PostHeaderIcon The Other Direction

by Rev. Kevin J. McLemore

Isiah 64:1-9

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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.

Sermon Text starts here.

Many of you may or may not know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor and theologian who was part of the resistance to the Nazi regime in the early thirties and forties. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young man, having acquired his doctorate at age 21, but because he was so young, he was not eligible for ordination in the Lutheran Church, so he spent some time in the United States, at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. It was in New York City that he became familiar with the African American Church, a church in exile, in many ways, a resisting church even back then. He became fascinated with the Negro spiritual, and he brought back a collection of them to Germany with him.

I suspect those old songs of resistance became important to him as the oppression of dissenting voices within Germany, especially within the church, became more and more acute. You see, in Germany, there was a division amongst Protestants about how to respond to the rise of Hitler and his hateful anti-Semitism. There were Christians in Germany who embraced Nazism’s ideology of hate and prejudice, taking their cue, sadly, from a strand of European anti-Semitism that had plagued Europe for centuries, and had, in Germany, been bolstered by the great Reformer Martin Luther, who despite his greatness, could never free himself from the tendrils of that irrational hatred of the Jewish people. Those who supported Hitler became known as the “German Christians,” a Protestant group sponsored by the Nazi regime that set up a separate set of church structures that rewarded loyal fans of the Nazis with appointments and state support. But there were Christians in Germany who resisted the Nazis, those who said “no” to the anti-Semitism, and who even formed an underground movement called the Confessing Church, confessing their ultimate loyal to Christ, and not to any state structure.

Bonhoeffer became a part of that important movement of Christians, many of which hid Jews from the Nazis during the war years, and Bonheoffer would ultimately become involved with the resistance movement in a more hands-on way, working with some on a plot to assassinate Hitler. The movie released a few years ago called Valykrie with Tom Cruise gives some of the background of that famous 1944 plot to kill Hitler that failed, but for our purposes, just know that some of the tentacles of that plot found their way back to Bonhoeffer, and so he was arrested for the second time, this time being sentenced to death. But the days before the execution, well, that must have been difficult for Bonheoffer, no matter the deep faith he had within him. Perhaps he knew or sensed that the Russians were only three weeks away from capturing Berlin, or that this nightmare was coming to a close, sooner rather than later, but it must have struck him as awfully ironic to lose his life so close to the end, even as he had tried to help end it earlier by working with those who wanted to shorten the war by killing Hitler. Sitting in that lonely jail cell, waiting for the moment when the guards would come down the hallway to take him and the other collaborators to their deaths, their death by hanging, I wonder if this was one of those moments when Bonhoeffer felt close to God, maybe the Negro spirituals he had loved so much echoed in his head, or whether this was one of those moments when he felt disappointed by God, abandoned by God, a moment when God felt hidden from view, in that dank, evil prison. We know he struggled with such thoughts, that despite his deep faith, despite his willingness to put his life on the line for the right thing by resisting the Nazis, he often wondered where God was in the midst of all this, and how God felt so often hidden from plain view in his personal circumstances, and even the great sweep of history in which he found himself. Where was God at that moment, and why wouldn’t God show God’s hands in a moment like this, and all of those other moments when God could have swept through with great power, ending all the tragedies that came about because of World War II?

The writer of this passage from Isaiah is asking a lot of the same questions Bonheoffer must have asked himself in that jail cell, asking about the hand of God that seems to have been withdrawn from the universe. Show forth your power, the writer pleads with God, show it forth like you did in the days of old, “when you did awesome deeds we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” Most scholars think of this part of the book of Isaiah as being written after Babylonian Conquest of 586 BC, but before the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 515 BC. And so the temple lays in ruins, the center of Jewish life and identity is nothing more than rubble, and the people, the best and brightest of Israel have been carted off to the capital city of the Babylonian Empire. It all seems so hopeless, and God is nowhere to be seen, even by this prophet, this one meant to bring words of both judgment and hope to the people of Israel—this is an absent God, a hidden God, a God nowhere to be seen, Bonhoeffer’s God in that prison.

