United Church of Christ

Reshape, Reclaim, Remember

Sunday, November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent Year B

Focus Theme:
Reshape, Reclaim, Remember

Focus Prayer:
Creator of the world, you are the potter, we are the clay, and you form us in your image. Shape our spirits by Christ's transforming power, that as one people we may live out your compassion and justice, whole and sound in the realm of your peace. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 64:1-9
   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.

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

Focus Questions:

1. What makes God angry?

2. Why do we try to suppress God's anger?

3. Is God accountable to us?

4. What do we do with our disappointment with God?

5. How do we wrestle with a God who we believe can tear open the heavens but doesn't?

Reflection
By Cheryl Lindsay

Has there been a time when it seemed that God was avoiding you? That God has just had enough with your foolishness and has left you to your own devices. When you were certain that, because of your shortcomings, God became angry enough to renege on God’s promise never to leave you nor forsake you? What do you do with that?

During the period captured by the last chapters of Isaiah, the people of God seem to vacillate between hope and despair, certainty and dismay, assurance, and desperation. The Israelites have returned from living in Babylonian exile to be reunited with those who remained in the territory of Judah. Their return and reunion, however, do not signify restoration; they are not yet whole. Jerusalem is broken. Shalom M. Paul writes, “Following its destruction and the first days of the return, Jerusalem in the time of the prophet is described as desolate and unconsoled. Deutero-Isaiah portrays the city as a bereaved and barren widow.” Rather than celebration, the reunion presents a return to a place that only shadows its former glory and a profound disappointment among the people who have been waiting for this day.

We live in a time when one might be excused for wondering if God has had enough with our foolishness. Fires rage around the globe. We have experienced so many severe tropical storms and hurricanes on record that we’ve exhausted one alphabet and have delved into another with weeks remaining in the season. The rise of white nationalism and in Black Lives Matter activism and allyship highlight the daily news, and a contentious election season further divided a nation already fractured. In the midst of this, the global pandemic found in COVID-19 looms over and magnifies everything else.

Is God hiding when we need God the most? The lectionary texts this week invite a readiness for the move of God in our lives. We are assured of God’s hand and warned not to sleep, but in this passage from the Prophet Isaiah, we find a desperate plea for the Holy One, in the midst of God’s anger, to return to God’s people. There is a sense that God is decidedly not at work, which begs the question: Is God hiding causing our problems to get worse?

As the text opens, the prophet believes God could do more. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (v. 1a) connotes a plea for presence that the prophet seemingly judges God to willfully withhold. Isaiah does not ask if it is possible but bemoans that the Holy One has not done what is within God’s power to do. Of course, this is exacerbated by what God has done in the past as Isaiah reminds us in the next few verses. In fact, Isaiah magnifies God, who has done what no one has done before or is capable of doing now. In this, the sovereignty of God never comes into question. The text moves us from desperate plea to desperate hope, and it is the process of remembering that takes us on the journey.

At the same time, remembering the glory of God invites a comparison of humanity’s behavior in response. “But you were angry, and we sinned” frames human failing as a consequence of the anger of God and not the cause as might be expected. The text continues to delineate the disastrous results of this separation initiated by God who hides God’s face. Most prophecy admonishes the people for turning from God; here, the prophet holds God to account for the human condition and ultimately for the diminution of the name of God in the world. “There is no one who calls on your name,” the prophet laments as he repeats the linkage of God’s hidden status and human shortcoming in even stronger terms.

If anything, this emphasis conveys the depth of God’s anger. This is not a flickering flame ready to be extinguished or a low smolder destined to fade out. God’s anger is rage that has only been kindled by the ongoing inequity of the people. Like “the fire [that] causes water to boil,” God’s anger burns with destructive consequence.

In this portion of Isaiah, God is depicted as a mighty warrior. God‘s power and might is undeniable and unmistakable. God is the one who has the ability to vanquish enemies, devour nations and crush the unrighteous. God, it appears, likes to fight or at least excels at it. It’s fair to say that we struggle with the image of a warrior God. Our view of God is of the loving, compassionate, and benevolent Sovereign who cares and comfort us. Our Creator does not strike down adversaries, and we wrestle with Old Testament passages that depict the destruction of entire communities, where the innocent as well as the guilty receive God’s righteous anger, judgement, and sentence. In many ways, we reject the view of the Divine Warrior because that God does not seem quite fair. We aren’t comfortable with vengeance when our faith claims grace and mercy as the hallmark of the God we know. This discomfort may explain our struggle with God’s anger…especially when it is directed at us and our actions. God‘s anger at injustice we can accept as we share in that righteous indignation. There is no shortage of legitimate issues that should spark the wrath of God, such as poverty, income inequality, racial oppression, misogyny and sexism, transphobia, human trafficking, and domestic violence. But what do we do with this image of a God who gets so angry that God does not want to deal with us anymore? The Creator hides from creation.

