t everything that they had hoped. Sure, they rebuilt the city walls and the temple and restarted the vital rituals of temple worship. But still… it wasn’t enough. In a sense, exile wasn’t really over. Partially it was because they were living under foreign domination, but it was more than that. This beautiful future of which they had been dreaming, everyone under their own olive trees, the great banquet on the Mountain of the Lord when all the other nations would come streaming up the hill to worship the one, true God – it didn’t happen.
They too were living between the “already” of the return from exile, and the “not yet”, in which the true exile, the exile of the heart, was still going on.
And into this situation, they cry out: Where are you God? Why won’t you show your face? No-one seeks God, no-one reaches their hand out to the Most High. Why won’t you do something?
They, like us, lived in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet.”
It seems to me that the important thing about crying out to God is this: You can only cry out to the God in whom you believe. It only makes sense to reproach God if you trust that God hears you, that God cares about you. It only makes sense in the context of the covenant relationship between the Children of Israel and the Most High God.
That goes for us too. We long to see God’s justice. We worry that no-one seeks God, that God’s silence leaves us adrift in a meaningless universe where nothing matters. No-one seeks the God who they have forgotten about.
Yet God is faithful. God heard the cries of the Israelites – and, through them, of the whole world. God came in the person of Jesus, the final revelation, the very image of the invisible God.
We, too, look back on the mighty deeds of God. Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the pagan emperor by force, but in humility and love he completely transformed the world. In spite of our complicity in so much of what is wrong with the world, we too trust in the transforming power of God to bring all things to completion. We trust that God is, in fact, using us. We believe that God doesn’t just use great saints like Mother Teresa, or great evangelists like Billy Graham, but ordinary people like us, here and now, in our mundane local suburbs and towns.
We wait. And we trust. We trust in God for the fulfilment of all things, and for our own transformation into people who can see God, who reach out to touch God. Who collaborate with God in God’s ongoing work in the world.
God is at work. God is not far off, but near. We run from her, try to make the world in our own flawed image, but again and again we reach the end of ourselves – personally and globally. How can we get ourselves out of the extraordinary messes in which we repeatedly find ourselves? Only through the God who raised up Jesus Christ from the dead, and the Holy Spirit, at work in us today.
And so we wait: for the coming of the Messiah at Christmas, and for the end of our own exile when God will make all things new.
 Amos 5:24
 It was a complex story. As always, Wikipedia is a reasonable place to glance at to get a sense of what went on.