November 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

On this first Sunday of Advent, our scripture texts reflect both the struggle and longing of the people of God, and their undying hope. The prophet Isaiah observed the people around him, the marketplace, the leaders, and the culture, and he cried out in frustration, despair, and unrelenting hope for God to do something about it. His people had finally returned from exile in Babylon, but Jerusalem was no longer the place they had once known. The people had changed. Things had changed. They wondered whether God was still with them or not.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
Isaiah lamented to God. He speaks almost as if God has abandoned him and his people. He speaks as if God is some far-off, distant being that has not been paying attention for some time. And perhaps that is exactly how he is feeling about God.

In Ralph Milton’s Story Bible version of this passage from Isaiah, he imagines that the prophet has just returned from a visit to the marketplace. His young friend, Rebekah, comes for a visit, and notices that he is looking very sad.

She could see tears in his eyes, so she took his hand. “What’s wrong, Old Isaiah?” she asked.
“Sometimes…” Old Isaiah closed his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder how God puts up with us.”
“Did something bad happen at the market this morning?” Rebekah asked.
“The bad thing was that nothing important happened,” Old Isaiah said.
“I don’t understand.” Rebekah sat down on the ground beside her friend.
“Down at the market everybody was so busy selling stuff and buying stuff and making plans to do things that nobody even thought about God. Nobody said ‘thank you’ to God for all the food. Nobody stopped to ask God if the plans they were making were good plans.”
“Does that make God angry when nobody pays attention?” Rebekah asked.
“It should!” responded Isaiah, “I wish God would tear open the sky so that the mountains would shake and there would be smoke and fire! Then people would pay attention.”

The theological word for what Isaiah was praying for is a “theophany”. A “theophany” is God revealing God’s self to the people. The classic biblical “theophany” takes place at the top of a mountain, and involves bright lights and lots of drama. You might think of Moses on Mount Sinai as the ultimate “theophany” and the most amazing experience of God’s presence being made known to the people of God.

It’s a “theophany” that the author of psalm 80 was asking for as well. “Restore us, O God,” cries the psalmist, “and let your face shine, that we may be saved!” The idea of God’s face shining is a theophany… God being revealed, the people getting to see God’s face, bright and shining.

We don’t know exactly what the circumstances were that inspired the composition of the sad song that is psalm 80. Some bible scholars believe it was from the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, perhaps during the final years before the conquest of Samaria by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. But the people of Israel went through many struggles, they were conquered many times by invading kingdoms, and they experienced periods of exile as well, so there would have been lots of times in their history when they felt the despair expressed in this psalm. One commentator writes of psalm 80: “Whatever the original historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.”

While Isaiah observed the people around him and got frustrated because they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to God, the psalmist is upset because he doesn’t think that God is paying any attention to him and to his people. And the psalmist is not alone in feeling that way. There are times in our lives, when as individuals or as groups of people, we may feel like God has abandoned us.

Prayers have been prayed, and the response has been silence. We’ve asked for direction, and felt more confused than ever. We’ve cried out for help, and still felt terribly alone. We’ve offered up our deepest longings, and wondered why God couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfil them. Most of us can probably remember times when we could relate to the psalmist’s woes, or perhaps we have known and loved others who have endured terrible times of sadness in which God seemed not to be present or active.

This week, like many other weeks, we may find it difficult to observe many of the happenings in our world and not to wonder about God’s presence. If I were a person stuck in the middle of the hotel in Mumbai where so many people were seemingly randomly attacked, where others ran for their lives, and where so many were terrorized… I might be inclined to use words like those of the psalmist: “Restore me, O God; and let your face shine, that I may be saved.”

As an observer from the other side of the world, I am not so directly affected. I can sit quietly and peacefully in my home and watch the terrible events unfolding on my TV. I can avoid getting worried or worked up about it. And yet, if I do pause to think about what’s happening… if I do pause to think about the people there and what they are experiencing… then I begin to feel like Isaiah.

Like the old prophet of long ago, I want to cry out to God in frustration and anger at the terrible things that I see happening in God’s world… Where are you, God? Why aren’t you doing something about all this? “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”!

In the image that is being projected on the wall behind me, a small child in Delhi watches a candlelight vigil for peace between India and Pakistan. I wonder what questions this child might have for God. I wonder what his prayers might be. I wonder what will give him the faith to keep on praying and hoping for peace when he sees the kinds of things that were happening this week.

But that is the amazing thing about the People of Israel in our psalm today. They spoke about God as if God had completely abandoned them. They complained that God wasn’t paying attention, that God wasn’t doing anything, that God had left them. And yet, they continued to call out to God for help. They assumed that God was, indeed, present. They trusted that God cared about them, and that God had the power and the will to restore God’s people. The truly remarkable thing about their pleas is that they are addressed to the same God who is perceived to be inattentive, inactive, and even absent, expressing a belief that even if God is the problem, nonetheless God is the solution.

John Calvin, in his commentary on psalm 80 writes, “This is a sorrowful prayer, in which the faithful beseech God that he would be graciously pleased to succour his afflicted Church.” Psalm 80 certainly is a sorrowful prayer, but it is also an act of faith and hope. Though they suggest that God is inattentive and inactive, if not entirely absent, at the same time, they continue to address God and ask for God’s help. There is no better way to express belief in the reality of God’s sovereignty than to address God out of our afflictions and to continue looking to God as the only source of light and life.

Amid calamitous circumstances, the people of God dare to affirm that God reigns. That affirmation is an act of faith (others might look at the circumstances and say, “There is no God.”) And because the people trusted God to transform their circumstances and restore them, this act of faith is also an act of hope.

You remember that “theophany” that the psalmist was so desperate to experience? You remember that “theophany” that Isaiah was crying out for? That “theophany” — that revelation of God — that revealing of God’s face, that light of God shining into the world — that “theophany” appeared in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ. In an act of faith and hope not unlike that of psalm 80, the followers of Jesus dare to affirm that, in Jesus, the light of God shines and that through Jesus we are restored and have life.

In Jesus, we are given the amazing assurance that God is with us. We are not alone. In Jesus, we come to see and to know how deeply God loves us. We are the beloved of God. In Jesus, we discover that we are called and equipped to reflect God’s light and love to the world. With God’s help, change and transformation are possible, and we can participate in making them a reality.

It’s not that having Jesus in our lives makes everything perfect and rosy. No, we still experience times of sadness and struggle. We still get frustrated and angry about some of the terrible things happening around us. But like those who prayed psalm 80 long ago, Christians today dare to see and expect the reign of God where others see only chaos and expect nothing. Because in Jesus we have seen that mustard seeds can grow into tall trees, that lepers can be healed, that sinners can be forgiven, and that death can be turned into new life.

The insert in our bulletin today tells another story from India. It’s about a woman whose husband died eight years ago, leaving her with four children, living in a slum, and struggling to care for her family. She was unable to send her children to school, and too often had little to feed them. She tried to create new opportunities by taking out a loan, but the high interest rates offered by private lenders set her even farther back.

Then she discovered a self-help group established by a partner organization of Presbyterian World Service and Development. She joined the group and was able to access a small loan to help her start a small business. You can read the rest of the story on the bulletin insert, but the short version is that her children are no longer going to bed hungry, and her daughter is able to continue her education. The business is doing well, and she has paid back her loan.

Let us give thanks today for God’s faithfulness to us, for the “theophany” that we experience in Jesus and for his continuing presence and work in the world through us and through all the people of God. In Jesus, we do indeed have hope. Let us give thanks that God has restored us. God’s face has shined on us. And we have been saved. Amen.