Staunton Mennonite Church
1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look upon us, we pray,
for we are all your people.
It was November 19th, 2008; over a week before Thanksgiving. Sonya and I found ourselves in a bookstore in Harrisonburg, perusing the selection of books, novelty items, and music. It came time to check out and in our possession we had two CD’s with pictures of evergreen trees, holly, and snow on their covers. We were purchasing Christmas CD’s and we hadn’t even celebrated Thanksgiving yet.
It seems like we are celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier each year. Department stores are setting up Christmas displays in October, I wrote this sermon sitting next to a Christmas tree in a coffee shop days before Thanksgiving. And on our trip to Ohio last week, we found a radio station that had been playing nothing but Christmas music from the middle of November and would continue to do so until the end of the year. We Americans like our Christmas and we like to celebrate it for as long as we can.
Now obviously, the department stores are trying to sell us stuff for Christmas before other stores are able to sell us stuff. And the radio stations and coffee shops are simply trying to catch the holiday spirit early. And I don’t have any problem with this, even if I do complain a bit about it. There is nothing wrong with spreading a little holiday cheer. But for those of us that call ourselves Christians, the anticipation of Christmas is much more than shopping and spreading holiday cheer. The anticipation of Christmas is a reminder of the promise of God to renew the world, to set things right, to heal the wounds of God’s people. We as Christians anticipate the coming of Christmas because we anticipate the coming of the Lord.
Our scripture for this morning begins with Isaiah voicing his desire for God to make himself known to the people in a big way. Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down! Set the twigs on fire! Shake the mountains! Make the world know that you are God; you and you alone!
There is hurt in the voice of Isaiah; there is pain there. The Israelites were in exile, separated from the Promised Land; separated it would seem from God himself. This group of people that once had known God’s favor now found themselves oppressed by a stronger nation.
But Isaiah knows that God is able to move in big ways. And he knows because he has heard the old, old stories. He has heard stories about the power and wonder of God and how he has delivered his people in the past. He knows about the ways the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. He knows that God has gone before his people and protected them, given them victory, given them food and water, and delivered them from evil. He has heard the stories and now he desires for God to do it again. “Show your enemies what you can do, God. Show them who is boss!”
We see an important aspect of faith in these words from Isaiah. The thing that strikes me as the most important aspect of these verses is Isaiah’s way of keeping the faith in these times of trouble. He keeps the faith by remembering all that God has done for his people in the past. God has saved us from our enemies in the past; God will surely do it again.
This act of remembering is central to the Jewish faith. The festivals that the Jews observed were not meant simply as a day to gather with family and friends to participate in acts of goodwill. Yes, these things were to go along with the festivals. But the main purpose of the festivals was to remember what God had done for his people. Succoth, Yom Kippur, Passover…each festival marked something that God had done for his people. These festivals were meant as a time for the people to remember what God had done in their history and as an opportunity to pass on the faith to their children. The festivals were a time to be merry, but they were also a time to teach, learn, and remember about the work of God.
It is in his remembering of all that God has done for his people that Isaiah can find the confidence to say in verses 3-4, “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” Even though things are bad right now, Isaiah knows that God can move again, to make things right again, to prove that he alone is God, a God who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
The Psalmist knew what it was like to have to endure suffering as well. Psalm 88: 13-14, “But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” This is a common way for the Psalms to describe that distance felt between God and humanity; that God is hiding God’s face from his people. I feel the Psalmist’s pain and I too cry out, “God, how much longer will you hide your face from us?!
There have been times in 2008 when it feels to me that God is hiding his face from me, from us. Our news reports are filled with stories about our struggling economy and all of the jobs that have been or will be lost. We hear about the terrorist attacks in India where, as of Friday the 28th, 148 people had been killed and around 300 injured. I traveled to Ohio to see family this past week and I see how the roof of a barn has been torn off my on my family’s farm as they try to get the last of their harvest in and don’t really have time to fix it. I remember my good friend from High School that lost a newborn son this past year and another couple friends struggled with infertility. God, how much longer will you hide your face from your people?
Yet in spite of all that has gone wrong in 2008, I know that God still loves us, cares for us, and will tear open the heavens and come down, revealing himself in some way or another. Like Isaiah, I must think back to all of the ways in which I have seen God move in my life and in the lives of others and I know that God will not hide his face forever. So for now, we persevere what this world has for us, look to change the world for the better, and remember the promises that God has made for his people.
Isaiah says in verses 8-9, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.”
We have hope in the potter; hope that he will mold us through these experiences into the people that he wants us to be. We have this hope because of what God has done in the past and because of what God promises to do in the future.
