This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 23, 2020.
Through the first three weeks of our Advent waiting, we have considered the words of Jesus to “ask, seek, and knock” through the lens of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote during Israel’s time in exile. Each week we have seen how Isaiah’s context in exile is similar to our own situation in various levels of isolation due to the Coronavirus. In this time that we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have considered the important spiritual tasks of asking God for what we need, seeking after a new way, and knocking at the door of the future.
We need relief from Coronavirus, both the symptoms of the illness and the loss of life and livelihood it has caused.
We need God to show us a new way, because many in our world have been robbed of true peace and justice.
We need to be willing to stand at the doorway of that new way and actively request entry into it. We need to tell God “yes,” we will follow God’s way.
This is what Advent is all about. This Advent, more than usual, is a time when we await God’s promised deliverance, God’s coming again into our future.
Today’s message from the prophet Isaiah is half Advent message. Isaiah 55:6-9 in particular call us back to the theme of “seeking the Lord,” But let’s start at the beginning with a message that is perfect for these short days before Christmas.
Isaiah says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you thirsty? Come to the water! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway to buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Similar to the Message Paraphrase)
Over the past few weeks, our faithful deacons purchased food boxes from the Food Bank along with Christmas food staples to make sure families in our community who are in need have food to eat at Christmas. The deacons engage in this kind of ministry year round, making sure those who request food or other resources from the church can receive it. But Christmas is a time when this kind of ministry is in full force.
There are all sorts of more “secular” reasons why we engage in acts of charity this time of year. We are more conscious of the blessings that we have. There is social pressure to do something for those who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes are filled with year-end financial appeals from charities.
But there is also a deeply Christian reason why the Advent and Christmas season is a time when we would open our hearts and resources for those who are in need. See, in Advent, we await the future coming of Jesus Christ. Not just in Isaiah, but in the New Testament as well, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is a time when both hearts and bellies will be full, not just with the bare essentials, but with wonderful things. Isaiah 25 tells us that there will be a feast of “rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine [with] the best of meats!” The New Testament likens it to a wedding feast or a king’s banquet.
The promise of Christmas, both now and future, is a great feast! A great banquet! An occasion for celebration with family and friends old and new. A time when when our bellies would be full of foods we cannot afford. A time when our hearts would be full of good news that we do not deserve.
But then the prophet, after giving the promise, asks the hard, discipleship question: “why?”
Isaiah asks, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” I don’t know about you, but even despite the restrictions and tightened belts of the pandemic, I’ve spent money I didn’t need to spend. The things of last month don’t satisfy this month. My priorities aren’t always in the right place, especially this time of year. There are all sorts of great things that God gives me for free and plenty of people who do not have daily bread and what do I do? I spend money on fleeting entertainment. Why do we invest so much time and energy in things that do not satisfy? I don’t know, Isaiah. Because we’re bored? (I think Isaiah might scoff at our honest answer.)
Matthew and Luke’s Gospels ask another question about the way people respond to the Great Feast. “Why do people who are invited to the free water, the free bread, the free feast of blessing not come to get it?”
In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about those who do not come to the free banquet. The host says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you hungry? Come to the feast! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway. I’ve set a place for you.” And what do the guests do? They tell the host that they have better things to do. “Sorry, I can’t come.”
This is, perhaps, primarily a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Those who belong to God’s people and God’s church are often the ones who make excuses about why they can’t make time for God’s blessings.
But also, it’s just a plain fact. You can announce to the world that you have free food to give out, and some people will be too proud to come and receive it. They’re in need, but those blessings are for other people. And on the other side, you have people who say “yeah, I need some food!” who do not actually come to get it.
Why are our priorities so out of whack? Why do we not admit our needs? Why do we not show up for the blessings God gives out so abundantly for free.
The answer is, of course, that we are human. We’ve been turning away from God’s blessings in search of something else since that first day in the garden. God was like, “look at all this stuff I’m giving you for free!” And we said, “Nah, God. I’d rather eat that fruit over there instead.”
And so, the Christmas promise (as it always does) leads us back into the Advent question. The promise of a great feast of FREE (did I mention, FREE) FOOD leads us to wonder why we do not ask, seek, and knock for what we need.
The prophet turns us to this Advent theme in Isaiah 55:6-9 — “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”
We’re right back where we started. Ask God for what we need. Seek God’s way. Knock at the door. Receive the blessings.
Again we ask, what does it mean for us to seek God’s way in the Christmas season during a global Pandemic?
I’m sorry for jumping around so much today, but if you look at Matthew 24:42-44 I think we’ll find the answer.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Keep watch. Stay vigilant.
If you’ve considered this Scripture text before, you may have noticed that the Lord here is likened to an unexpected thief. It’s a shocking comparison, like many in the Advent season. God, like a thief will come at the moment you’re not prepared and ready. The moment you’ve let your guard down.
Right now, there is something far more covert and menacing than a thief going around. Right now, at the moment when Coronavirus vaccines are starting to be distributed, hospitals are running out of space. Many of us are starting to let our guard down.
Over and over, our Scriptures remind us, “seek righteousness, care for your neighbor, keep watch, don’t let your guard down.”
Both blessings and suffering come at an unexpected time.
It is for that reason that Paul admonishes the early church to “not be like the others who are asleep” on the job, lax in their duty to keep watch and stay attentive.
“Let us be awake and sober” because we are children of the light of Christ.
Let us actively ask, seek, and knock in this season. Let’s stay vigilant because the day of our promised deliverance from COVID is coming. God is coming into our future and making a way and a future for us.
But as we remain ready and vigilant, let us also take time to celebrate and thank God for the free blessings God gives us. We have food to eat. We have shelter. We have connection with other people, even if only virtually. God is meeting our needs. God is present with us this Christmas.
Thank you for taking this journey through the message of Isaiah with me this month. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!
This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 16, 2020.
It’s hard for me to believe it, but we’re already halfway through week 3 of Advent. Kelly, Jess, and Rev. Tina have led us through the practice of self-examination on Sundays, and in these Wednesday devotions we have considered the particular spiritual journey of this Advent as we wait for Christ through this time of Coronavirus.
Our theme for this time together has been the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7 — “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
No matter what is going on in our lives or in the world, all of us constantly have to ask, seek, and knock. We have concerns for which we need God’s intervention. We have questions we need God to answer. And so, we know what it is to ask and seek.
As we’ve explored the past two weeks, Advent in particular is a season of asking and seeking. The traditional readings from the prophet Isaiah take us back to a time before the promised deliverance through Jesus Christ and they point us forward to a time in the future when Christ will come again.
This year, through these 278 days of the life season of Coronavirus, we have a very pressing concern for which we ask God and seek direction. We ask God to come, to end this deadly pandemic and bring healing to our land. And we seek after new ways of being together, loving each other, and living in a way that will not harm our neighbor.
The reason why we go to God in these times is that we know, or at least we are coming to find out through the events of this year, that we are incapable of saving ourselves. We cannot, by our own will, end the coronavirus pandemic, no matter how hard we try.
If you’ve found the last two weeks challenging, then I’m glad you’ve been paying attention. This week’s theme and text may be the most challenging yet.
This week, we knock so the door may be opened to us.
Have you ever been working on a project in one room and realized that you need to go into another room to talk to someone or get something. But when you go through the doorway, it’s like your mind has been erased. You can’t for the life of you remember what you were supposed to be doing. Only after going back into the first room, where your memory has apparently been waiting for you, do you remember what you originally set out to do.
This happens to me all the time in the office. I’ll leave my office to talk to Judy or Rev. Tina only to enter their office and go, “uh, I need to ask you about something, but… I can’t remember what it is.”
We all do this. And because we do it, scientists spend time researching it.
One group of scientists created a computer program to test this phenomenon—we’ll call it The Doorway Effect. They tasked participants with picking up an object in one room and taking it to a table in another in a computer game. What they found is that, even in a video game, participants would enter a new room in the game and forget the color of the item they were bringing with them. Walking through a virtual doorway slowed their responses and made them less accurate.1
Going through a doorway causes us to forget what we are leaving behind. It resets and reprograms us for a new environment.
And so, as we in our faith are coming to a new doorway, as we prepare to open the door and enter into Christ’s presence this Christmas, we have to acknowledge the difficult and hopeful truth that we will forget much of what is behind us.
We have asked God to come and save us. We have gotten up and sought after God. And now at this doorway that leads into a new year, we have to take stock of what we are leaving behind and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
Our Scripture passage from Isaiah 43 describes this reality. When we looked at Isaiah 40 last week, the people of God were in the midst of a temporary peace. Isaiah was charged with providing comfort to those who were or would soon be in exile, stuck in a land that was not their own. Isaiah told them about this desert highway that would one day bring them back from exile in Babylon to their homeland.
