by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Upon my first reading of the text from Isaiah this week, I heard Israel crying out to God, longing for God’s presence and unable to find it. I heard a people who felt abandoned by God in a time of great need. I heard this, and I felt a resonance, an agreement between my soul and the people of Israel. Yes, God, where are you now? So many terrible things are happening in our world and you feel so far away.
Then I read it again, and something in me shifted. I moved from the comfort of knowing people throughout history, even God’s chosen, have felt far from God, to the discomfort of conviction. I felt in my bones the knowledge that much of this feeling of God being far away is not of God’s doing -- God is, in fact, still right here, where God has always been, in the faces of those around us. We have turned away from the many ways God makes Godself known in the world around us. This is our doing. We need to own this.
It is a shame the lectionary doesn’t continue so that our people may hear God’s response to these cries -- a response God must be tired of giving by this point in Isaiah. In chapter 65 God tells the people (in a repeat of other conversations God has had through Isaiah, chapter 58 in particular),
“I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held you my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me to my face continually…”
These people speaking in Isaiah 64 are the same people God has told repeatedly their festivals are not important if they are not doing justice, their fast days mean little if they are still oppressing people. Over and over again, God has told God’s people what they want to see from Israel is people living justly among one another, people who do not oppress each other or lie or cheat. God wants their people to feed and clothe one another. God continually reminds us that it is in these actions their presence can be found, that by doing these things, God is near.
Here the people are again, lamenting God’s distance when they have not changed their behavior. And not just lamenting God’s perceived distance -- they actually have the gall to blame God for their sin. “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed,” they cry. For real? Like, you’re really gonna do this? God has told you time and time again what God asks for and painted amazing pictures of the future that will come for those who obey these calls for justice. God’s response in Isaiah 65 gives us the roots to Mary’s song we will remember as we continue through Advent,
“Therefore thus says the Lord God:
my servants shall eat,
but you shall be hungry;
my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame…
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or
come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.”
We are not unlike the people of Israel in this way of continually calling out to God, asking for God’s presence, wondering where God is, perhaps even blaming God for our own communal failures. All the while, we are in our collective situation because we, as a people (white people in particular) have been so seduced by the American Gospel of individualism disguised as freedom that we cannot even recognize that this situation we are in is largely of our own collective making. We struggle to glimpse God because, in our belief that we not only can, but must, do everything ourselves, we have separated ourselves from not only one another but from God. Millions have died because we have spent generations teaching personal responsibility over collective responsibility. Millions more suffer from the violence of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and so on because personal responsibility teaches us that we are only responsible for the things that we do intentionally as individuals and not for the structures we participate in and benefit from left to us by our forebears. Our belief in individualism and personal responsibility leads us to blame the homeless, the poor, the sick, and the disabled for their situations instead of looking at how these structures we have built limit people's access to what they need to have abundant life. We struggle to feel God’s presence because that presence lies in the loosening the bonds of injustice and the yoke of oppression, in feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. In short, we struggle to feel the loving presence of God because we have forgotten how to love our neighbor (and probably also ourselves). We have forgotten that it is within the stranger that God resides.
This may all feel a bit harsh for this season, especially in this year when people are starving for words that bring comfort and hope. But there is hope in this, is there not? Time is not up. God is not gone. We still have time to repent of our ways and to turn towards one another and, in doing, turn towards God. This is, after all, the season of preparation for Christ’s return. Repentance and atonement are indispensable components of preparation for God’s enfleshed return, as cleaning out the guest room is an indispensable part of getting ready for company. There is hope in the many descriptions scripture provides us of what the world would look like if we took seriously our responsibility to our roles as co-creators with God and people who hold the other half of a promise of salvation. There is hope in the beauty that can be created when we turn towards one another instead of away, and in the future of the world to come. As we are told in this week’s reading from the Gospel attributed to Mark, we do not know the time or the hour, but we must be ready. We must stay awake -- stay awake to the ways we participate in this world that feels like it is falling apart around us and how, through following God’s call, we can build something new, together.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.