I have a friend that is going through some tough stuff right now. He is a strong Christian man and through his struggles, his faith has remained intact, though battered. As we sat together one evening, we discussed how hard it is to see fake Christians wandering around, smiling all of the time, putting on a façade for all of the world to see. I’m a Christian, I have joy, see how good my life is?
But guess what. Sometimes life for Christians is difficult, hard, and painful. Jesus never promised that following him would be easy or pain-free. In fact, I am pretty sure he promised the opposite. “The world will hate you because it hated me first,” he told his disciples. “If anyone wants to follow me, they must deny themselves and bear their cross daily.” Bearing a cross is not meant to be a comfortable thing. Being a Christian didn’t mean that life was going to be easy and pain-free. Ask the martyrs like Paul, Peter, and Justin. Ask our Anabaptist forebearers that were killed by other Christians for their beliefs. This image of all Christians being constantly happy, blessed with an easy life is not always the case. And I believe that by making the claims that this is the way all Christian are rewarded is detrimental to the faith. Because when pain and hurt come along, if all you have ever heard is that Christians will be blessed with an easy and pain-free life, then when trouble strikes, it will be very hard for your faith to survive.
I told my friend that is struggling right now that as Christians there will be times when it feels like God is hiding his face from us. And he always keeps me honest and he asked me how I have experienced God’s face being hidden from me. So I told him the story that defined God’s face being hidden from me this past year: Matt’s death.
I shared with my friend about Matt, a young man with so much potential, so much talent, such a great future ahead of him. Then I shared with him how all of that was taken away from us when Matt died…on a mission trip of all places. I told him how hard that whole experience was for me to accept. I told him how angry I had gotten with God. I never put on a fake smile and told the world that everything is going to be okay because I had Jesus in my heart. I simply said life is tough, and I don’t begin to understand how God’s mind works. But I know that we as Christians know that something better is coming. And we look for signs of hope all around us; in the past, in God’s promises, and in how God is moving today.
Soon after Matt’s death, I preached a message called, “There is a God…and I’m not Him.” I spoke about how I know that there is a God, though I don’t pretend to understand why certain things are allowed to happen. I expressed my anger with God in an honest way much in the way the Psalmist and Isaiah express their anger toward God. And then, just like every other sermon, I posted it online.
Many people were directed to this sermon because they Googled Matt’s name and I hope that some people found some comfort in the words that I had to say. And I want to post here a comment left by one person who read my sermon from that day:
I am touched by your thoughts in “There is a God” and I would like to say that there is a God and He is a very good God, perfect and trustworthy in all his ways. Your explanation of how you know God exists is the same reasons that have sustained me after receiving the news of Matt’s death. I don’t know why Matt was called home now, but I know I can trust God’s perfect plan. I’m glad you got to know Matt. It fills my heart with joy to hear a young man think and share about the awesome nature of God. Blessings to you and Staunton Mennonite Church and community! Matt’s Mom
“I know I can trust God’s perfect plan.” The person who was perhaps the closest to Matt said I know I can trust God’s perfect plan. Like Isaiah and the Psalmist before him, Matt’s mother knew that she could trust God’s perfect plan. As much as we desire for God to rend the heavens and come down, as much as we desire for God to reveal his face to us and flex his muscles before us, we trust in God to be God. God has moved for his people in the past, and God will move for his people in the future.
Which brings me back to the season that is upon us…Advent. Advent is a time to wait for God to break into the world in a big way. Advent is a time to wait for God to reveal his face to his people. Advent is a time to remember that God broke into this world as a little child and that he will return again as king.
So as we anticipate how God will move in the world in the future, let us remember how God has moved in this world in the past. Let us remember that no eye has seen, no ear has heard of any other God that acts on behalf of His people. And we mark the most significant movement of God with memories of a baby in a cradle. To us a child of hope is born. And I leave you this day with one more story of hope.
My friends in Ohio that have struggled for years with infertility have something to celebrate this Christmas. For unto them a child of hope was born. After years of struggling, after years of feeling like God had hidden his face from them, God has revealed himself to them and to us in the form of a child. They received a child born not of their own flesh and blood, but a child that they call their own nonetheless. And last Sunday my friends had a baby shower at the church for their newly adopted daughter.
When God seems to hide his face from us, we must remember all that God has done for his people in the past. When God seems to hide his face from us, we must remember all that God has promised to do for his people in the future. That is why we celebrate Advent. Because we await the day when God’s promises to his people are fulfilled. And the beginning of that fulfillment has come in Jesus Christ.