Saturday, December 06, 2008

Out of Exile

Isaiah 64:1-9

Pearl Harbor, Katrina, 9-11, Mumbai, Ike, the economic devastation that has hit this state, nation, and world; these are images that have seared our thoughts and memories. When we face catastrophic events such as these, it’s difficult to know how to respond.

Thinking back to Katrina, do you remember watching New Orleans evacuate? Or, more recently, we watched as Galveston and then Houston evacuated in the face of Ike? At least in the case of Katrina, the ones who were left behind were the ones least able to care for themselves. But even those who escaped experienced a sense of exile. And to live in exile is to live with a sense of rootlessness and insecurity. Nature isn’t the only force that pushes people into exile. There are refugee camps around the world, from Darfur to the Palestinian Territories, and beyond. To live in exile is to lose control of one’s life. It is a time when the future is dark, cloudy, and foreboding. In such a situation, it is common to ask: Where is God in all of this?

2500 years ago a group of exiles asked that very question. This group of exiles had watched as the Babylonian invaders swept in and carted off people and treasure, while leaving the nation devastated and the Temple in ruins.

The prophet who spoke these words we’ve heard this morning, speaks to this situation. He speaks to people who want answers, people who want to go home, who want to see God act on their behalf. As they wonder why God has not yet acted, they begin to look inward and ask: what have we done to deserve this? But even as they ask that question, they beg for mercy – don’t be angry anymore. Don’t remember our iniquity forever.

I. Advent’s Call to Reflection

Today is December 7th, a date that Franklin Roosevelt said would live in infamy. It’s a day to remember war, and pray that war would be no more. That memory continues to color this day, even though many of us weren’t alive in 1941. At the same time, this is the month of December, a month of joyous holidays.

The economy may be bad, but it’s still a time for parties and carols – whether it’s Jingle Bells or O Holy Night. Even the sanctuary is all decked out in Christmas glory. All that’s left to add is the baby Jesus. Yes, this is a season of good tidings and great joy.

And yet, there is reason to pause and reflect upon our lives, where we’ve been and we’re we hope to go. Christmas is in the air, but this is only the second Sunday of Advent. We may be ready to move on, but we must continue to wait for the Spirit to move.

It’s never easy to wait, and reflection is difficult. Those exiles, they didn’t want to wait any longer. They were ready to leave. In Acts 1, Jesus told the gathered disciples to wait for the Spirit. I expect that they would have rather just gotten on their way. Why wait? We have things to do. But the word that comes to us, as we begin this new liturgical year with Advent is this: Wait and reflect on where God is at work in your life.

In a sense, this is our time of exile. It’s a time when we have lost control of our lives and our destinies. We cry out, with the exiles, asking that God would act boldly on our behalf.

II. The Obstacles to Faith

Christmas is all about faith. It takes faith to believe that God will act on our behalf. It takes faith to believe that God will set aside our trespasses, even as we set aside the trespasses of those who have offended us. Indeed, it takes faith to believe that God would come to us and dwell with us in the person of a child born in an insignificant corner of the world. And yet it’s in this story that we find our reason for hope revealed.

Christmas is about faith, but that faith doesn’t come without obstacles and challenges. Of course, it’s easy to believe when things are going well, but what if you find yourself living in exile? When it comes to faith there are many barriers and challenges that keep us from fully embracing God’s call on our lives.

It could be a severe illness or a chronic one; the death of a loved one or maybe it’s an intellectual challenge. It could be the hypocrisy that we see in our neighbors or in ourselves. It could be a broken relationship or simply the devastation that nature can wreak on earth. Maybe it’s guilt, whether deserved or not, that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Perhaps you’re thinking: I’m just too tired to believe anything anymore. I don’t know what the barriers are to your faith. But, we all face them – whether we’re new to this journey or we’ve been on it for years.

As difficult as these challenges may be, they can have a positive side. Consider Israel – in many ways their sense of peoplehood, their sense of national identity, indeed their understanding of God, was forged during the exile. Much of the Old Testament emerged during or shortly after this period. Some of the greatest passages in Scripture, such as the later chapters of Isaiah, were written at about this time in Israel’s history. Exile may have been distressing and dispiriting, but for the nation as a whole, it was an opportunity to draw closer to God.

III. The Cry of Faith

What then should we do? How should we live in this time of exile? How do we keep moving forward? It’s easy to stop and complain. We could cry out: You’re ignoring us God! In fact, it’s like you never knew us! (Is. 63:19). Or we could request that God act on our behalf.

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, and make the mountains shudder at your presence – As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot boil – To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! (Is. 64:1ff – Message)
Yes, Lord, make them shake in their boots. Go get them! Show them you mean business.
Of course, if we’re going to ask God to act on our behalf, perhaps we should look inside and see if there is anything we should confess. As the prophet puts it: “We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease stained rags.” Now, we Disciples aren’t much for confession. We’ve always tried to keep things positive. But there is a time and a place for confession, to put things right. If we’re going to ask for rescue, then it’s appropriate to acknowledge our own responsibility for the predicament we’re in. Indeed, it’s likely that when we look inward, we’ll find a few skeletons in our closets. But the good news is that when we repent and ask for forgiveness, God is faithful to forgive.

IV. Submission to God

As we contemplate our future, this time after exile, having cried out to God for rescue and made our confession, the final step is to submit ourselves to God’s leadership.

Isaiah invites us to share in this prayer to God, even as we await for the one who is coming:

“You are our Father. We’re the clay, and you’re our potter.”

We’re yours because you have made us. We’re your handiwork, which means that we have a purpose in life. Because you are a God who loves, we know that you love us. In the Christmas Spirit that is upon us, we say: Because you are our Creator, we know that you have gifted us for service. Indeed, on the horizon is a new day for us.

Yes, it’s time to get ready to leave exile and join our Savior in the work of redemption. We have a job to do. It will take time and energy, but with this calling comes a sense of new birth and new opportunity. What was is no more. There is only what is to come. That’s the message of the day. Prepare yourselves for the day of God’s coming. On that day God will act with boldness. It’s just a little bit longer, and then the day will come – Can you wait with me?

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 7, 2008

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