Ask (Advent 1B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 2, 2020.

Isaiah 64:1-9

We as human beings tell time in a variety of ways. But no matter how you count, this Coronavirus pandemic, and the associated changes in our routines, has been going on for a long time. We began this journey of necessity in mid-March with what was presented as a “two week shutdown to slow the spread.” Now, eight months later, the spread is greater than at any point this year. Public health officials worry how Thanksgiving gathering may affect case numbers and hospital bed availability. The rest of us are wondering when a vaccine will be widely available to begin a new, post-Pandemic normalcy. We’re wondering if the government will pass another relief bill. We’re wondering if we will become infected and how much suffering that would entail.

But let’s think in a different frame for our time together this morning. Let’s think not in the secular, day to day, timeline of pandemic life. Let’s enter into the sacred timeline of where God has been, is, and will be with us.

At the beginning of the Pandemic in mid-March, we were in the third week of the season of Lent. As we all turned to the Bible as a companion to our journey, we found insight in the desert wanderings of the Israelites and in Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness. In some manner our time in that place has continued—as it did for the Israelites who stayed in the desert for far longer than intended because they didn’t learn their lesson and follow God completely (sound familiar?). Over the past months of this Pandemic, we have ventured in our Christian journey through our at-home testimonies to the resurrection at Easter, into the hope and promise of Pentecost from our locked-in Upper Room, and through the weeks that we wondered—like a child on a long car ride—are we there yet?

Now we are in the season the church calls “Advent.” But, I would suggest that we are not just in that season now because the calendar says it. No, we are truly in the season of already/not yet anticipation. The season that is at the turning point of all history. 

We are in the season of knowing that there are reliable vaccines on the horizon to unlock the doors of our seclusion.  We just are not entirely sure when they will be available. Now we count the days, waiting as best we can in confident hope and faithful diligence.

We are, in the Biblical narrative, in the middle part of the library. We are living, no longer in the days of Moses leading God’s people through the wilderness, but in the days of prophets who spoke hope into trying circumstances.

And so, in parallel to our journey of self-examination in our Sunday worship, we are going to be considering our place in this story and journey of God’s people in these Wednesday devotions.

Hopefully, this will serve to put even more context on what we have been thinking about in our Sunday services. We have been digging under the surface of ourselves in order to receive our salvation, but all the while, all of us are also on a journey together as the church and along with the prophets of old.

It is for this communal journey from desperate hope to realized joy that we turn to the prophet Isaiah this morning.

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.

Isaiah 64:1–3 (NRSV)

The prophet is living in a time of unrealized expectations, not unlike our living in the 8th month of a two week quarantine. Year after year, the prophet has called people to return to God in the hopes of the promise that God will restore them and their land. See, they’ve had all the promises of God before—they just didn’t recognize it until it was gone. In the past, God had appeared on Mount Sinai to Moses. God had demonstrated power against the prophets of false idols by divinely igniting the bonfire of Elijah. God had even answered their yearnings for a King like the other nations! But as the people of God became more like the people around them, they forgot to turn to God. They turned elsewhere. And as a result, they lost everything

And now, 50 years since their exile, since the hostile takeover by a foreign power, there is hope on the horizon. They are now under the rule of a more agreeable empire and king, one who is willing to restore their freedom to worship the God of Israel. And yet, it doesn’t feel like it did before the captivity. God seems more distant than they remember him.

We could imagine all kinds of situations that would have been like those of Israel in the 530s BC. Perhaps it would be like if we in the United States had lost the Cold War so spectacularly that the USSR had invaded our shores and made us into the United States of Soviet Russia. And 50 years into that foreign rule, the Soviet Union had been conquered by a more powerful nation whose leader was willing to restore a degree of autonomy to our shores. Yeah, it would be like that.

