"The Longing For Completion"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/28/1999
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9
The theme for the first Sunday in Advent is hope. As we consider this topic this morning, how many times have we found ourselves hoping for God to come to us in the same form Isaiah desired to see? We wish that God would act in a highly visible way that communicates, "I love you and am with you. Together we can make powerful events happen through your life." This is a level of confidence that many of us hope to achieve. Like Isaiah, however, many of us try to develop such confidence by basing our faith on our experience of God performing seemingly magical deeds around us.
For example, how many of us remember our first professional job interview and how anxious we were about the outcome? Our mother sat down with us and said something like this, "Before you go for your interview, ask God to be with you. Tell God how frightened you are, and ask God to quiet your fears."
Suppose we did exactly as our mother instructed. We went off by ourselves and audibly made such a request with our dry, anxious mouth. Then when we entered the interview it was as if God had not heard a word we said. God did not still the waves of anxiety that relentlessly flowed through us. God did not speak through us so that the interviewer was deeply impressed not only with our character qualities but also with our aptitude for the position we were seeking. We remained a nervous wreck during the entire interview experience.
How should we understand such an unanswered prayer? What were we asking God to do? If we consider such a prayer on another level, it would be like a toddler asking God to help her become a polished athlete when she had not yet mastered the art of walking.
Praying in this fashion would be like a student asking the teacher for a "smart pill" so that he would not have to endure the classroom settings, the hours of studying, and the homework assignments.
Without realizing it, we are sometimes asking God for a short cut so that we do not have to stretch or develop our various skill levels through practice. Not only do we occasionally ask God to cut corners for us but, we may also find ourselves asking God for special exceptions.
Suppose our daughter has come home for the Thanksgiving break and she will be leaving later today for her four-hour drive back to the university campus. Before she leaves, we ask God to grant her a safe journey. Even though God equally loves all travelers on this busy weekend, we are asking God to put a special, protective bubble around our daughter. And while doing so, we are telling God with great verbal confidence that we are releasing her into God's care. In actuality, how many of us really let go?
Part of us must realize that our prayer is an attempt to quiet our own fears rather than asking God to love our daughter more than anyone else who will be traveling this afternoon. What happens next provides the evidence for what motivates prayers of this kind.
During our good-bye hugs we tell her, "Now don't forget, as soon as you get back to the dormitory, give us a call." For the rest of the evening, our eyes are following the hands on that clock. In fact, there is no peace until that call comes. And if we find the time drifting into a fifth hour, most of us know how quickly our fears grow with all kinds of tragic images.
Displaying complete confidence that God is in charge of everything is not a skill that one acquires simply by mouthing the words, "I believe! I trust! God is my rock!" In fact, people who have the level of confidence most of us hope for, seldom have a need to talk about it. They live it! Our own persistence in doubting or wanting God to come to us in a particular form is what prevents us from developing such confidence.
Isaiah was reaching for God with his own expectations. Those expectations were based on what others had said about God's performance in the past. He reminded God of exploits God performed in another day. He wrote, "There was a time when you came and did terrifying things that people did not expect; the mountains saw you and shook with fear. No one has ever seen or heard of a God like you, who does such deeds for those who put their hope in you." Isaiah continued to compliment God, "You welcome those who find joy in doing what is right and who remember how you want them to live."
After reading such words, we are left with the impression that Isaiah had not yet found God coming in the package he wanted. He was asking God for reassurance. His sense of being incomplete is very clear. He needed to know that God had not lost the appetite for shaking mountains.
Isaiah was remembering God's nature through the images Moses had provided. Isaiah longed to possess a staff that would turn the Nile River into blood, that would make water gush forth from a rock, and that would cause the Red Sea to part and then close again, destroying advancing enemies. "Those were the days of God's glory," he thought.
Isaiah must have realized that God was no longer willing to provide such dramatic examples of divine intervention that previously had been attributed to God in the Scriptural record. In fact, Isaiah was so convinced of it that he wrote a lengthy litany of the probable reasons why God was now abstaining from such activity. Isaiah concluded that it was because of everyone's unfaithfulness.
He wrote, "You were angry with us, but we went on sinning. All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through. No one turns to you in prayer; no one goes to you for help. You have hidden yourself from us and have abandoned us because of our sins."
However, Isaiah was a thoughtful person. He realized how flawed his thinking was. The vast God who created everything that exists could not be that childish, so he dramatically pursued another line of thought. He reminded God that God was ultimately responsible for everything that people did. He wrote, "BUT, you are our God. We are like clay, and you are like the potter. You created us, so do not be angry with us or hold us accountable for our sins forever. We are your people; be merciful to us."
