Hidden Presents, Torn Wrapping Paper
Bible Text: Isaiah 64:1–9 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
O Lord, you are are our Father and we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand
In the same way that Seattle Seahawks fans collectively call themselves “The Twelfth Man” or how Paul McCartney called Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein “The Fifth Beatle,” some scholars have called the book of Isaiah “The Fifth Gospel” and so our reading today from Isaiah could have easily been titled “The Gospel of Isaiah”
In the Christian tradition, the book of Isaiah is not just a prequel to Jesus’ story, like Star War’s Anakin preceding Luke Skywalker or The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins preceding The Lord of the Ring’s Frodo. Rather, the Prophet Isaiah is a fifth gospel in that, as St. Jerome in the third century put it, “Isaiah describes all the mysteries of Christ and the church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” Or, as the Gospel of John says, “Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him.”
Advent begins with Isaiah, and Isaiah will be sprinkled in every week between now and Christmas. Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament over 250 times, referring not only to things as general as prayer and preaching, forgiveness and faith, but also to things as specific to Jesus’ life as his birth, death and resurrection. The book of Isaiah is at once poetry and prose, narrative and hymn, mini-apocalypse and somber dirge. About this prophetic book, nineteenth century literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold, after translating the book of Isaiah from Hebrew said that he received ‘more delight and stimulus’ from Isaiah than from Shakespeare or Milton, those classic poets of his own mother tongue.
Isaiah tells the gospel story and roots us in the promises of God who comes among us, God who comes to let light shine in the darkness. For us as Christians, the prophet Isaiah has two stories to tell – the story of Christ, of God who will come, and the equally poignant story of the ancient city of Jerusalem’s struggles with and experience of God.
From beginning to end, the book of Isaiah spans more than 200 years of history, telling the tale of the city of Jerusalem with empire after empire dominating her; Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. The Assyrians, a growing empire in the eighth century bce nearly took over Jerusalem, but while the Assyrian army sat on Jerusalem’s doorstep, the Babylonians conquered both the Assyrian empire in all her glory, and the city of Jerusalem in full. The Babylonians force-marched Jerusalem’s best and brightest over 500 miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, leaving them in exile, far from home. Almost 50 years later, the Persian Empire won over all the land held by the Babylonians, and the Persian emperor, Cyrus, known to be tolerant of foreigners and benevolent towards strangers, allowed the exiled people to return home to Jerusalem.
The whole story is quite terrifying and hard to imagine from our perspective, but let’s try. It would be as if, in some unlikely and unusual alternate history, after decades of bad decisions in Kenilworth, our tiny village was on the verge of being taken over by the looming empire of Winnetka, only to be taken over by that greater, more cruel empire of Wisconsin, and forced to march almost to Duluth, living in the land of cheese, far from home.
Then, decades later, the Empire of Michigan, both peninsulas in all their glory, take over Wisconsin and Illinois respectively, and, the governor of Michigan, in his grand benevolence, allows all the residents of Kenilworth to finally return home, land burned and homes in ruin from former occupation, but home nonetheless, alongside that same strip of Lake Michigan that we love, though still under Michigander rule.
I put it in terms we can only jokingly imagine, living in a land of cheese far from home, but the historical parallel is nonetheless true. You can taste the tears of lament, of loss, of longing from home. Today’s text is set in this context. It is thought to be set in the moment just after the people returned home to Jerusalem, but before the city is rebuilt.
Today’s text is a prayer of yearning, a song of lament. It begins with a call for God, not a meek milquetoast small “g” god, but a warrior all-powerful god of mythic proportions, making mountains quake and fires burn and enemies tremble. The prophet declares faithfulness to God alone. Then he confesses a multitude of Jerusalem’s sins and accuses God of hiding, of being angry. And finally, the text turns again towards God saying ‘please forget, forget all we have done wrong, and remember that we are your people.’
Here is the KSL version of this text, the Katie Snipes Lancaster version of this Isaiah passage, a way to widen the scope of the text.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Tear open space and time,
Matter and the very fabric of the universe to save us.
Rend the heavens and come down.
Come down and do that wild old-school God-thing.
Burn forests and shake mountains.
Bring shock-and-awe to our enemies.
Let the bad guys shake in their boots.
The Terrorists and Nazis,
The Lord Voldemorts and Darth Vaders,
let them tremble.
Batman’s Joker and Superman’s Lex Luther,
let them shiver and shake in your presence.
In fact, let all the cities and countries,
all the planets and galaxies
tremble at your presence.
Because, from ancient times,
from time before time,
there has been only you.
We hear only you.
We see only you.
You tend to those who wait.
You join the do-gooders and Samaritans.
The altruistic humanitarians and the neighborly neighbors
know your presence.
But you were mad at us, God, and we were bad.
Maybe we were bad because you were mad.
Nevertheless, you hid your face, you were angry.
We have all become like mounds of dirty laundry,
Filthy like the grey slushy Chicago snow that groans under our feet.
Regardless, you hid your face, you were furious.
We have all become like a withered leaf, falling
Blown away by the wind of our wrongdoing.
