Out of the Silence
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Have you ever heard Blue Christmas in any context? You may have heard the Elvis song (and if you haven’t you should). I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue thinking about you. Perhaps you’ve heard the term in the context of a church service (sometimes they’re called Longest Night Services) for those who are not feeling particularly holly or jolly at Christmas time. I was talking about these with Pastor Abby not long ago. They’re holding one at Eglinton St.George United on December 21st. Christmas can be a time when people feel more lonely. It can be a time of missing friends and loved ones who have died. I thought it was a time when suicide rates rose. A quick check of Google while I preparing this sermon proved this to be wrong, but the perception is there isn’t it? As I was talking to Abby about this she told me “You seem to have a really good grasp of why people might be sad at Christmas!” and maybe it’s because of my melancholy streak. You may be thinking “There goes David again talking about suffering! And on the first Sunday of Advent too…” Maybe I am a little bit melancholy at the best of times. As we’re thinking of Isaiah and Advent though, I think it’s a good thing to look at a text like the one we’re looking at today. We often look at texts like Isaiah 40 at Advent, and we will look at that one in two weeks. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” If we are to look at the Bible honestly and try to figure out together what it has to say to us and to our world, we need to hold this in tension with “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” To do any less would do a disservice not only to God’s word but to the complexity of life. Let us look at our text this morning and see what God may have to say to us about Hope on this first Advent Sunday.
It is generally thought that the last part of Isaiah – chapters 56 to 66 – address the people of Israel after their return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. This was the return that was promised in earlier chapters (for example the “Comfort, o comfort my people of chapter 40). In these the prophet speaks of the glorious restoration of Jerusalem and of peace and of harmony and they are beautiful chapters familiar to many of us. The reality was quite different though. Temple reconstruction had stalled. The people faced drought, famine, inflation. There were fights between priests depending on what kind of priest they were. Those who had been left behind during the exile were being exploited economically by those (generally of a higher class) who had returned. So – religious strife, internecine fighting, hunger, oppression, a growing distinction between rich and poor. Does any of this sound familiar? I know it does. I don’t have to draw you a picture here. We can all draw our own picture. In the face of all this we find lament. Don’t think that lament is ever a bad thing. Crying out to God in the midst of pain, in the midst of suffering. It’s an act of defiance actually – an act of defiance that speaks of hope. That speaks to the fact that there is something beyond what is apparent to our eyes. “Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me.” (Isaiah 63:15) “Your holy people took possession for a little while; but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary. We have been long like those who do not rule, like those who are not called by your name.” (Isaiah 63:18-19) In other words “You feel very far from us God.” This is a cry of lament. It’s honest. There’s never anything wrong with being honest with God. We should never be afraid to be honest with God. He knows our hearts anyway. When we’re lamenting we’re still talking to God. This is a good thing.
Then comes the plea. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down (note that it’s gone from “Look down” to “come down”), so that the mountains would quake with your presence.” Sometimes we make God in our own image don’t we? If You had only done something really spectacular, something akin to a volcano erupting with such force to burn down forests and cause lakes to evaporate. Something that everyone could see and then surely they would believe and follow. If only I could see some tangible proof of God’s existence and power and whatever else I think I ought to see of God then I would believe. If only God would reveal himself in some spectacular way then surely everyone would believe. We want our gods to be loud. We want our gods to be out there. Brash. In your face. This isn’t the way God works friends. It’s not about proof for God. It’s not about objective scientific proof so valued by our post-Enlightenment western world. You could always explain a miracle away couldn’t you? “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” We can explain anything away. Jesus wasn’t really dead when they took him down from the cross. His followers stole his body. Alright. We’re not talking about proof.
The prophet realizes this and catches himself. He’d like God to rend the heavens but he knows that’s not what God does. God speaks in the stillness. We know about God from how God has revealed himself. “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.” God is revealed to those who wait for him. God works for those who wait for him. Waiting is key. We don’t like to wait much do we? We like to occupy our time. Look at any group of people waiting for something and what are they doing? They’re all on their phones. Put down your phones. Wait. In the stillness, wait. God spoke to Moses not out of fiery mountain but from a single solitary burning bush. God spoke to Elijah not from a wind so strong it broke mountains, not from an earthquake and not even from fire but from – silence. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asked.
This is a great question. What are we doing here? What are we hoping for this Advent season? Do we want to meet God in a way we never have before? Do we want God to be revealed in a new way? I pray for those things. I pray for hearts that are willing to wait for him. To hear him speak in the stillness. For hearts that want to meet God. “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember your ways.” This is the promise. Do you believe it? Are you willing to grasp this promise? To hold onto it? To cling to it this Advent Season? How do we wait? We wait by gathering together. We wait by spending time alone with God. We’re encouraging our congregation this year to read the CBOQ Advent Reader as something we all do together – either singly or with family every day. We’re encouraging parents with younger children to go over the story of the Jesse Tree with their kids – the story of how God has worked our salvation, which simply means the story of how God loves us. How would we answer that question “What are you doing here...”
