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You Don't Miss the Water Until the Well Runs Dry
Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
Advent, as you’ve heard, is a time for reflection. It begins as we ponder where we are in our lives and in the scheme of things. It is in that way like Lent. It starts that way, in any case. But though the church knows that all of Advent is supposed to be time of preparation, it cannot resist getting excited toward the end, as we approach Christmas. It is not surprising. As we think about what was, we naturally wonder what will be and how it will be different. At the beginning is now. At the end is Christmas. Advent is a fast ride from sober reflection to the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God, Emmanuel, meaning God is with us.
Emmanuel—God with us—is how it ends. Hooray for that. But that is not how things start. It is great to celebrate God’s presence. But sometimes God does not seem present at all. Sometimes God seems far away. Or vague. Or invisible. Or hard of hearing. Sometimes we feel alone. A friend of mine, who is going through a rough patch these days, says it feels like God is here, but a couple of states away. Like a friend who moved to the other coast. Or maybe it was you who moved.
The passage we heard from Isaiah this morning is called a lament. Laments are a proclamation about pain being suffered combined with a call for God’s intervention. Things are not good right now, God, and we’d wish you would do something about it. Laments are common in the psalms, which is one reason they are so appealing to people in daily life. A good chunk of many people’s lives is enduring pain (physical, emotional, or psychic) and a deep wish that God would come fix things soon.
It is this situation that prompts Mark to include this “end of the world” speech of Jesus. It speaks about suffering now (Israel was occupied by the Romans and the people oppressed) and suffering yet to come (about which Jesus has just told his disciples), but with the assurance that God will come soon (before this generation passes away).
Isaiah talks about the same thing, but usefully also talks about how hard it is to wait on God when you are in trouble, and the thoughts that you might have as you are cooling your heels hopefully.
This passage in Isaiah was written in a time that was supposed to be great, but wasn’t. All of Isaiah covers a period of about two hundred years, during which the Israelites are taken out of their land into exile. But by the end of the book, they are back home, hoping that all will be restored to the good old days when Israel was strong and righteous. But it seems it is not happening. Things are not working out. The prophet calls out to God. Complaining, explaining, and seeking God’s help. As with someone whose relationship is in trouble, his remarks reveal conflicting and powerful emotions. They go like this: you (God) were great. But now we are not so sure. You got angry. Ok, we messed up a little. But it is your fault; you made us do it, or at least let us.
The prophet starts by remembering how great God was. How powerful and good. How awesome. How God did surprising things. The presence of God is revealed to us, sometimes in astonishing and sudden ways, and sometimes we are overwhelmed. We turn our hearts and attention to God. No eye has seen any God besides you, Isaiah says.
Yet now, for some reason, we are estranged, Isaiah says. You are angry, God. You must be, since nothing is turning out right. Where are you? Where are the golden days, the sweet days? Where is the God in whom we put our hopes and trust?
Now it is true, admits Isaiah, that we maybe had something to do with this situation. We sinned. Against others and against you. We did stuff that we knew was not good and that would hurt you. We are a little ashamed, he says.
But really, God, he goes on to say, it is all your fault. Because you hid yourself, Isaiah says, we transgressed. We cannot be good without you. Our goodness comes from you. You left us in the lurch, in the muck by ourselves. We are lost without you, and you did not come to save us.
Yet Isaiah does not despair, does not give up on God, resigned to live alone, without God. Rather, he asks that the relationship between God and people be restored. Do not remember our sins, he pleads. Can we start again?
We are joined to God not by our goodness, and we are estranged from God not by our faults. We are joined to God not by what we do but by who we are. We are God’s creatures. God is the potter, Isaiah says, and we are the clay. We bear the mark of God’s hands, and our form is the result of the imagination of God. Our longing for God to be near, and the feeling at times that God is not, is a result of our connection to God, even when it feels like God lives in some other part of the country.
There is for sure a wish in these passage for God to come and fix things. My friend I mentioned earlier would of course like to have all the bad things in his life repaired. But he does not expect that to happen, really. That is not what bothers him. What worries and saddens him is that he feels alone, that God is not there with him, that God is far away. The fixing, though needed and welcome, is superficial. He wants God back.
There is a deeper longing to feel God near us. To be made whole by God’s presence. We are all God’s people, Isaiah says. God is our being. In Advent we, along with Isaiah, recall our past relationship with God, and wonder about the present, and look with hope to the future for Emmanuel, God with us.