And, yet. And, yet. And, yet.
You are our father; parent, papa, padre.
We belong to you.
You are the potter, we are the clay.
You are the baker, we are the bread.
You are the maker, we are yours.
You created us.
You are bound to us.
We depend on you.
We belong to you.
Forget our faults.
Wipe clean our mess.
Erase all record of wrong.
Remember that we are your people.
We belong to you.
We are yours.
See how the text starts out hard, violent even. Isaiah has an edge of longing, but an even harder edge of revenge. Then Isaiah becomes tender again, speaking to that ancient history with God, when God was seen and heard and known. And Isaiah struggles, raging against the situation, raging against Jerusalem’s sin, raging against God’s anger. But then, then, there is that beginning part of verse 8, the “and, yet” passage, where Isaiah relaxes again towards tenderness, a hopeful song of reconciliation between God and God’s people. Isaiah asks God not to rage, asks God to forget, to forgive. Isaiah asks God to remember, “We are your people.”
It is Advent 2014, more than 2,500 years after Isaiah. The candle of Hope is lit. We are here, living in this calm little pocket of peace along the shore of Lake Michigan. We have water to drink. We have food to eat. We have a warm safe place to sleep. We have little to long for. What does this text say to us? We are not returning from a generation of exile, we are not rebuilding a city in ruins, we are not under colonial rule. Maybe we are not like the people from the book of Isaiah who long for sins to be wiped clean and a new future to unfold. Maybe we are thankful for the way things are, for the status quo.
But it doesn’t take long to find ourselves in this text.
For, do we not hope that God might bring our enemies to their knees in epic but miraculous deafening defeat? Public enemies like ISIS or Ebola? Common enemies like cancer or addiction? Pervasive enemies like racism or poverty? Private enemies like worry or exhaustion?
And do we not pray to God in one long breath saying “I saw you, I heard you, I belong to you, but… where are you now, God?”
Do we not sometimes blame God, screaming “God, you left us, and that is why we sinned.”
And do we not turn our hearts again towards a tenderness, a hopefulness, pleading “please, please, forget it all, erase it, be our God, remember us, we are your people and we belong to you.”
In this way, it becomes appropriate that we begin Advent with confession. For, would we even need a savior, if all were well here on earth? Would we still bend down to peek in the manger in hopes of finding the one Isaiah called Prince of Peace? Would we still sing with Isaiah “Comfort, O Comfort my people”?
If all were well, we would be satisfied with a hallow December 25 winter ritual of hiding presents under the tree, and then scattering torn wrapping paper across the living room floor?
No. All is not well. Like Isaiah, we cry out for God to tear open, not the presents under the tree, but the very boundary between heaven and earth. We cry out for God to come down.
Advent begins with confession because all is not well. Advent begins with this text that says “Please, O God, we are like a dirty pile of laundry, make us clean. Forget our sins.” With our first Advent candle lit, the candle of Hope, we can become people of hope, confidently stand as people who confess our sins to God. In confession, we stand in hope, because, as scripture says over and over again, “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We come with our own individual confessions: words we wish we could take back; decisions we wish we could undo; hurt we caused; pride or vanity or laziness or busy-ness that separates us from those we love, from those who need us, from God, even. We have something to confess, something we pray God will forget.
But this advent, we also join the whole world in longing that the world might be better tomorrow than it is today, and so we have communal confessions to bring before God, too.
After Black Friday’s fuss over deep discounts and just before tomorrow’s Cyber Monday madness, what do we confess? A communal greed? Societal gluttony? Surely we must confess something, because these secular consumer-centric Christmas-time traditions so often go against the grain of our Christian narratives of hope or peace.
And, after the grand jury announced that it would not indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, and as protests still echo across the nation, what do we confess? A communal participation in the legacy of racism? A societal complacency? A failure to speak up when racist remarks are made, even if it is only by a beloved family member who made similar racist comments last year over Thanksgiving dinner, too?
Surely we must confess something, because, as a Harvard Business Review article said about the leadership challenges now facing Ferguson, “This is not a poor-side-of-town problem, or a young black man problem, or any other version of ‘their problem.’ We’re in this together.”
It is in this, in our communal and our individual confessions that we begin Advent.
We begin advent singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” because all is not right, and we need God, we need God’s presence, we need God’s forgiveness, we need God to remember us and forget our sins.
We begin Advent singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel, knowing that in God we can have hope, because we are in God’s hands, for God is the potter and we are the clay.
We begin Advent singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” because we long for the day when peace and justice reign, when, as Julian of Norwich says, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Let us be God’s people, let us hope, let us confidently stand in the presence of God who turns towards us, who remembers us, who knows us, who forgives us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah and the History of Christianity, John F. A. Sawyer, p. 1, 1996.  John 12:41  The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible, p. 401.  Isaiah 9  Isaiah 40  Psalm 145, 103, Exodus 34, Joel 2  “Ferguson Shows How ‘Tried’ Is No Longer Enough,” Harvard Business Review, Nilofer Merchant, August 15, 2014.