Before you go agreeing to this, know that it is no light matter to wait on God. It is in waiting on God that we come to a realization of our own unworthiness, our own inability to live up to how God would have us live. “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… you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Some versions have this as “melted us into the hand of our iniquity.” As one writer puts it, it’s like the prophet is saying “You have left us to stew in our own sin.”
The prophet doesn’t end there, of course. Here comes the big “Yet.” “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand.” He recognizes his inability to deal with his own sin. He recognizes his need for God. He recognizes that what God does is make beautiful things out of dirt. We say with the prophet “You are our Father Lord.” We recognize with the Apostle Paul that the good that we want is not what we do. We say with the prophet “We are the clay, and you are the potter. We recognize that you’re not finished with us yet. We want you to make us into beautiful clay vessels that reflect your handiwork – that reflect who you are – your love, your grace, your mercy, your justice, your patience.” Maybe you don’t say this and that’s where you are. You don’t see the need for any sort of intervention on God’s part on your behalf. If that’s where you are may God’s Spirit remind you of these words when the time comes that you’re not ok with where you are.
This is where the prophet is in our passage. Recognizing his need for God. Recognizing God as his creator, himself clay in the hands of God the potter. Yet there is still this sense of alienation. “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.” The world is messed up God! Millions of people are displaced because of war. There are kids in our city who go to bed hungry most days. People get angry with each other over parking spots etc etc etc. Then comes the question of verse 12 – “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” O that you would so something spectacular! Something really noticeable. As I said earlier we want our gods to be brash. We want our gods to be big and all about spectacle. If our god is violence or military might we want towers falling, we want 100’s dead, thousands dead even. We want shock and awe. If our god is stuff or things or money we want big things, we want showy things. The phrase is conspicuous consumption isn’t it – not inconspicuous consumption.
Instead we have an inconspicuous couple. An inconspicuous part of the world. An inconspicuous town from which it what was generally thought nothing good could come. Another inconspicuous town which was at least generally better thought of, known as the City of David. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down? This is not how God works is it. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” This is how the Apostle Paul quotes our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:9. No eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. Whose work is love.
Who would have ever thought it would look like this though? Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down. I’ll come down alright, says God. Wait. Just wait. Wait in the silence. Ask the question and wait. Wait in the silence of a Bethlehem night. A silence that is broken by a mother’s cries, because a woman was told once that it would be in pain that she would bring forth children. God knows and you know that this isn’t the only pain that children cause their parents, or parents their children, because there had been a rupture in humanity’s relationship with God, and part of the result of this is that we would cause each other pain, and I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know but we need to be honest and open about this bad news before we talk about the good news.
This silent night. The silence is broken by a mother’s cries. A mother crying out in pain. Then we hear another cry. A newborn baby. The night is not so silent any more. “Will you keep silent O Lord,” the prophet asked, “and punish us so severely?” Here is the answer. After so many years a baby’s cry. God speaks in the silence in the cry of this newborn king. What a miracle friends. What a miracle. God didn’t tear the heavens, though they did open a bit for a while. A host of angels appearing to some shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, as if heaven couldn’t contain their joy. Oh they had seen God do wonderful things, amazing things. They had never seen him do anything like this. “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they proclaimed, “and on earth peace among those whom he favours.” The year of the Lord’s favour. The one who would live and die and rise again. The one who would reconcile all things and blot out our sins and send his Spirit so that we might be made into something new. This is the good news my friends! This is the miracle…
So may this Advent season be a time of waiting on God. On waiting to hear from God. Attentive waiting. Watchful waiting. Expectant waiting. We’re waiting on God tearing the heavens again aren’t we, if we take Jesus’ words about his coming back seriously. We do take those words seriously don’t we? Like the prophet we’re waiting for the fulfillment of this promise. In the mean time we wait. In the mess we wait. In the silence we wait.
I remember a Christmas Eve at Out of the Cold 4 years ago. We were going to do some music. Just before we were to begin a scuffle broke out. It shook me and I said to God “Why this night of all nights?” Later on I heard these words. “I came down into the mess, it’s where I want you to be too.” God works love for those who wait on him. You may hear God anywhere. I was leaving my local mall one morning recently and saw a man surrounded by about 8 kids – some kind of mentor type thing. He was saying goodbye to them all, shaking hands etc. As I walked past he was saying to them, “Remember that you’re all your brother’s keeper.” You can hear God’s voice anywhere, truly.
May this Advent season be one in which we wait, in which we watch in patient hope. May God grant that this might be true for us all.