But also, we don’t have to imagine such a situation because we’re in a crisis of our own. We want to gather to praise God in one voice—but also, we are prevented from that for good reason. And the ways that we are able to gather don’t feel like the days we remember, when God spoke to us in all the feel-good ways. 

And so we, right now where we are, can take the message of Isaiah 64 to heart. Spend some time personally with this text. Here’s the meat of what he is saying to us.

Point 1 (vv. 1–4) — Things in this world are not as they should be. There should be enough hospital beds and affordable healthcare for everyone who is sick. There isn’t. The world shouldn’t be diseased at all. The very existence of biological viruses is a defect in the created order caused by the virus of Sin.

The thing is, we as the people of God know that there have been times when God has acted decisively to free and heal his people. God freed Israel from Egypt, God gave them a land of their own, and God sent Jesus Christ in this world to free us from our sins. And yet God seems far removed from us.

We all have, at one point or another, prayed a prayer of desperation to God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down…” “If only you would heal me or one I love.” 

The reality we begin with is––we are experiencing a Pandemic that has taken too many lives and will take more. The reality is, people suffer and die far too young. And we cry out to God.

Point 2 (vv. 5–7): We Cannot Save Ourselves!

We as human beings are limited. More than that, we are afflicted with the virus of sin. If anything has proven that to us, it’s the past eight months. For all the good in the world that we have seen persevere through this Pandemic, there is at least as much selfishness and evil.

Right now we all look for a cure. But, a vaccine is not a permanent cure for all that ails us. We thank God for the means to create, research, and manufacture one. But we need a savior beyond ourselves. Because God knows that even our means of curing these bodily afflictions are just as fallible as everything else we do. And beyond that, a vaccine won’t fix the sin of racism, of poverty, of hatred, of the brokenness of our communities.

In fact, we’re going to be tempted, when this is all over, to pretend that all is right with the world. Newsflash: it’s not. The world is broken. The world is sick. And this pandemic and its effects are only a symptom of this larger reality that we need salvation. 

Point 3 (v. 8, v. 1): Healing Comes Decisively from Outside Ourselves

If we cannot save ourselves, than we have to rely on someone else to save us. There’s a lot of candidates in this world. Everyone is selling something that will supposedly cure what ails us. But the only one who can really fix the problem is the one who is the master engineer who built the thing in the first place, the loving father who has watched us go astray. We need God to decisively act––as God did in the past through Moses and all the prophets, and then through Jesus. 

We need God to literally tear the heavens open and come down. The good thing is, that’s the very thing God promises to do. We are told to cling tightly to Jesus because Jesus will come to free us in a decisive moment of power. Jesus will come to free us like the allies freed the Nazi concentration camps. Jesus will come to heal us like a vaccine that inoculates us against the virus of Sin. Jesus will come like a test that shows the cancer has disappeared. Jesus will come like a presidential pardon, freeing us from the prison to which we’ve become enslaved.

Jesus will tear the fabric of our brokenness and enter into the core of our being.

This is the hope and promise of Advent; The invigorating hope and promise of God acting decisively in Jesus Christ. It is not a hope to be rested in passively––it is a hope that wakes us up to how things are and leads us to prepare our hearts and minds.

It is a hope that raises a loud cry in our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Make haste to help us.

This desperate cry to God, this asking and begging, is part of our faithful waiting. It’s faithful because it reminds us about who God is and always has been. It reminds us that Jesus is the cure to our affliction.

But, as we close this morning, we’re likely to ask, “how long must we wait?”

Well, the answer as it relates to COVID is probably 6 months. If all goes according to schedule, and the vaccine is accepted and trusted, we might be able to put COVID-19 behind us by early Summer. That means we’re over halfway through our waiting. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still waiting to do. There is faithful waiting to do. The waiting that means we take every precaution for the good of our neighbors.