As our reading today from Isaiah 43:14-21 begins, God promises to “break down all the bars” incarcerating God’s people in Babylon. The exile in Babylon was thought of by the prophets as essentially a prison term. The people of God had disobeyed, so they were sent off to exile/prison in Babylon.
It was, in essence, a life sentence. The people would spend 70 years in Babylon. (Suddenly, our 228 days in Coronavirus quarantine doesn’t seem so bad!)
Throughout those 70 years stuck in a land that was not theirs, the people of God went through all the stages of grief. They experienced denial, anger, bargaining with God, depression, and eventually, acceptance of their situation. But their situation, like ours, was not permanent.
After 70 years of asking God for deliverance and seeking after God’s way in exile, the prophet Isaiah promised them that God would make a door where there had once been a wall. God would break down the walls of their captivity and give them a hand to lead them through that doorway into a new normal. They would finally be able to start the journey home and rebuild the life they had before.
Just take a moment to imagine what we anticipate will happen in about 6 month’s time: we will achieve herd immunity through widespread acceptance of a Coronavirus vaccine. Steadily, restrictions will begin to be lifted. We will once again be able to leave our homes and gather in crowds without masks. What will that be like?
We might fool ourselves into thinking that we will be able to immediately take up the way we did things before, but the longer this goes on, the more and more I think that won’t be the case. Even those of us who are “huggers” and have smaller personal space bubbles will find ourselves wincing when people get too close. We have gotten used to our separation. We have been changed by this exile.
None of us know how we will react to the end of this pandemic. We will have to find out how we react when it happens.
But what God tells the people who are anticipating their return from a 70 year exile is this: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When we walk through the doorway on the other side of the present struggle, God seems to encourage us to let the Doorway Effect happen. He seems to encourage the people coming back from exile to forget what the exile was like.
What former things is God through Isaiah telling the people to “not remember?” I think God is telling them to “forget” two kinds of things: their old, sinful ways (and the sins themselves and the nostalgic memories of what God did in the past.
First, God wants them to forget their sinful ways and the shame of those sins. God wants to set these people free from their old ways. He doesn’t want them to be burdened with the memory of what they did wrong all those years ago that sent them into exile to begin with. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I will remember your sins no more.” And if God is going to forgive and forget their sins, then surely they are also to forget their own sins. They have learned their lesson and now they are charged with going in a new direction.
Surely there are some sins, mistakes, and old habits that you want to leave in the past. When we realize our own need for forgiveness and take those sins to God and engage steps of reconciliation with people we have wronged, we can truly leave those things in the past.
God wants us to leave our former sins in the past.
But second, God also wants us to leave some good things in the past. This one might seem counterintuitive to us. So much of our faith is based on remembering. What do we do every week in worship except call to mind and remember what God has done in the past: God created us in his image. God rescued the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. God delivered his people from captivity in Babylon. God sent his son Jesus to save us. All of those wonderful acts of divine grace are in the past.
The same is true about what God has done in our individual lives. We call to mind the day of our baptism. We remember the day at summer camp where we gave our lives to Jesus Christ. We remember joining the church. We remember, perhaps, a “golden age” of the church when everything seemed easy and everyone you knew was Christian. All of those acts of God’s grace and mercy are in the past.
It’s easy for us to live in those former realities. The Exodus was wonderful! The birth of Jesus was world changing! Our individual stories of salvation are transformative! But those stories are just what God has done for us in the past. We have a tendency to grasp onto these past stories for stability when the present and future are unknown and frightening. These stories can ground us in uncertain times.
The danger is, we then start to live in the past. We cut ourselves off from what God is doing and will do in our future!
It is for this reason that God tells the exiles through Isaiah, “do not remember the former things, because I am about to do a new thing.”
God’s future acts of deliverance are going to be so awesome that we’re going to forget the past in the light of their glory. The things that God is going to do in the future are going to be greater than the Exodus, greater than the first coming of Jesus, greater than the moment we were first saved.
God, on the other side of this doorway, is going to do a new thing. That can be frightening to us because it requires that we trust God. None of us know what is on the other side of our exile. We don’t know where next year or the next 5 years will take us.
All we have is the assurance from God will be with us in the new challenges and opportunities the next phase has for us.
We stand at the door and knock, that God might open to us the door to our future.
Christ has come. Christ will come again. Come, Lord Jesus.
This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 9, 2020.
Last week, we jumped into the book of Isaiah as we considered what it means to “ask” God for what we need so it will be given to us, as Jesus promises. I encourage you if you missed last week’s devotional to find it on Facebook or YouTube because that’s really where I set the stage for this Advent series. Jesus tells us, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” So this week, we are going to “Seek” so that we might find. And since Kelly Ward teased the theme of peace in his sermon on Sunday, we’re going to start our reflection on seeking after God by thinking about a moment of peace that also illustrates what we mean by “seeking” after God.
This year, those of you who are history-inclined have probably done a bit of thinking about the year 1918. Culturally, the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic has a lot to teach us about our our current struggle against COVID-19. But if you’re thinking in the wider context, the 1918 flu hit the world hard right at the end of World War I. And it is this war, and the censorship of media in everywhere except Spain about its terrible effects, that has given that pandemic the misnomer of being the Spanish Flu.
Anyway, we’re going to be thinking 4 years before, to the year 1914, the first year of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars…” (or so it was said at the time.
On December 7, 1914, almost exactly 106 years ago, Pope Benedict XV, with an eye toward the promises of the Advent season, with the Christian hope of “peace,” suggested a temporary hiatus of the war to celebrate the Christmas season.
It was not that preposterous of a suggestion. This was not, in large part, a war between nations of different religious allegiances. The vast majority of Europe in the early 20th century was Christian. And in large part, in each country that participated in the war, the various Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant) unified behind their national cause.
There were Christians on both sides of the conflict that used their faith in Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even justification for their military engagement.
You would imagine that in such a conflict, both sides might have been able to say publicly and from the highest levels of government: we will pause the war for a Christmas peace. If some temporary peace was possible among competing nations, surely this was it.
And yet, there was no official cease-fire in December 1914.
Of course, no one was going to stop war-weary soldiers, both British and German, from celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.
On Christmas Eve 1914, without any preplanning or communication between sides, troops all across the theater of war began singing Christmas carols in their language. As night fell, you could hear the kingdom of God: men of different nations singing praises to Jesus in their own language, sometimes even accompanied by brass bands.
No one was going to take up their gun on Christmas Eve, no matter how committed they were to the cause of war. For one night, there was Peace.
But this is not where the story ends. The peace of Christmas Eve 1914 came without risk. It was something both sides could practice without leaving their trenches and guns. But, as we’re talking about today, real peace requires risk. It requires seeking after justice and righteousness. Real peace requires us to get off our butts and do something.
As day broke on Christmas Day 1914, having heard the enemy carols the night before, a few German soldiers took a risk. They actively sought a Christmas peace. They arose from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, across the liminal space called “no-man’s-land” and called out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongues of their enemy. (Take a moment to consider the significance of such an act.)
The Allied soldiers were cautious, fearing a trick. War conditions men to fear such things. But the enemy was unarmed, so they too arose from the trenches and shook their enemy’s hand. On Christmas Day, two men who could have killed each other the day before were exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum puddings.
The words of Isaiah 11 ring in our ears, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
A German Lieutenant recalling the event mused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
“For a Time” is the key phrase in his words. As Christmas Day ended, fighting once again broke out so that by New Year’s, the temporary truce was a distant memory.
Never again would such a peace take place in war. Military officers made sure of it by threats of discipline. The Powers and Principalities would never make the same mistake of allowing a Christmas peace again. In fact, the Powers would further delay the possibility of true peace. For we know that the “Great War” was not the end of all war. Rather, it was only the embers of an even terrifyingly greater war.
Still, this memory of seeking after peace and justice reverberates in our imaginations at Christmas as we anticipate the coming (again) of the Prince of Peace.1
So now you’re asking yourself, what does this have to do with our reading from Isaiah 40? It turns out, quite a lot. This text, scholars tell us, is the beginning of the second part of the Isaiah text. The Assyrians have destroyed most of Judah and have laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Isaiah too is telling us about the middle of a war. But more than that, there is a temporary peace. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had bigger issues going on at home, and so he recalled his troops to Nineveh.