It’s not unusual to have this kind of moment in the prophetic writings, where the absence of God is noted, but it is actually unusual to have a text like ours where some of the blame is laid on God’s feet, that the guilt for some of this can be laid at God’s feet—note verse 5, where the prophet says that the cycle of the people sinning, and then God’s anger and absence because of that sin, that cycle has actually caused the people to go further down the road of sin. “By walking away in anger and hiding yourself from your people,” the prophet seems to say, “you have caused us to go deeper into our transgressions—your absence,” the writer seems to say to God, “doesn’t help us get on the right path, your lack of presence with us only makes it worse.” It’s a startling thing to say, an uncommon thing for a prophet to say to God, but, to be frank, it’s a true statement for some of us that have experienced that divine absence—walking out of the room doesn’t seem to make it better, even when we may have first abandoned by God by the way we lived our lives. For others, of course, the absent God, the hidden God, simply wasn’t there, apparently, for no reason, at least no discernable reason: there was nothing to put our finger on when it came to trying to explain God’s absence in our lives. It was a winter season, a dry season, and no one seemed to know why, including ourselves.

You know, the theme of waiting and watching, that is a theme we revisit twice a year in the Christian calendar, the most commonly known one being in the season of Lent, when for weeks we intentionally enter into a dry season of waiting and looking inward into our hearts, owning the shadows within, seeking to bring more light into the dark places within us. But the second one, the second season of watching and waiting, is right now, the season of Advent, when like the words of the offertory piece the choir will be doing in a few minutes, we wait with the watchman, who is asked by the prophet:

Watchman, what is left of the night?
Watchman, what is left of it?’ 
12The watchman answered:
‘Morning comes, and so does night.
Come back again and ask if you will.’

How much further must we wait for salvation, for some good news, some display of God’s power in the world, and in our lives? That is the question being asked at the beginning of the Christian calendar, in the Advent season—all the texts for this year are all about asking God the question of “when?” Of course, we know the answer that God gave us, and the world, on Christmas Eve, the Christ child, but for some reason the Church has said that the asking of the question “when” is so important that it must be asked, it must be voiced, it must be said, even if we know that we will eventually get an answer, even if we know exactly HOW the question will be answered. There is something about standing on that watchtower, and letting the night wrapped you up in its blanket, there is something about knowing what it means to be without God, at least being without God in ways that are clearly visible to us, in ways that we can touch and feel and see, in ways that Isaiah hungers for in this text, in the ways of old—there is something about this absence that is meant to teach something about who God is.

You know, before they hung up Dietrich Bonheoffer, before they stripped him naked and had the guards ridicule him, before they hoisted him up on meat hooks with piano wire by his neck because they had run out of gallows to hang all the prisoners, before the long, agonizing suffocation took place—some think it took as long as half an hour to die—Bonhoeffer wrote words that are a wonder, considering the horror he had experienced before his death. He writes this “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us”—and here he references Mark 15:34, where Jesus calls out to God on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And then Bonhoeffer continues, writing: “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, 360)

Now, friends, that is a startling statement, really, if you think about it, knowing the circumstances that Bonhoeffer writes those words in, knowing what will meet him in the coming days and hours ahead. We want God to show up, to do the things of old, shows of power and might, something that will cause us and others to tremble before the goodness and justice of God, and what we get instead, what we get instead is God’s presence in a manager, in this show of vulnerability, not strength, in this miracle of ordinary human birth to a poor peasant family in some minor power in the ancient middle east. You know, this isn’t one of those moment when God just chooses to cloaked the divine presence in some sort of temporary garb of humility in that manager—its seems as if God had enough of what everybody else wanted, displays of might and power—God had enough of the parting of the Red Seas, and the Floods, and the wars, and all those things that seem to be what we want God to be—powerful, certainly more powerful than us, and a God who will use that power to do our will, even our good will. What Bonhoeffer discovered was a God that chose a different direction, a different direction than the way we humans have typically gone—a way towards changing the world from the inside out, one heart at a time, one person at a time. Power had its day, and now something different was coming, and indeed, the heavens were about to ripped open, as Isaiah wants them to be, but what comes out of heaven is not thunder and lighting, but a child born in Bethlehem, vulnerable, vulnerable as we are, and born to vulnerable parents, in a most vulnerable nation—a vassal state of Roman Empire, the greatest power the world has ever known.