Isaiah did exactly what many of us do today. When our prayers are not answered, we make some excuse for God. We say, "God does answer our prayers, but not all of them are answered in the form that we want." Secretly, however, many of us still want God to come with signs and wonders that are favorable to what we want. We still want God to fit into the form of our expectations. We know exactly how God should be in relationship with us.
This passage in Isaiah and many others like it were setting the stage for a new definition of hope. The external God, the God who dwells out there in the Heavens, who led armies, who commanded from inside of clouds, who carved the Ten Commandments out of stone and who took Elijah to Heaven in a fiery chariot was about to communicate to humanity in a form that no one had ever before experienced.
Jesus was coming. His message would contain one element that people had never before heard. People who had been trained all their lives to look to an external God for their strength, courage, comfort, joy, and hope would now be taught to look for God in a very different place. Jesus would teach them that God was inside of them, capable of doing great things through them.
If we think that Jesus had convinced his disciples about this new image and location of God's presence, we are mistaken. Such new thinking was equally challenging for the disciples to understand as it still is for us.
For example, while Jesus was having supper with his disciples for the last time, a very revealing request came from Philip. Philip said, "Lord, just show us God and we will be satisfied." He was still looking for God to be revealed in a form that he could experience with his five senses. Jesus said, "Have I been with you this long and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen God."
In praying for his disciples, Jesus revealed the substance of this new hope. He said, "I pray that my disciples may be one with you. May they be in us, O God, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one with you, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I gave them the same glory you gave me, so that they may be one with you, just as you and I are one." (John 17:21-22) Jesus taught that we can become one with God.
When we understand these words, we can begin living with confidence instead of constantly searching for God's validating activity happening all around us. We can enter every circumstance confident that the outcome does not matter because we know that God is in charge of all outcomes. All relationships can be viewed as opportunities for us to bring to them who we are instead of hoping that others will find us worthy and acceptable.
What we have learned since Jesus came is that discipleship brings with it an enormous power. Imagine yourselves bringing to life what he brought to his. At the end of Jesus' life, his closest friends abandoned him and he faced being nailed to a cross alone. Yet in no way, shape, or form did he understand himself as being alone. There was no fear because there was no unknown. He knew God was within him and that whatever happened to him would also be happening to God. The two had become one.
Everyone of us knows that Jesus' constant request of us was spoken with just two words, "Follow me." What an incredible hope we can have that one day each of us will know that we are one with God.
Isaiah would never see that day because he believed that God lived in one place while he lived in another. He was living and experiencing the separation; he was like the branch being cut off from the vine. He still believed that God abandoned people because of their unfaithfulness. And he wanted God to display power and might to frighten people into submission and repentance. Does love ever use fearful tactics to initiate a loving response? If we do not do that as limited human beings, why would God? The God Isaiah looked for never arrived.
What a shift we have to make in our thinking. We have to re-frame God from a being who is capable of tearing open the skies and coming to us in a form of power and might to God who communicates divine presence through a humble baby born in a stable in an obscure part of the world.
The challenge for us is to stop looking for a miracle worker who will do spectacular and unexpected things for us and to become participants who allow God's power to flow through us. When Jesus said, "Follow me," this is the kind of person he was inviting us to be. But, we have to step out with different expectations of God in order to become such persons. God meets us in the temple within. Jesus said, "Follow me." How many of us are?
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
What a wonderful time of year in which we find ourselves, O God. It truly is a period in our lives when we are preparing. Gradually, our homes become filled with seasonal smells. Our communities find themselves alive with lights and symbols that announce to neighbors and friends that Christmas is coming. Merchants put their best efforts into marketing the material things that we give to each other, making even our shopping centers places that are filled with music and color.
We pray, O God, that as we go through these moments of Advent that we will treasure your presence in all of it. Enable us, even if only momentarily, to see through the tinsel, the hot sticky buns and the spiral-sliced hams to remember the great thing that you did by teaching us who you are through a form we could readily recognize.
We often fall short of the lofty achievements Jesus said we could accomplish. Sometimes forgiveness is a challenge. Sometimes we hurt others with our idle words. Sometimes we leave unused many of the skills and talents that you gave us when we were born. Yet Christmas reminds us that you came among us anyway because you could not stay away. Bless us this season with opened eyes and a spirit that is more than ready to receive you anew. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .