Weekly Seeds: Quaking Mountains…Awesome Deeds

Sunday, December 3, 2023
First Sunday of Advent Sunday | Year B

Focus Theme:
Quaking Mountains…Awesome Deeds

Focus Prayer:
Awesome God, Tear open the heavens and display your awesome deeds through our work and witness. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 64:1-9
64 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 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!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 64:1-9 • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 • 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 • Mark 13:24-37

Focus Questions:
Does the ground beneath you seem shaky in this season?
What does it mean to return from exile yet not be restored?
What do you lament?
How do you imagine God tearing open the heavens?
What awesome deeds shape your testimony of God’s faithfulness and enduring presence?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

I remember feeling my first earthquake. My hometown is not known for them but every few decades, we’ll experience discernable tremors. Honestly, it reminded me of driving down a bumpy road with little shock absorbers in the car. I think I was in a science lab, and nothing fell off the shelves or tables. Nothing broke. It did not resemble the dramatic accounts I had seen on television programs or films. The question, “Was that an earthquake?” was sincerely asked. Maybe something very large fell in the room nearby. Or, perhaps an accident took place in the parking lot just outside the door. Those options seemed equally plausible.

Isaiah cries out a plea in the focus text hoping that the Holy One “would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” He does not ask for a gentle quake that may be mistaken for other activity. Isaiah wants the mountains to be disrupted by the movement God causes within it. Of course, mountains are the remaining evidence of past disruptions caused by the quaking of the earth. For a mountain to quake is to revisit the activity that created it. Therefore, Isaiah hopes that the mountains will revert to their birth or to be reborn.

This is not a request for a restart; after all, Isaiah does not ask that the mountains be wiped out and replaced. The same mountain that already exists will bear witness to the salvific actions that God will perform. It’s worth noting that in many ways, for the people, salvation had come. The time of exile had ended, and they returned to their homeland. Like many reunions, however, the reality garnered disappointment as their expectations of glory had to readjust to the new truth of their life. This passage in Isaiah reflects the struggle of holding onto a promise for a better future while confronting a daily reality that exists far below the hope nurtured in exile.

By 520 B.C.E., the people who had returned from the Babylonian exile had been in Jerusalem for some eighteen years. They had come with high expectations of all that YHWH would do for Jerusalem. Even the words of Second Isaiah had seemed to promise honor, riches, and political power upon Israel’s restoration to Jerusalem (Isa. 49:22–23; 54:11–12). Instead of the prosperity that they had expected, the returnees were living within a greatly reduced state under a governor rather than a king. They suffered scarcities of food and drink, and they endured a poverty generated by inflation (Hag. 1:5–11). After nearly two decades of waiting, the crisis of faith demanded an answer.
Gary W. Light

Isaiah and the people expect God to do something about their condition. It is not clear that they still believe this action will happen. God seems far away, secluded, hidden, or barricaded beyond the clouds of the sky. The plea suggests that the Holy One has chosen distance rather than proximity, indifference over intervention, and observation instead of engagement.

The unit (63:7–64:11) is a long prayer in the style of a complaint or lament to YHWH because of the present situation of misery, despair, and hopelessness. Two significant motifs in the complaint are: (1) YHWH’s past great deeds, now strangely absent; and (2) the invocation to the Lord as “our father” (three times!) and “the one who redeems us.” As we shall read in the final address, both titles open the heart to hope, to expectance of divine favor.
J. Severino Croatto

Hope is an act of faith. While the people were in exile, they must have dreamed of the day of return. In their dreams, they may have imagined that things would be the same or at least similar to the condition at the initial onset of exilic life. Now, eighteen years later, those dreams have become distant and disappointing memories. Rebuilding is hard and overwhelming at best. Their pain permeates the words of lament as they wonder if the God who has been with them in history does not seem to be concerned about their lives at present. Why would God not make these rough ways smooth? Why is rebuilding and restoring what has been lost so elusive?