Isaiah’s “comfort, O comfort my people” comes after this first siege by Assyria and before the later destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 587 BC. You’ll remember from Kelly’s sermon on Sunday that it is because of Jerusalem’s destruction that Daniel ends up exiled in Babylon.
Isaiah 40, then, comes in this liminal space between violent attacks. It is a message of peace that arrives both in the aftermath and anticipation of conflict, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Isaiah, as he did when he received his divine commission in chapter 6, has entered God’s divine council. Isaiah has entered the heavenly court where there is discussion about these earthly conflicts.
God speaks for his divine messengers (we might call them angels) to “comfort, O comfort my people.” A messenger (angel) chimes in, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” And finally another messenger instructs Isaiah to cry out to people on earth this message: all people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever.”
As we consider our imperative to “seek” so that we might find, it is this imperative in verse 3 that is most crucial: prepare. It is not enough for us to ask God for what we need. We must also prepare the way for the arrival of the answer to our prayers.
The divine messenger is instructing us to go out from where we are to blaze a new trail through an overgrown land. We’re instructed to seek a new way that is different from the old way. We are to seek this new way in order to prepare that path for the arrival of the one for whom we are waiting.
If you’ve ever gone hiking, you can visualize this pretty clearly. Normally, to respect the land we are on, we stay on the marked trails. Someone has already blazed those for us by clearing the vegetation and putting up markers. The path may not be level, but it is clear of debris.
But if we want to get somewhere new, we cannot take the old trails. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we must chart a new course, veer off the path to clear a way through the vegetation, through the mountains and their valleys. The old trail can only take us to the same places it always had. A new trail can lead us to find what we have been asking for and seeking.
Like the route of the Corps of Discovery, the path being charted in Isaiah’s time is not an ideal route. Lewis and Clark never found a water route to the Pacific. Likewise, Isaiah’s route for God’s people is a wilderness route. It is dangerous. Most would avoid traveling it. Yet, this wilderness route is the difficult, painful way through which God’s people will one day return from their suffering in Babylon.
When this text appears again in the mouth of John the Baptist in the New Testament, the way of the Lord being prepared is similarly challenging. Not many want to openly air out their sins. Those who take this road only because they see others doing so or because it is politically expedient are called a “brood of vipers2” by the harsh prophet.
This risky wilderness road in Isaiah, figured more completely for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was once again figured in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Two sides of men were entrenched in the old ways of war and bloodshed. In between them lay a no-man’s-land, a wilderness, they had not before dared to travel. But by doing so, by blazing a new path between the trenches, soldiers of opposing sides found temporary peace.
As Kelly preached on Sunday, our Advent faith requires us to be active, not passive consumers. Charting a new course takes risk, it takes guts, and it takes us rising out of our trenches.
Here is what I think is perhaps the most important lesson of this Pandemic. You and I were long stuck in a groove, in a trench. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, we have gone around and around so long that we began skipping beats. The longer we did things the old way, the more and more we dug a trench of safety, protection, and stagnation. A soldier who never leaves the trenches is one who has died in the trench.
The Pandemic has revealed the “groove” of life in the BC (Before COVID) time to be a rut, a trench. And right now, all of us cry out in one voice, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we need to be freed from this trench, this rut, this groove. We ask God to come through the uncharted territory because we know the old ways were not working.
We did not love God with our whole heart.
We as a church were not obedient to God’s way.
We have not done God’s will. In fact, in our old ways we actively broke God’s law.
We have rebelled against God’s free offer of grace.
We have not loved our neighbors nor headed the cry of those in need.
It is because of this, because the old ways were not working for us, that we now daily cry out for God to come and make a new way.
Last week’s Advent reflection could be summed up in a paraphrase of the first 3 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: I can’t. God can. So let him.
Together, we must admit that we were powerless over the Powers and Principalities. We were powerless over Sin. Our lives had become unmanageable. The virus had so fully infected us that we were blind to its effects. We were in the trenches, expecting to die there. But God can deliver us. No. God will deliver us.
That deliverance begins when we start seeking a new way. It comes when we see the trench for what it is and take those first few risky steps through the wilderness road, the land where few men and women would dare to go.
Let us seek a new way together, that we would find a future of peace and justice. A future that some would say is impossible. But through God, all things are possible––even a peace that lasts.
In the name of the God who can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, we pray. Amen.
1 Prince of Peace 2: Electric Boogaloo
2 Many who came to John to be baptized were like those “crowds” who line up in front of a store only to ask others in line what they’re all waiting for.
