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Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort

November 30, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014

 Isaiah 64: 1-9          1 Corinthians 1:3-9

 This text of Isaiah has been described as “a cry of pain seeking understanding.” It is part of a longer lament that asks why God does not act in the world today the way God acted in the past. The lament begins in chapter 63, verse 7. The prophet declares

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the God, because of all that the God has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel, that God has shown them according to God’s mercy, according to the abundance of God’s steadfast love.

The Exodus, the acts with which God drew God’s people out of bondage in Egypt and delivered them to a promised land, is in the forefront of the prophet’s memory. But where is this God now?

  • where is the God who tended God’s people like a shepherd tends his flock?
  • where is the God who marched with Moses and led God’s people through the divided waters of the sea?
  • where is the God who guided God’s people through the wilderness to a place of rest?

Three times Isaiah asks for God’s presence, but it appears that God is hiding from God’s people”[1] In fact, Isaiah accuses God saying, “you were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”  Don’t trot out some excuse that we’re not faithful God, because if we’re not faithful, it’s your own fault, cries the prophet in frustration!  It’s your fault because you hid yourself.

And so the prophet shouts, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

  • make the mountains quake as you did of old
  • fire the water so that it boils
  • make your name known to your adversaries and
  • let the nations quake in fear.

lightning_storm

The poet Robert Browning may have written that “God’s in His heaven, [and] all’s right with the world!” but a God who stays hidden up in the heavens is no comfort to this prophet.

Isaiah wants God to stop hiding up in heaven and to act to redeem and save.  Now!

We really don’t need to know much more about the context of Third Isaiah than this to understand the prophet, do we? The desire to have God act in some clear and obvious way to heal our bodies and restore our communities, to correct injustice and direct our common life is both understandable and important. It is part of naming what is wrong in our world.

When the Grand Jury announced on Monday that Officer Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I found myself wishing for some great display of divine justice. With nearly 15,000 dead in West Africa as a result of Ebola epidemic, “the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times,” I would like to see an act of divine deliverance.[2] Thirty dead in the Syrian city of Kobani yesterday as rival terrorist organizations blew one another up. And in the midst of the particular acts of injustice, catastrophe and violence there is the regularized violence where every day 17,000 children under five die from preventable causes.[3]

Where is God in the middle of all this?

And so the prophet cries out.  And, truth be told, we cry out too.

In the face of all that is wrong, the biblical prophets lament, complain and protest. Hebrew Bible scholar Marvin Chaney describes the prophets’ cry as a kind of appeals process. When courts fail to deliver justice, when the threat to human life beyond what we can cope with, when the very systems we create to establish order and community are subverted, when it seems there is no place else we can turn, the prophets appeal to a higher court. They demand a hearing before a higher law. And in giving voice to the pain and grief and loss of the community, the prophet’s cry

  • re-constitutes God’s people by drawing on their collective memory of the past
  • refuses to despair of the present, in order to
  • authorize the community to act in ways that bring hope for the future.

You see, by giving voice to the anger and despair of the community, the cry of the prophet becomes the cry of the community, something they need. They are lifted above being mere “yes” men and “yes” women in God’s house, who can speak only the language of praise and thanksgiving. Instead, they are honest about all that is wrong, and so truly longing for what God can bring. By lifting up the pain and grief and loss of God’s people, these become public property, facts as real as the failure all around them. The cry is directed to God, but it is meant for the people as well. For when these words become liturgy, recited together, they form a people the way a parent nurtures a child, or a potter molds the clay.

Yet, Almighty One, you are our father, you are our mother,

We are the clay, your are the potter;

We are all the work of your hand.

We are all your people.

And here is where Isaiah finds his answer. In crying out to God, the community has in turn been called by God to be aware of and to take responsibility for their situation. For failed justice systems, cultural barriers to communication and community, the deaths of thousands of children in our world, are not solved by divine fiat.

In contrast to a hidden God, the image of God as parent and potter suggests closeness and personal connection. Yet neither image suggests a God who “would tear open the heavens.” Instead they evoke a God whose mode of action looks more like that of the artist or the parent than that of the superhero. God forms and shapes the people as a father over time shapes the character of his children, as a potter lovingly molds her clay. Isaiah calls on Israel to be malleable in the hands of God, and he reminds God to fulfill the task of forming Israel into a people.[4]

pottershands

Last week many of you may recall that Noelle and I attended the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion that were jointly meeting in San Diego. These professional societies annually bring together scholars teaching in universities, colleges and seminaries from around the world.

In one of the sessions I attended, Marvin Chaney, the biblical scholar to whom I referred earlier, was responding to a paper.  He was speaking about the terribly manipulative and pervasive practice in ancient Judah and Israel of powerful landowners manipulating the terms of agricultural debt to harm the weaker party.  You see the wealthy landowners made loans to desperate people who were about to lose their land.  They would make these loans in silver, but then demand repayment in crops.  What this practically meant is that the borrowers were taken advantage of because the crops in harvest season were plentiful and worth less.  Therefore they paid far more than the original loan was worth, increasing the payment taken by the landowner.  The courts upheld these loans and over and over judged in favor of the unscrupulous landowners.

It is the prophet Isaiah who recounts how these greedy men added “field to field,” enlarging their property holdings by gobbling up the land of the poorer small farmers.  The justice system truly rendered no justice for the people who were losing their land.  And they cried out over and over to no avail.  As Chaney put it in his presentation, the landowners were “too big to jail.”

With every door closed to them and their land being ripped out from under them, Isaiah the prophet indicts the courts in the name of God.  Isaiah is an auditor of YHWH, reversing on appeal the decisions of the unjust courts.  God’s court is the court of last resort; but its claims are prosecuted not by the divine, but by the courageous prophets who insist on an alternative.

On this first Sunday of Advent, this text from Isaiah invites us to contemplate the difference between intervention and incarnation.  We are invited to join our ancient ancestors in their lament. For as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said in his book The Prophets, “Few are guilty; all are responsible.” This is an incarnational pivot whose focus is not about blame – blaming perpetrators or blaming God — but about repair, tikuun olam.  It does not expect a miracle from afar, but rather a slow knitting together from below, a knitting together that requires all of us, and will take all we can muster.  It does not offer answers so much as openings, openings revealed by our willingness to lament and to stretch out our arms to one another and make the path by walking.

Sing Hymn #795: Healer of Our Every Ill

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NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.

[1] Scott Bader-Saye. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2] Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization. West African countries have reported over 6,000 death by the virus, the WHO and CDC estimate the reality is two to three times higher.

[3] UNICEF, September 2014, http://www.childmortality.org/#, [accessed 11/29/14].

[4] Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.

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