They have been through the valley of exile, and their homecoming has not elevated them. This mountain before them seems insurmountable, unclimbable, and inaccessible. If the people will ever experience their former glory, then the mountain must move. Make it quake, O God, is their prayer. We cannot deal with this mountain so we need a new one to climb in its place. It’s a daring request that Shalom M. Paul describes as, “A bold and desperate cry to God to reveal Himself and to wage a battle of salvation as in bygone days.” Further Paul states, “The quaking of the mountains when the Lord reveals Himself is compared to the setting of brushwood on fire.”

The people want the glory of the past and expect the tools and the tactics of the past to obtain it. At the same time, they are ready for the Holy One to burn it all down and start anew. Their plea holds hope, disappointment, and despair at the same time as past memory, current condition, and future prediction battle within their collective consciousness. Will God be the God they have believed and heard about or is God still standing by as calamity falls upon them? Can the mountains faced by the people yield to their need to rise above their circumstances?

In the progression of this prayer of lament, the prophet reminds God of their awesome deeds of the past. In reminding God, Isaiah also reminds himself and the people of the truth of God. Remembering what God has done assures us of what God can do. That’s the power and distinctiveness of lament, which may be inappropriately conflated with mere complaint. Lament includes and often begins with complaint. But, that complaint is situated in a larger story and understanding.

Lament encourages us to speak with transparency and frankness. Lament holds nothing back from God and does not yield to polite discourse. Lament is raw, pain-filled, and laden with emotional response. Lament receives and distributes anger, grief, disgust, incredulity, and despair. But, lament does not conclude there. Lament progresses. Lament turns to remembering. Lament moves from complaint to praise to promise to declaration of hope. Lament does this because lament engages in dialogue with the Holy One rather than abandoning God even when it seems that the Holy One has retreated from them.

It should not be surprising that the prophet leads the people in the spiritual practice of lament:

The prophets had an ethical mission: to help liberate creation from pain and suffering, inclusive of both victims and perpetrators of injustice (see, e.g., Isa. 42:1–4; 52:13–53:12; Joel 2:21–22). They also had a theological mission: to make known that Israel’s God was a God of justice and compassion (Mic. 7:18–20). Their mission was also political: they had to advise political, social, and religious leaders of the day (Jer. 38:14–28). Finally, Israel’s prophets were to be forever in dialogue with God, who would reveal what needed to be said and done (Mic. 6:6–8). As keepers of the covenant, Israel’s prophets were heralds of good news, calling people back to right relationship (Isa. 1:16–17).
Carol J. Dempsey

The prophetic voice, like lament, is primarily concerned with the restoration of right relationship. Tearing open the barriers segmenting heaven and earth is a necessary step for the restoration of creation. After all, in the beginning, the division between the two made them distinct rather than making one subordinate to the other. Most importantly, the prophet seeks to eradicate the perceived distance between the Sovereign God and the people. The prophet inhabits that space as the bridge between the divine and the humane. Advent reminds us that Godself came as the embodiment of that bridge. In Christ, heaven and earth meet. Mountains will quake. God’s glory will be revealed. The ministry, purposes, and work of the Holy One will continue, magnify, multiply, and eventually be delegated to human disciples empowered by the God who, at one time, seemed so distant but proved to be near and coming even nearer with quaking mountains and awesome deeds.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“I thought of human beings, as far back as I had read, of our deeds and didoes. According to some scientists, we were born to forever crawl in swamps, but for some not yet explained reason, we decided to stand erect and, despite gravity’s pull and push, to remain standing. We, carnivorous beings, decided not to eat our brothers and sisters but to try to respect them. And further, to try to love them.”
― Maya Angelou, A Song Flung Up to Heaven

For Further Reflection
“Earth’s crammed with heaven…
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. “
― Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ― Henry David Thoreau
“I think Heaven will be like a first kiss.” ― Sarah Addison Allen
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.