Isaiah 64New International Version (NIV)
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 have given us over to our sins.
8 Yet you, Lord, 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, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.
My wife and I have been members of the local YMCA for about nine years, pretty much since we moved from Harrisonburg to Staunton. Every time you go in, they scan a card with a barcode on it to identify you as you. They gave us two options for a membership card: we could either get a full-sized wallet card, or one of those little keychain cards. I didn’t want to bring my wallet in every time I came to the Y, so I opted for the keychain card.
I despise these things.
I have 57 different keychain cards, give or take. I have one for each of the three local grocery stores, one for the two local drug stores, one for a hardware store, and three for the YMCA. These things bother me so much. I have been in stores where they ask me, “Do you want to join our VIP shopper club? You’ll save money every time you shop with us.” That’s appealing to me. I like to save money. Then they go on, “We just need you to sign this and we will give you a little card for your keychain.”
Nooooo! I’d rather pay that extra $.15 than carry another keychain thingy!
Anyway, after nine years of shoving my keys into my pockets and dropping them on the kitchen counter, my keychain card for the YMCA had become damaged to the point where the scanner could no longer scan it. So the front-desk attendant kept my keys this week and replaced my worn-out card with a new one. She removed the old card, updated my information, and then put the new card on my keyring.
There’s just one problem. She put it on backwards.
All my other keychain cards have the barcode on the same side. The new one is directed the wrong way. Now I realize that if this is the biggest problem I face this week that I am doing pretty well. But it does bother me, and I know that I’m not the only one who is bothered by things like this. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right!
This experience made me think of an episode of the television show “The Big Bang Theory.” If you aren’t familiar with the show, it is about a bunch of scientists who are socially awkward trying to make their way through dating, work, and life in general. The episode that came to mind involves Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, and his girlfriend, Amy, a neuroscientist.
Amy is trying to help Sheldon get over his need to experience a sense of closure in all situation. She has used her skills as a neuroscientist to devise a program to help Sheldon let things go. She starts by saying, “Sheldon, closure isn’t always an op…”
She acts distraction until Sheldon breaks in and yells, “shun. Closure isn’t always an option.”
Amy engages Sheldon in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe on a white board, only to erase the board moments before Sheldon wins. They spend time setting up dominos, and then pick them up without first knocking them down. They sing the Star Spangled Banner together, and Amy stops with “and the home of the.” And my favorite, Amy hands Sheldon a jack-in-the-box. He turns the crank as the familiar tune, “Around and around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel” plays. And Amy takes it away just before it pops.
I find this humorous because I get it. For sure, Sheldon Cooper is a bit over the top, but I too like to see things through until their end. I like closure. And as my keychain cards remind me, I like order, too. I also would bet that to some extent, you do as well.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation as we await the birth of our King. Advent is meant to be a time of hope, a hope that builds a little bit each week.
But we also begin Advent knowing that not everything lines up the way we would like it to. And we know this story. We know that in four weeks we will be celebrating the deliverer, the mighty one, counselor, the Prince of Peace, almighty God! We know that this is reason to celebrate!
But like Sheldon Cooper, we don’t get our closure. At least we haven’t yet. We are still waiting.
Our text for this morning comes from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is often broken into two or three parts. The two sections are pretty clear: pre-exile and post exile.
Chapters 1-39 present a lot of warnings. This is what is going to happen. God will allow x because you did y. Then in chapter 40 there is a major change, and we will look at that next week. Chapter 40 is where we get some of the best material from Handle’s Messiah. Comfort ye my people. Speak softly to Jerusalem…Tell her that her iniquities have been pardoned.
Chapters 56-66 seem to be a bit different. They aren’t filled with warnings like 1-39, nor are they filled with hope like 40-55. 56-66 is more of a collection of wise sayings, oracles of the prophet. So the book of Isaiah is divided by time, but also by genre.
Chapter 64 is one of those oracles, which begins with a request, a plea, really: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”
Split the heavens in two and come here, our God! Isaiah goes on to say that God has done this sort of thing before. God, you’ve done awesome things that we did not expect. You’ve shaken a few mountains in your days. Now we want you to do it again.