On this first Sunday of Advent, like men on the watchtower looking deep out into the cold night, we are looking out for God to show us God’s awesome presence in our own lives, to do something that will startle us, amaze us, and clearly show us that the hand of God was here, right here in our lives, because, of course, who could doubt the miracle of this or that event? People often talk about miracles when they speak of an accident they shouldn’t have walked away from, or a pregnancy that shouldn’t have been carried to term, or money that came in the nick of time in order to stave off disaster, those sorts of things. But if Bonhoeffer is right, and I think he is, it’s not those kinds of moments that God is most present with us, and most powerfully with us. It’s the moments when God doesn’t seem to be there at all, when God is hidden, when God is absent from our lives, or, at the very least, so hidden as to be absent from our daily lives. The problem is that God tried the route we keep wanting God to go on, the one with power and might, thunderbolts, and split seas, and it went nowhere, and we went nowhere, because we became so dependent on power, our power, God’s power, that we came to believe that God was nothing more than a power source in our life, a divine electrical power plant, to be tongue and cheek about it. And we also came to believe that because power was the language of God, it ought to be our language as well, and we can see how that all worked out—war after war, hatred and bitterness, pain and revenge, and then more revenge, on and on we humans went. God tried power, and we went with the divine cue and what a mess that has all been.

And so God chose another way of showing God’s presence to us, a way that still challenges us, still seems so alien and against our human instincts, this path of vulnerability found in this child in the manger. I’m like that watchman on the watchtower, waiting for God to show up in my life, in your life, in the life of this church and the life of the larger world, but I keep looking for the God of power to arrive, and so I keep being disappointed over and over again. We keep thinking that the only way God arrives is by tearing open the heavens, or doing the miraculous, even the small miracles we need in our lives, or our family needs, or our country needs, or whatever—as if God hadn’t already signaled to us that God had already gone a different way, a way of vulnerability, a way that truly allows us to be shaped by God’s hands in the midst of our great suffering, amidst our own times on the cross. Near the last part of this passage we have Isaiah trying to shame God with that very vulnerability, that very human weakness: he reminds God that we are not stone, but clay, malleable, open to the work of the Potters hands. “Now consider, we are all your people,” Isaiah says, as if to remind God of that very fact. We spend too much time waiting for the rescuer, for the God we feel is absent, and not enough time at the cross, remembering that God doesn’t save us by rescuing us out of our pain and disappointment, our fear, our hopelessness—God doesn’t rescue Christ from the cross and God is not likely to rescue us from our own crosses, as God did not with Bonhoeffer. No, what needs to probably happen is the work of watching and waiting for the truths and strengths that can only come to us in those moments of vulnerability, those moments of aloneness, those times when God seems absent, and we learn more about what we can endure, about what we can do for ourselves, and ultimately, what God wants us to do with the time we have been given us in this life. The resurrection will come, on this side of eternity or the next, that I believe, and that is what is promised—but in the meantime, in the waiting time, in the times of loneliness and doubt and self-doubt, we are asked to wait and watch for the God who we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot so easily hold—we are asked to watch and wait out on that watchtower, peering deep into that dark night, knowing, or believing or hoping that the night will end soon enough, and we will have learned what only the night can teach us, knowing also that morning, that morning will break again. Amen.

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