First Advent 2014
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Anger, fear, prejudice, greed, desire, violence, consumerism, terror, suicide bombings, war, luxury, sex, overeating, gluttony—these are some of the images you might have seen if you turned on the television over this holiday weekend. The protests and riots in Ferguson have dominated television and facebook this holiday weekend. I’m thankful that Jana and I have decided not to subscribe to cable or satellite TV, because then we truly wouldn’t be able to get away from it. But even in our visits with friends and discussions with students this past week, we haven’t been able to escape the anger that is seething in our culture, anger between blacks and whites, anger directed at our Hispanic brothers and sisters, or anger at Obama or others who want to extend the hand of welcome to those who are living as strangers among us. There’s anger that falls along party lines. Reading some of the posts from my friends over facebook over the past few weeks, I’d think that every Republican was a capitalist Satan worshipper and every Democrat a communist baby killer. What should be a peaceful celebration of thankfulness and family joy looks like it has turned into a consumeristic quagmire of conflict and anger. And, watch out, Advent is upon us and Christmas is coming.
Yes, today is first advent, and our Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah 64 has a lot to teach us about anger, God’s sovereignty, and how we as human beings may expect God’s guidance in our turbulent lives. As I was preparing for the sermon today, I was truly struck by how much anger is in this prophetic text. However, this prophetic text, coming from the end of Isaiah, is strikingly different from many of the other prophetic oracles that one might find, especially from those in the opening third of the book. First of all, rather than the typical prophetic oracle, in which the prophet speaks in the first person singular as the voice of God, pronouncing judgment and destruction upon Judah, these verses are in first person plural and the prophet is voicing the concerns of his community directly to God. God is addressed as a “you,” “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Likewise the voice here is more like that of the Psalmist expressing communal lament, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” What perfect images for Thanksgiving: Israel’s deeds are like the dirty dish-cloth after the thanksgiving cleanup; all the people fade like leaves blown from the autumn trees. Yet it is God’s anger that can make the mountains shake. As the prophet continues, God is praised as the one who can make the nations tremble, whose anger can start forest fires, and boil away the lakes. With this juxtaposition between human iniquity and God’s anger, the prophet has a lot to say to us in our present circumstance.
Righteous anger, righteous indignation, punishment and retribution belong properly to God. Many of us are uncomfortable with the image of an angry God. We like to imagine God in Christ as a loving and forgiving God. That’s fine and there’s a place for that message. But when it comes to social injustice, human exploitation, enslavement and repression, a proper trust in God’s anger is not only well placed, it is part of the prophetic expectation to forsake idolatry and worship God alone. As the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” The prophets believed in a God who was actively involved in the affairs of human history, a God who brings about radical change and transformation, even when it is painful. This is a God who calls out human idolatry and injustice, and brings about corrective action, even using Israel’s foes to bring punishment and retribution for the oppression of the poor, the fatherless, and the widows.
Does this mean that we can’t be angry? No, psychologists tell us that, when properly engaged, anger is actually healthy and normal. Anger is a proper emotional response when something is perceived as wrong or when some need is not being adequately met. Anger can activate us and those around us to get primal needs met. I am not a parent. So it is amazing to me to see how calmly and sweetly many mothers come to the angry screams of their infants with warm milk, instantly calming the child. In family, community, and friendship, the expression of anger can actually have a restorative role in redressing wrongs and meeting needs. Learning to get in touch with our own anger and learning how to express it properly are important steps for folks who are engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution.
But what the prophet is voicing is that our festering, seething anger can become a form of idolatry. In such a case, our role is to repent from such idolatry and place such anger in Yahweh’s hands. I suspect that there is a great deal of festering, seething anger in our society today. I also suspect that there are malevolent forces at work that, perhaps even consciously, are using media and other methods of communication to keep that anger and fear alive like a festering sore. Our limbic system has developed over the generations to help us react to extraordinary situations of fight of flight. Yet it is these same impulse systems that make us into great consumers. I find it a fascinating and rich irony to see that the protestors in the Michael Brown case have now turned to the malls to confront folks there on “Black Friday” with a “Brown Friday.” That seething anger, stirred up by images on TV that steam over and over again, burning cars, angry shouting, marching and protesting, all of that seething anger ironically makes us into great consumers and help to drive our idolatrous economy. The outburst and brawls over the Thanksgiving doorbusters have become commonplace.
Flight or fight, even in our every day, makes us into cooperative consumers. On Monday nights, after driving through rush hour traffic to get to my Charlotte class--now that’s fight or flight—how often do I find myself in the drive through at Chick-fil-a, ready to order my milkshake Monday meal? When our lizard brains control us, malevolent forces can easily take advantage of us, set up idols for us to worship. In such cases our racial identity, our adherence to a political party, even our identification with our favorite athletic team, cease to become healthy markers of diversity. Instead, we become enslaved to them, sometimes unconsciously, with an impulse to dismiss, fear, or even hate those who are not like us. This is not healthy. Not only that, when these idols control us, we become susceptible to forces that diminish our self-worth and that of others, so that we become slaves to racism, consumerism, and unknowing ideologues for demonic powers whose sole purpose is to exploit, dominate, and destroy.
Seeing such forces at work, the prophet calls out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” Can this become our advent prayer? This is the time of year when Christians remind themselves of Israel’s yearning for a coming king, a coming Messiah. With all the pastoral images of a sweet infant Jesus born in a manger, perhaps we’ve lost sight of Israel’s yearning for a powerful king, one whose coming would shake the foundations of the mountains. If we can also say this prayer, together with the prophet, perhaps—in spite of all the anger and turmoil, stress and fear—we might be able to return to a God who is our father and potter, in whose hands we are clay to be molded and transformed into new creations. Perhaps when we recognize God’s power and come to rely upon God’s anger to intervene against our own injustices, we might also pray, together with the prophet, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people!”
Let us pray,
“Lord, we are all your people…”