This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 2, 2020.
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.
The Brothers Grimm, the 19th Century German minds who first collected the folk stories of Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, pass down to us one story that has yet to be adapted (and tamed) by the Walt Disney Company. It is called “The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear.”
The story tells us about a boy who had no sense and no skills of which to speak. His father, as many parents do, worried that this boy would be a burden. He would have to provide for his boy because he could not earn his own bread.
Yet, financial stability is not what concerned the boy. Not at all worried that he has no trade, he sees his one fatal flaw as something else: he never feels afraid. His lack of fear is the one thing that makes him unhappy.
In a story perfect for retelling in the time around Halloween, the younger son goes out into the world to learn what fear is.
He encounters a groundskeeper who dresses as a ghost to scare the boy in a dark cathedral. He spends a night with seven dead men at the gallows. And finally, he goes to a haunted castle where a King has promised his daughter in marriage to any man who can survive its haunts for three nights.
These experiences would unsettle most of us, but he finds these experiences pleasant rather than frightful. The only thing he gains from them is a wife. The boy still has no knowledge of fear.
The story ends as the boy marries the princess, but rather than rejoice in his new marriage—and his newfound status in a royal family—he goes around all day muttering, “If only I could shudder, if only I could shudder.”
The boy’s new wife has had just about enough of it all, so she goes out to the garden brook and gathers a bucketful of cold water and small fish. That night, as the young king sleeps, his new wife pulls the covers off him and dumps the bucket on his head.
He immediately wakes up, crying out “What is making me shudder, dear wife? Ah, now I know how to shudder.”
Most of us are not quite as lucky as the dim-witted boy in the Grimm Brothers’ tale. We have not, for instance, found ourselves welcomed into a royal family by virtue of our one fatal flaw. The majority of us can at least name one or two situations, in the past, present, or future, that cause us anxiety and fear.
Even if we can make it through a haunted house or scary movie without “shuddering” in fear, there are still worries of this life that keep us up at night.
In normal times, we experience anxiety over upcoming assignments or examinations at work or school that test the limits of our knowledge and skills. We become afraid when, during a routine check-up at the doctor, we or a loved one hears that a preventive exam has returned some “troubling anomalies.” We avoid checking our credit card balance or retirement plan investment performance because we know the numbers aren’t good. We go into work as normal, only to find out that some corporate bean counter has decided our job is “redundant.”
Yes, even in normal times, the troubles of this life are like weeds that choke the seed of peace and hope within us (Mark 4:18). There is no need for us, like the boy in the fairy tale, to have cold water dumped on our head. We are plenty afraid already, thank you very much.
If those anxieties of “normal” times were not enough for us, we have been plunged quite unwillingly into the frigid waters of a global pandemic. Now, not only do we fear troubles at work or school, but we fear them in the context of a universal situation that has erased any concept of normal at all.
It is no surprise, then, that we are facing what is perhaps the worst mental health crisis the world has ever seen. The ever quickening and unstable pace of life in the 21st century has taken its toll on us, and now another wrench has been thrown into our unsettled existence.
Half of Americans reportedly acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health. I can only assume the other half is outright lying or is just not in tune with their own emotions.
It is not just our relationships with ourselves that is the problem either. On the one hand, our relationships with our usual circle of friends and acquaintances have been tested by the limited conditions under which we are able to interact. On the other, romantic relationships have been tested by the sheer amount of time they are confined to one place together! Marriages that could work when both partners were distracted with other things are now seemingly unbearable.
Where do we turn when the foundation of our lives seems to be crumbling below our feet, when seemingly unshakable parts of our life fall into the depths of the sea? (Psalm 46:2)
Since we are in church, we have an answer or we at least know where to go to find one. The Bible is filled with statements about anxiety and worry that are concise and easy to remember.
Philippians 4:6 says, “do not be anxious about anything,”
Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened.”
And Jesus in John 14 encourages us with the words, “let not your hearts be troubled.”
All of these verses offer good wisdom! When we are troubled, we can find comfort and assurance in taking our concerns to God in prayer. When we face a difficult situation, we can find strength in knowing God is behind us as we meet the challenge head on. When we are afraid, we can find consolation in putting our trust in the Lord.
The trouble is, these verses themselves don’t fix anything! If they did, Christians would have a one verse cure to anxiety: “I hear that you’re feeling anxious. Well, just stop it. Jesus tells us not to be anxious!”
Plenty of well-meaning Christians try that approach when someone shares their troubles with them. These words of encouragement often exacerbate the problem because they make the person who is worried feel alone and broken.
When we use statements that seem to provide a quick fix to the troubles of this life, we find ourselves further away from addressing the problem. Name one time God offers a quick fix to anyone in the Bible. (I’ll wait.) And if all you hear from the Bible is “thou shalt not worry,” then those who are aware of their worries will feel like God does not care about them. Not worrying becomes another law to which we fail to measure up.
The witness of Scripture is far more complex. When we read outside of the verses supplied by our proof texting for the ailment of anxiety, we find affirmation that none of our negative feelings are a stranger to the Christian experience.
The Psalmist, David, acknowledges in Psalm 88 that he cries to the Lord every day, and yet darkness is his closest friend.
The Teacher, Solomon, was given a divine understanding of wisdom only to find that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Eccl. 1:18)
Job, having been dealt more suffering than most, struggled with God night and day in his grief only to be comforted by God by darkness itself. God tells Job that as God created the universe, God wrapped the infant creation in the snuggling blanket of darkness. (Job 38:8-9)
Jesus cries out from the cross from the depth of his feeling, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s no wonder that when we go to faith leaders for help when we are troubled, we don’t normally hear them refer to these verses. They don’t fix anything. They require us to actually look into the depths of our heart and acknowledge what we feel. If we find comfort in darkness, if we find solace in our distress rather than covering it up, we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in a world that demands quick fixes and happiness all the time.
If the true comfort Scripture has to give doesn’t just fix the unsettled feeling in our soul, then many of us are going to go elsewhere for assurance. We will, as good members of American consumer society, take our business elsewhere.
Literally. We will take any difficult situation, any opportunity for personal and societal growth and bypass it with the comfort that the marketplace provides. We pour ourselves even more diligently into our work, taking our lack of a commute as an excuse to work more hours. After all, we have no one to rely on but ourselves! We connect ourselves to the television and social media in order to find someone outside ourselves to blame for our anxiety. We pour ourselves another glass of wine because the first one didn’t quench our anxious thirst. We buy from Amazon.com just for the feeling of gratification that waiting for and receiving a package provides. We become even more focused on ourselves and anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness is discarded. All this gets to the point that even the church becomes the subject of our consumer impulses—we’re not worshiping in the right way, the pastor isn’t doing enough, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.
All of these coping mechanisms and responses to anxiety have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, but are they really new?
There is not a single response to our age of coronavirus anxiety, not a single bandage for our wounds that I have mentioned that has been invented over the past 7 months. They’re the same things that have occupied and distracted us since birth.
And if our response to the anxiety of the moment isn’t new, guess what? The anxiety of the moment isn’t new either.
Has it sunk in yet? Half of us, according to surveys, may acknowledge that we are feeling more anxious now than before the pandemic. But if we’ve been overworking ourselves, hiding in ideological foxholes, and numbing ourselves with television and alcohol all along—the truth is we have been anxious in our interior world the entire time.
The difference is that right now, all of us have been confronted by the uneasiness of our humanity at the same time. All of us have had to peer into the dark basement of our lives—and most of us have scurried back upstairs, back to the old normal, because we don’t like what we see.
Let’s go back to the story of the innocent boy who learned what fear was. We have all now acknowledged that we are afraid—otherwise we would not be responding in the ways of coping I identified a moment ago. So now is the time for us to declare “I am the boy/girl who is afraid.” And then for us to go into the fear inducing places—(go to) the dark cemetery, the gallows, the haunted house, and the basement of our life where we hide all the unpleasant bits—(go there) and sit there for a while, feeling afraid instead of hiding from fear.
It is then, when we admit that we are afraid, when the darkness of our own soul becomes our constant companion, that we can find the faith we have been looking for all along.
See, if you’re inclined to gloss to this pandemic and all of the anxieties of our age by screaming “faith casts out fear” at the top of your lungs, I’m just going to assume that you don’t have faith at all.
The law that says “thou shalt not fear” is not faith.
If not being afraid means that you are able to provide for yourself, that’s not faith. If the comfort you have is knowing what tomorrow, 5 years from now, or 20 years from now will be like, that is not faith. If your faith is in yourself and your own ability to have everything worked out—including whose fault everything is—then you don’t have faith. If faith means returning to some sense of normal, then it’s not faith.
If faith means to you that you are never afraid, then you don’t have faith because God has put a burden on us. God, Ecclesiastes tells us, has placed eternity in the human heart.
God has placed within us a knowledge of the great, unsearchable, frightening majesty of God. God has put in our heart a longing for God alone so that no matter what we do to try and settle our hearts, they will not be at peace until they find their rest in God. Remember what we read from Ecclesiastes? God has burdened us with eternity at the heart of our being.
But we have to be intentional about going to and experiencing the places in our life where God is known to show up, where this knowledge of eternity is found.. We have to seek out and investigate the places where this inner fear, this inner longing comes to the surface.
Look at the names and stories of the Biblical writers who talk about God giving unexpected peace through fear and you’ll realize they found that faith because they were willing to stare the darkness of fear and anxiety in the face!
Moses had seen God in a flaming bush, confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel most unwillingly through a desert. Elijah ran into the wilderness in fear because Jezebel was intent on killing him. God appears, not in some trite bumper sticker, but in the silence of fear and trembling that comes after a storm. Job challenged God in the court of justice and had God unveil the whole mystery of creation to his face. Jacob wrestled with God. David sinned against everyone and had to befriend darkness. Paul was given a thorn in his side to constantly torment him.
It is these figures that tell us not to be afraid. Not because there is nothing to fear. Moses, Elijah, Job, Jacob, and Paul know for sure there is everything to fear. But they give assurance of God’s presence because they have confronted their own darkness, uncertainty and anxiety. They’ve stared the void in the face with fear and trembling. And now nothing, not even death or life, not even the anxieties of this world, can separate us them from God’s embrace anymore.
Right now, this global struggle against a pesky little virus, has dragged into the basement with all of our issues. It’s shown us the dust and disorder inside of ourselves. It’s intensified our frustrations and desires. And now, along with all creation, we anxiously await redemption (Romans 8).
Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, we raise our complaints to God, begging him to take away from us this thorn in our side, this prodding at our back that painfully moves us away from the old normal of our self-sufficiency. But God knows that without this thorn, we would go back to our old ways.
If you feel anxious right now, if you feel unsettled, if you feel a need to lash out with your opinions and judgment, good.
Now it is time for us to learn what fear is.
Now, in the cover of pandemic darkness, we are safe enough to go down into our souls and sit with ourselves. Now, we have the opportunity to go into our quiet places to pray and lose ourselves.
Jesus says, “when you pray, enter your closet and shut the door.” Enter the place where nothing can distract you from the uneasiness of yourself. Enter the place where the only two people are you and God. The closet Jesus talks about is necessarily dark. It’s silent. If you can hear anything, it’s just the hum of your body ticking along.
A Christian philosopher of the 19th Century taught that learning to be anxious in the right was “an adventure that every human being must go through.” We need to learn to be anxious in the right way so that we do not succumb to the numbing of our anxiety in the wrong ways.
This man, Soren Kierkegaard, is noted for saying “Faith sees best in the dark.”
The truthfulness of the statement is immediately proven when you respond by saying, “well, faith cannot see best in the dark because I cannot see in the dark!”
Exactly. It is when we cannot see that we come to see ourselves clearly. It is when we cannot see that God speaks through the silence and we can do nothing besides trust him. It is when admit that we cannot see that everything is uncovered.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If we don’t acknowledge our weakness, if we don’t uncover the inner anxiety growing from the neglected soul within us, then God’s power will never be made perfect in us.
Only when we come to the place where we have no hope for the future in ourselves, when we have no ability to move forward at all, can we experience true faith.
The only way out of our present age of anxiety is through it. The only way to overcome our anxiety is to stop fighting it and just accept it.
Kierkegaard most succinctly puts the problem of our world and its solution in these words:
The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and my advice asked, I should reply, ‘Create silence. Bring people to silence. The word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Therefore, create silence.
So, the challenge for us this week is for us to go back into our quarantine closets and shut the door. Separate yourself from the lights of the world; turn off the noise. Maybe one of the disciplines of the moment for you is that you restrain yourself from watching political news. Turn it off. Enter the place where only you and God reside, where the knowledge of eternity resides. Sit. Listen. Wait for the Lord.
And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.