Sermon: The Yet of Faith

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! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:1-9

My sermon from the First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2023) on Isaiah 64:1-9.

So on Monday morning, I pulled into the main parking lot here at church and noticed a plastic cup from Wendys sitting next to a parking spot. It looked as if someone put it down while getting out of their car and forgot to pick it up. A piece of litter sitting in our lot isn’t that surprising since folks often use our lot to eat their lunch in their car, make a phone call, or take a nap. Our lot is, technically, private property but it serves as a kind of refuge for people busy living their lives. I told myself I’d take care of the cup later on but, when later finally came,  I didn’t.  I thought that the wind, weather, and some random car doing donuts in the lot would, by the next morning, move the cup somewhere new. But when I drove up, it was still there – in the exact same spot. When Wednesday morning rolled around, the cup seemed to become more than simply garbage; it had become a part of our parking lot’s future. I now expected the cup to always be there – a testament to the immovable things that show up in our lives. I haven’t checked to see if the cup is out there this morning and I’ll admit it’s a bit silly to talk about a piece of garbage whose future should really be a trip to the recycling center. But it does invite us to wonder about those deeper things that somehow just show up and become those immovable and permanent parts of the futures we want to live. This wondering has been something God’s faithful people have done for a very long time. And in today’s first reading from the book of Isaiah, the community tries to find those immovable characteristics of God that hold us through all our sorrows and joys. 

Now to sit faithfully with this reading, we need to recall how it came to be during a specific part of Israel’s history. 70 years before it was recorded, the Babylonian empire had invaded the kingdom of Judah and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. After a year-long siege, the Babylonians breached the city’s wall and decided that most – but not all – of surviving residents would have to leave. The civic and religious leaders, as well as the rich, the poor, workers, artisans, merchants, teachers, and more were sent on a 1700 mile journey into the heart of the Babylonian empire itself. For the next seventy years, that specific Jewish community built new lives for themselves along the banks of the Euphrates river. And part of that work involved trying to figure out what they were now supposed to be. They could have focused on their successes – only sharing the stories of their past when kings, queens, priests, and everyday people made God’s love real in their world. But they also chose to do the very odd thing of  remembering those bits where everything went wrong. Their identity as God’s people wasn’t merely defined by all the ways they “won.” They made sure to remain authentically themselves by remembering the conflicts that brought prophets into their midst. A prophet was an individual appointed by God to bring to the people a word about who God is and how their faithfulness was lived out in the ways they treated the most vulnerable among them. One of those prophets was Isaiah and near the end of the book attributed to him, we learn about what happened when some of the exiled community finally came home. The Babylonian Empire, at that point, had been overthrown by the Persians who then invited those whose ancestors were exiled from Jerusalem to go back. Not everyone wanted to go but those who did found the city to be a shell of what it once was. As they tried to rebuild God’s Temple and restore the city into something new, those who returned from Babylon and those who had remained in the city, were wondering what their God was up to. It seemed as if the future that some of them wanted had finally come. But strife, conflict, and all kinds of arguments showed that their future wasn’t going to be what they expected. As the grumbling grew, some within the community decided to do something different. They prayed one of the most brash and bold prayers they could do. 

And it began by acting as if God is an immovable force but one that they could still try to move. They demand God to break through what kept them apart and to make real in their own lives the same kinds of stories they heard in their Bible. It was a prayer that asked God to be God by creating the kind of space where life could be lived. We often describe God as all-knowing, all-powerful, an immovable force with a plan for us all. And yet we heard Isaiah share a prayer implying that what the community was going through was caused by God’s neglect. This isn’t the kind of thing we assume we’re allowed to say since we know we’re not perfect ourselves. But when we pray in an incredibly faithful way, being honest is what we’re called to be. It’s why, I think, Isaiah matched that bold assertion with an even bolder acknowledgement that their current trouble was deserved. They confessed that what they were living through wasn’t merely caused by their moral failing but rather how we often make ourselves into an immovable object with no need for God. We live as if grace and love isn’t enough and that we don’t need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s unwilling to hold the fullness and complexity of life together since everything is defined by success or winning. Isaiah was brash enough to admit before God and before the entire community that when we make something other than God the foundation of who we are – there’s no demand we can actually make on God. But it’s then, at that moment, when faith makes its move since what matters isn’t trying to make us, an immovable object of wonder, worry, sin, and imperfection, to somehow come up to God; what matters is that our God chooses to not be an immovable force at all. 

The opening word of verse  8 – the word “yet” – might be the best word to describe what a life of faith is all about. It’s a kind of life that doesn’t pretend to be perfect because it knows how often that “yet” is the only thing we have. Pain, sorrow, grief, and tears make it so that we live in way too many futures we didn’t expect. But it’s the “yet” that carries us through since we know that the only thing we can do, in the words of Professor Walter Bruggemann, is to cede the initiative of our life “over to God, [who is] the only one who can give futures.” Living that way isn’t easy since it requires us to admit that there’s only so much we can do. Yet we have a God who broke down the distance between us by living a life that shows us what love will do. It’s in Jesus where we discover a future that extends beyond the limits of what this life will bring. Jesus does not ask us to create our own future but gives us a new one where grace and hope grows. In just a little bit we will use a little water, some prayers, and a community full of people whose futures have turned out quite different than they expected – to publicly welcome baby Kennedy into what God is already up to. She will be made a part of something bigger than herself because that’s what God’s love always does. Kennedy will be invited to not just become a part of God’s story but to actively participate in it through her own bold and brash prayers. She will be invited to be authentically and faithfully herself as Jesus guides her on the way. And when she finds herself living through a future she didn’t plan for or expect, Jesus will be right there beside her – showing how the only immovable thing in God’s creation is always moving, always flowing, and always stirring – eternal love of God.