The question, “how long must we wait for God’s deliverance?” Is a tricker one to answer. We do not know when God, in Jesus Christ, will once again rend the curtain of heaven and come down. What we do know, for each of us, is that God has torn open the curtain separating us from God in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come and is here for all who ask, seek, knock, and receive. Today could be the day of your salvation from the Spiritual virus that afflicts you.

But as it relates to the salvation of the whole world, we wait as those who have hope. We wait with loud cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Just be prepared. That cry will go on for longer than six months more. But it will also come at an unexpected time.

We might be able to understand how God unexpectedly works in time through the character of Gandalf.

God is a bit like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Or rather, Gandalf embodies some of God’s characteristics. In the LOTR movies, Gandalf is noted for saying… A wizard is never late. Nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.”

And thus it will be that when God saves us, it will be at the precise moment and in the precise way that he intends for his glory and our good. 

God is never late. Nor is he early. God arrives at the precise moment he intends.  

In the name of the God who holds the past, present, and future we pray. Amen.

Mixtape Theology: World Communion (Year C – Oct 6)

Welcome to the first edition of the (not necessarily) weekly series I’m calling Mixtape Theology — reflections on the texts and themes of the Revised Common Lectionary inspired by (secular) music.

Since we’re starting this playlist series on World Communion Sunday, I figured it would be appropriate to look for songs focusing on world peace, unity and diversity, tearing down walls, and sharing table fellowship. (I also figured it would be a good chance to throw some world music inspiration in the mix, but I mostly failed. Leave your suggestions in the comments!) Some of the songs below hit on those themes, but when I opened up the Old Testament lection (Lamentations!) and started reading chatter about Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN, I knew I (or the providence of God) definitely picked the right week to begin this series.

For those who don’t know, World Communion Sunday got its start right here in Pittsburgh at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in the period between the two World Wars. During the Second World War, the practice was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches as a way to unite Christians in the US with their brothers and sisters around the world.

Prelude:

We begin our service with a musical tableaux of the wind blowing through the “amber waves of grain” of the countryside.

Opening Praise: Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise God in creation! Let us join together in appreciating the sights of God’s work.

“Oh, what a world, I don’t wanna leave
There’s all kinds of magic, it’s hard to believe
Northern lights in our skies
Plants that grow and open your mind
Things that swim with a neon glow
How we all got here, nobody knows
These are real things
Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe
Thank God it’s not too good to be true
Oh, what a world, and then there is you.”

Scripture:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! 

(Addition: How forsaken lies the earth, once full of species.)

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! 

She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. 

Lamentations 1

The global church is splintered and fractured, unable to even eat at the same table. The American church is a vassal of a corrupt government. The earth is a slave to human self-interest. The cosmos groan for redemption (Romans 8:22). Hear what God is saying to the Church. The children are watching.

Proclamation (of Judgment):

As one who has been criticized for my passion and conviction over issues people would rather be complacent and nonchalant about, can I say GO GRETA! Nevertheless, she preaches!

This is what conservatives mocking and scolding liberals for the attention they’ve paid Thunberg don’t understand. Thunberg isn’t being applauded because she’s being taken seriously. She’s being applauded because she’s not.

This is an iteration of the guilt suffused throughout liberal politics, which often seems better suited to producing tears and slogans than genuine change. 

OSITA NWANEVU, New Republic

As the people of God, liberal and conservative, Greta and her aftermath give us a lot to think about. Are we more capable of causing others guilt than we are inspiring real change in ourselves and others? What would it mean to abandon our lifestyle in pursuit of lasting, systemic change? What would it mean for us to come before God and our systemic sins in a true spirit of repentance, as people who are in exile.

Prayer of Confession: We build walls, not bridges. We squander the world’s resources rather than stewarding them. We stand idly by in the face of injustice. We cannot do this alone, O God.

“And you know
The oceans they connect us all
No one can just build a wall
We have to work together
We can’t do this on our own
To think that you can stand aside
Is nothing more than foolish pride
‘Cause everyone’s a libertarian
‘Til the brown water floods their home”

Prayers of the People: A Lament for the perceived absence of God.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? 

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 

Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? 

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 

So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. 

The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted. 

Habakkuk 1 (NRSV)
From a fellow Houghton alum, Laura Johnson, bringing a hauntingly beautiful description of what it is to look for familiar sights in a sea of unknowns.
Some days God feels close and familiar, other days God’s presence can only be sensed through the “echoes” seen in “foreign faces and places.”
We feel alone, O God. We do not see you–we only see wrongdoing and trouble. Come to our aid. Make haste to help us.

Proclamation (of Gospel): God offers life-changing forgiveness for all of us. The Gospel declares “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” In communion, the change comes through “a box of wine,” that mysteriously is the blood of Christ.

I feel a change in the weather I feel a change in me. The days are getting shorter and the birds begin to leave. Even me, yes, yes, y’all. Who has been so long alone I’m headed home. Headed home. The nights are getting colder now. The air is getting crisp I first tasted the universe on a night like this. A box of wine, an alibi. And the hunger in her eyes. In a place where the tree of good and evil still resides. Still resides.”

Offertory:

“All creatures of our God and King, 
lift up your voice and with us sing 
alleluia, alleluia! 
Thou burning sun with golden beam, 
thou silver moon with softer gleam, 
O praise him, O praise him, 
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” – Assisi

Eucharist:

This Sunday, I will receive the sacrament for the first time since my conscience led me to abstain mid-Summer during a time in which I was estranged from some of my brothers and sisters in the faith (Mt. 5:24). The wounds have not yet healed, but I look forward to Christ’s broken body and spilled blood reminding me of the reconciliation that was, is, and is to come.

If you are able, find an opportunity to receive the sacrament of holy brokenness this week. Our country is broken. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The equilibrium of our global environment is crumbling. “The body of Christ, crumbling onto the floor, yet given in abundance to you.”

I can’t offer the sacraments online (Methodists who remember that dispute will hopefully chuckle at the suggestion), but I can offer some sacramental suggestions from Wil Wheaton that might offer a glimpse of the Gospel for those of us suffering from Ecological (or otherwise) anxiety.

Take a shower.

Eat a nutritious meal.

Take a walk outside (even if it’s literally to the corner and back).

Do something — throw a ball, play tug of war, give belly rubs — with a dog. Just about any activity with my dogs, even if it’s just a snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, helps me.

Do five minutes of yoga stretching.

Listen to a guided meditation and follow along as best as you can. (Editor: Can I recommend Pray as you Go?)

Wil Wheaton

(As a survivor of intense, crippling anxiety at various stages of my life fueled by fears as myriad as nuclear bombs and saxophone recitals, I would also recommend to all of my human readers that you find a trusted therapist for your mental health. Even if you just need to talk through something you can’t tell anyone else. Everyone has mental health. Care for it.)

Song During Communion:

In communion, we remember that the body of Christ is beautiful in its interlocking brokenness:
“And I have to speculate
That God Himself did make
Us into corresponding shapes
Like puzzle pieces from the clay”

In the ecstacy of perceiving the divine mystery of Christ revealed to us, in the sursum corda: (‘lift up your hearts / we lift them up to the Lord’)
“They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we’ll stay”

Praise after Communion:

Song of Songs is a text between two lovers that’s also an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church. We know well of that love. But what if we sang this kind of love song about other members of the body of Christ?
Yet, this song also reveals the holy but broken nature of the relationships within the church, saying ‘it don’t mean we’ll stay together.’
Plus, nothing says World Communion like the album cover!

“We go together like sound and sight
Black and white, day and night
We go together like left and right
Oh, we go together
We go together like give and take
Pains and aches, real and fake
We go together, don’t be opaque
It’s clear we go together
We belong together
We belong together
Baby, there’s no use in being clever
Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together.”

Benediction:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 

It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. 

For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

Go in Peace. Amen.