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The First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2011
The Old Testament: Isaiah 64:1-9
Sermon: "Show Yourself, God!"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Old Testament:
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.
Show Yourself, God!
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That is the anguished outburst of a desperate people. They’ve exhausted all human alternatives. They have given up on polite, respectfully restrained prayers to God. People on the bottom, with hope all but gone, do not have the luxury of Prime-Mover Deity; one that has set the Universe in motion then sat back, no longer involved. They want God, and they want God now!
In our Hebrew Testament lesson for this first Sunday in Advent, the Prophet Isaiah speaks to God for such people; a people who long for God, yet cannot see or hear God, for whom God seems absent. Have you ever felt that? Have you ever prayed, but felt as though you were just talking to yourself? Have you prayed beside the bed of one in pain, but felt that God was far away? Then you understand such a prayer as this, “God, tear open the heavens and come down!”
Perhaps you are surprised that anybody in the Bible ever prayed this kind of prayer. Sometimes you get the impression that people in the Bible always have God right next to them, anytime they snap their fingers and call for God. Paul met God in a blinding flash on the Damascus Road. If God were always among us in a blinding flash, then staying connected to God would be easy.
Isaiah had such an experience with God when he was young. One day, praying in the temple, it was as if the heavens were opened and Isaiah looked right up into Heaven. He saw God sitting upon a throne, clear as day. But that was a long time before today’s Scripture. In this morning’s lesson, Isaiah is not a young man on the way up, but an old man returned with his people from exile; returned to a city in ruin, a ruined temple, a people’s lives in ruin. Perhaps, remembering his vision as a young man in the temple, standing now in the rubble of lost faith, Isaiah blurts out, “Show yourself, God!”
Something in me wishes that God was always obviously present, visible, clear as day standing beside us. But, that’s not always the way it is with the living God. Sometimes there is the blinding flash of light, the unmistakable voice from above. But more often God speaks through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows, rather than appearing as blinding light. Sometimes, when you or I are the only one who sees a glimpse of God or hears what God says, we wonder if we really saw and heard God. Not everyone sees God the way you do or I do. So we wish there would be a voice that would sound out to anyone around us; a nice, clear, possibly deep bass voice like James Earl Jones, saying from the heavens, “This is God, I have just spoken to my friend here.”
Did God once communicate with people, in voice unmistakably loud and clear, but no longer does? If that were the case, then why today’s anguished prayer from Isaiah? He clearly expects more from God. There is a curious kind of presence and absence in many Biblical people’s experience of God. When the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road, note the difference in the way Paul heard that voice compared to those who were with him. Paul clearly heard the voice of Christ, so clearly that his life was changed forever. But those who were with him heard nothing.
In other places of the Scripture, God speaks in an inaudible voice inside the head of the listener. It was like that for Elijah in the wilderness; not grandly in the earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the still small voice, barely discerned, but unmistakable once heard.
I remember my calling to the ministry. I know that God spoke directly to me in that awesome moment of calling. That’s how I remember it. As I have related that event, anyone listening to me could wonder how I could have tried to avoid it as I did at first. People often say, “Boy, if God came and spoke to me, I sure wouldn’t argue.”
But, as I re-immerse myself in that moment, I realize that the voice was very still and small; a hushed whisper in the recesses of my brain. I wasn’t completely sure at that precise moment. I needed time to prove it out; to see if the voice would pursue. It did. Looking back with perfect 20/20 hindsight, all doubt long since removed, I wonder too that I could have argued and vacillated, and yes, doubted what was so obviously the voice of God calling loud and clear and unmistakable.
It’s that way in the Bible too. The voice of God which, in places, was a whisper to them is reported to us as a great shout. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his own story very quietly, in subdued tones. It is quite different from the way Luke tells it in Acts; with a vision, the light, and the voice. Rarely are events as obvious as they seem to those who are actually experiencing the event at that moment.
Remember that passage in the Gospel of John, when Jesus hears directly the voice of God, speaking from Heaven? But John says that for others who stood there, “Some said it thundered.” Sometimes, only the eyes and ears of faith get the message. Sometimes, God speaks, but we need to be leaning toward him to hear. What kind of ear do you and I bring to the hearing? Some people saw the miracles of Jesus, and did not say “He must be the Messiah,” but rather said, “What gives? How did you do something like this?”
Rarely is God obvious. When faithful people hear God, it is often a whisper. Yet later, when they describe what they have heard of God, it is a shout. Why does God communicate this way? Partly so that when someone does hear, when someone does say yes, it will be a free, uncoerced yes. We all have moments when we, like Isaiah wish that God would rip open the curtain of Heaven and come among us in irrefutable earthquake, fire, and undeniable vividness so that anyone would say, “Yep, that’s God.”
So, if God is most often known in a whisper rather than in earthquake and fire, then it must be easy to miss God’s voice when it comes to us. If God stands aside in the shadows, appearing among us only indirectly, then it must be easy not to see God’s appearances among us. I do wonder, what if I had not been leaning toward God on the day of my calling.
When it comes to God’s presence among us, we can be like those current middle-agers, who as teenagers listened to rock music through headphones with the volume so high that their hearing was damaged, so that they are now no longer able to hear any subtleties of sound. Everything must be in a shout to be heard. We are a people who are seldom free from the blare of the TV, or the attention demands of the internet and our smart phones, and are constantly bombarded with sounds and sights; so much so that we can become numbed, blinded. Sensory overload can lead to a spiritual senselessness.
Then again, humanity has always had its ways of being distracted from life, by the making of a life. I don’t really want to beat up on our technologies. These are just our current means of maintaining distraction. But that long ago established pattern of maintaining our distractions is why the Church, in its wisdom, has the Season of Advent. These four weeks ahead are to help us prepare for Christmas. If we are to see the fragile light that dawns among us in Christ, we must sit awhile in the darkness. If we are to hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent. What could you and I do (or, more to the point for us distracted people,) what could we avoid doing this Advent that would make us better able to see God’s subtle incursions among us?
I daresay that when many people first saw the babe at Bethlehem, they saw only another poor baby. Yet for those who were listening, leaning toward the light, here was Immanuel, God with us.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” begs the prophet. But the living, free, loving God is rarely that obvious. More often God comes to us in a glimpse, a whisper, a shadow moving in the darkness. We, whose lives are so full of noise, sights and sounds, lights and thunder of our own creation can miss Heaven’s opening up right in front of us.
Let this beginning day of Advent begin a different kind of Christmas season for you. Turn down the volume on the distractions. Tune in toward God in your thoughts and in your heart. As the Psalmist says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” May you hear the distant lilt of angelic voices, follow the darkened figures of shepherds in the night, and with the wisest of the wise come and behold the living God in your midst this Christmas.