For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent Sunday – Isaiah 64:1-9
Sorry to begin Advent on a downer, but this passage is all about disappointment. I wonder if any of us are feeling that as we look back over the Year of Our Lord 2020? As part of a longer Psalm of Lament (63:7 – 64:12), it is the nation’s cry of anguish because things hadn’t worked out as they expected. Situated after the return from exile in Babylon, as promised by the middle section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this section, part of what is known as Third- or Tritio-Isaiah, is the response of the people to the fact that the glowing predictions of Deutero-Isaiah about Jerusalem being returned to its former splendour and prominence hadn’t quite come to pass, and that in fact life was all about hard slog and discouragement rather than triumph and glory.
It begins with a cry for God to do something, and preferably something dramatic, to show Israel’s enemies who’s boss (v.1-3). It moves onto an accusation: we have sinned because you have been absent. Like cheating spouses who blame their infidelity on a lack of attention from their other half, they tell God that if only he had been there for them they would have behaved (v.5-7). Then there seems to be a recognition, perhaps dawning gradually, that actually it is them, not the nations, which need God to turn up and make a difference. This leads to an admission that they were powerless to shape their own destiny, as powerless as a lump of clay, but nevertheless ‘we are all your people’ (v.8-9), so there ought to be hope, surely? It’s almost as if, in the composition of this passage, the prophet was coming to a dawning recognition of the real state of affairs.
So why had God apparently absented himself with such disappointing consequences? The clue, I think, lies in v.4: God acts for those who wait. As Christians I expect we know that most of our disappointment and frustration with God comes not because he hasn’t done something or other, but because he hasn’t done it yet. As believers in the resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth we know that in the end things will pan out fine; we really do believe that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. But O my goodness isn’t it taking a long time? And there we have the absolute heart of Advent: it teaches us to wait. We know what’s coming, we believe it’s coming, so why on earth doesn’t it come? That’s the agonised cry of the Church for 2000 years: that’s the at times despairing cry of Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
Of course we don’t really do waiting nowadays. Ever since the launch of the Access Card in October 1972, with its strapline ‘Taking the waiting out of wanting’, we have increasingly grown to expect everything instantly. If a web page doesn’t load within two seconds we don’t bother, and any social media post more than a few lines long is greeted with ‘tldr’. The charismatic renewal movement has been accused of ‘triumphalism’, which I define as ‘wanting our triumph now rather than later’. Yet God is definitely a God who makes us wait, and who promises to reward those who wait – eventually.
This year we have learnt a lot about waiting: for many there hasn’t been much else to do during lockdown, furlough or even redundancy. As I write we’re waiting to be told if and how we might celebrate Christmas this year, within our families and within our churches. We’re waiting for the magic vaccinations which will make this horrible thing go away and put life back to normal again. We’re waiting to see how the wonderfully prosperous life outside the EU we were promised will actually pan out. And yes, as we look back, we’re disappointed. Disappointed about our jobs, our livelihood, those cancelled holidays, marriages and get-togethers, and some of us above all are disappointed that those we love have died, sometimes without us being able to hold their hands as they went.
So what does this text tell us about our disappointments? The same as Advent tells u every year, although this year with much greater poignancy: wait. We’re powerless, ultimately, so all we can do is recognise that we’re in the hands of a skilled potter who is making something both beautiful and useful, but who is certainly taking his time to do it. Our job, yes, is to cry out in anguish ‘for goodness’ sake get on with it!’, but it is also to discern, see and wonder at what we’re becoming as we wait. It’s also about proclaiming triumphantly, but sometimes through gritted teeth, with v.9 ‘We are all your people.’