So what’s going on here? My understanding is that the Israelites have been released from their exile, permitted to go home, only to find that their homes and their lives are a shadow of what they had been. This doesn’t line up. We need closure to that whole exile experience. But this just isn’t what was expected.
Some scholars even go so far as to say that the enemies spoken of in verse 2 are not enemies from outside, but enemies from within their own people group. These families have been separated for a couple generations, and now they’ve been brought back together, and they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how they should be worshipping, how they should be rebuilding, and how the people should be governed.
The enemy, it seems, is “us.”
Surely the Israelites are calling out to God, asking, Where are you? And where is this comfort? I can still hear the songs from Isaiah 40, is this all we can expect?
And in the midst of this disappointment and family division, the prophet prays, “Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people” (V. 9b, emphasis mine).
I think we have all seen the ways that stress can cause division, even among the closest of families. I’d share a few personal stories, but that would just cause more stress in my family and divide us further. But I think that it is important to point out, especially during these stressful holidays, that in the middle of darkness, in the middle of all the stress, we need to hold on to hope.
The Israelites prayed for God to split the heavens and come to this earth. And as Christians, we believe that he did just that. In the form of Jesus, God broke into this world to save us from our sin, and to reconcile us to one another. And yes, I do think the teachings of Jesus include showing us how to get along with our family, no matter what they have done or said to us.
We can be right with God, right with one another, and right with all of creation. That’s what Jesus promises, that’s what Christmas symbolizes, and that’s what I hope for.
Regardless of who you are and what you experience, you surely hope for a better tomorrow. And though Christmas can be depressing to some, we are surrounded by symbols of hope.
For instance, there is a lot of debate about Christmas trees, holiday trees, or whatever you want to call them today. (I’ve never actually heard anyone call them holiday trees.) The practice of bringing evergreens into a home does not originate with Christianity. Rather, it is a pagan ritual surrounding the celebration of the winter solstice that we adopted. And I’m kind of glad we did. Though we live in sunny Virginia, remember that there are places where the ground is often covered with snow and very little sun shines all winter long. It’s called Ohio. Evergreens are a sign of hope in the middle of the coldest part of the winter. When everything else is brown and dead, we can see life in the evergreen. We find resilience and perseverance in the evergreen. We find reason to hope.
How about the poinsettia? Poinsettias are native to Mexico and are sometimes called “the star plant” because of the shape of their leaves. The star shape draws our memories back to The Star of Bethlehem, but the reason that they are so common around Christmas is because these plants “bloom” in the cold months. Granted, here in Virginia we make sure that they are at their peak in mid-December, but if left in their native habitat, they bloom in late November and early December. Just as everything else is dying, the poinsettia is bursting forth with color.
There is a beautiful story from 16th-century Mexico about the origins of the poinsettia. A girl named Pepita was stressed that she did not have any gifts to share for the birthday of Jesus. Pepita was visited by an angel who encouraged her to gather weeds and lay them at the altar. So Pepita gathered what she could find, brought them to the altar of the church, and the weeds began to bloom in beautiful shades of red. (We always have poinsettias at church during Advent, and I never see them carried in. I’m just saying.)
Let’s do one more. We all know about mistletoe. If you meet someone under the mistletoe, you are required by law to kiss that person. Many people trace this practice back to a Norse tradition—think Vikings. According to tradition, the Norse god Loki killed a rival god, Balder, by shooting him with an arrow cut from a mistletoe tree. As a symbol of this unnecessary tragedy, the Vikings would hang mistletoe sprigs throughout the city. And when two people met under the mistletoe, friend or foe, they were obligated to drop their weapons and embrace. Out of this practice grew the tradition of showing affection for someone when you meet them under the mistletoe.
My friends, I understand why some people get depressed this time of year, and I’m not going to promise you that everything is going to be perfect or straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But together we can pray for God to split the heavens and come down. Maybe I don’t have it as bad as you, and maybe you don’t have it as bad as the next guy, but we all know what it is like to sense that things aren’t lining up. We know what it is like to need closure.
So this Advent I want to encourage you to look for symbols of hope all around you. The evergreen tree showing life in the dead of winter; the poinsettia bloom, breaking forth with color from an otherwise ordinary weed; and the mistletoe, a symbol of love and affection, even among sworn enemies. And as we navigate these territories, may we be there to help one another through the difficult times.