Our unique position in creation is that we bear the image of God. We tend to attribute that to the nicer qualities and characteristics of God that make us comfortable. God is loving and compassionate; therefore, we should be loving and compassionate. The Everlasting God is faithful so we should be faithful. The Holy One is righteous so we are righteous. On the other hand, if God is a warrior, should we then be warriors? If God gets angry so should we get angry? If God can hide God’s face, then what do we get to hide from? What circumstances and situations can we turn from? Having made us not only to be in a relationship with God but having created us in such a way that we long for the presence of God, how can God turn from us? One of my favorite images is God hiding our sin from God’s self. This God is so forgiving that the Holy One deliberately chooses not to remember the things that we have done to displease God. I must confess the image of a God who hides from us while fixating on our failings is not as compelling.

Nor is this image of hiding consistent with the God who repeatedly promised never to leave nor forsake the people. As Chris A. Franke notes, “In the lament, people again remind God of unfulfilled promises.” Implicit in that reminder is that God values being faithful to God’s promise. There is a trust in this relationship that holds God accountable to what God has said and who God is. John N. Oswalt takes this even further:

      The language here is that of wish. This is correct, and the wistfulness of the wish is enhanced by the verbs being in the past tense: If you would have just split the heavens is not first of all a hope that God might do something in the future; it is a wish that he had already intervened long ago. Isaiah knows God, he thinks he knows God’s heart, and it is hard for him to understand why God would let the situation get so desperate without having done something about it.

Perhaps it is that wistfulness that leads the prophet to a shift in tone. In the remembering and reminding that Isaiah does in this passage, the prophet bookends his plea on behalf of the people with desperation on one end and conviction on the other. What begins by wondering why a capable God does not act transitions to a reclaiming of the covenantal relationship in which God will surely act on behalf of the people. Approaching God as a chastened child who has considered what they have done and wants to make things right, the prophet reminds God of the relationship between God and the people and concludes with a repentant plea for God to release God’s anger and reclaim that Parent-child, Creator-creation, Potter-clay relationship.

Clay is formed when water is added to natural material like soil. While still wet, it is malleable. It can be shaped and reshaped as desired into an entirely new object. A potter works the clay with their hands using the natural material and their imagination to create a new thing. Once it dries, the clay holds that shape, but clay that has been simply air-dried lacks luster and sheen and can be easily molded into a different shape by adding more water and manipulating its structure. Add fire to the drying process and the clay becomes hard and holds its shape permanently. The only way to change the shape after the fire’s work is to break it.

The people have experienced brokenness, and so have we. The earth groans from pollution, mishandling and overuse. A global pandemic has shifted behaviors, forced isolation, and taken lives. Rampant capitalism enlarges income inequality. Gains in human rights won over the course of generations are reversed in a matter of months with even more civil rights hanging in the balance of shifting power.

Isaiah reminds us, in our brokenness, that God is our Potter. Our condition can be reworked. Our lives are like natural soil that can be remolded and remade upon activation by the Living Water, the One whose coming we remember and reclaim during this Advent season. Advent invites us into reclaiming the promise of the coming Christ. The Chosen One will renew the promise of restoration and hope. We remember what it means to wait with anticipation and expectation rather than dread and fear. We remember the “awesome deeds” manifested in the past and claim the possibilities for our present and future.

Yes, God is justifiably angry, and we have to reckon with that anger in terms of how we contributed to it and how we might respond to it. It seems that Isaiah decided to acknowledge it and call for a mutual returning. As Carol J. Dempsey suggests, “The prophets portrayed God as desiring a mutual relationship based on both parties returning to each other.”

Like a child asking a parent “are you mad at me? Please don’t be mad,” Isaiah has remembered the unequal aspect of the mutual relationship God’s people enjoy with their Creator. The clay pleads with the Potter not to be broken but to be reshaped. In that remembering, there is affirmation and hope for reshaping God’s people through God’s mercy.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (lindsayc@ucc.org) is a local church pastor 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 on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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