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November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent
Grace to you and peace from God, our creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, here we are, nine months after the start of the pandemic – still wearing masks, staying away from our loved ones, “attending” church online, and watching the death tolls rise from Covid infections.
If we’re honest, we’ve asked at least once, “Where is God in all of this?” I don’t think any of us thought we’d still be at this point. Or, at least, I think many of us hoped we wouldn’t be. In a non-Covid year, it often feels strange to begin a new church year by naming and lamenting God’s seeming, hiddenness – “O, that you would tear open the heavens….”
But, as we’ve said so many times already, calendar year 2020 year is different. In Advent this year, we don’t have to pretend that everything is okay. This year, we can name the truth without shame, without worrying that we’re going to be labeled as weird. This year, more than other years, invites us to tell it like it is – and to say that we need God.
And the good news, the promise, is God is still here.
In today’s reading, when Isaiah cried out on behalf of the Israelites, it was because they genuinely believed that God had abandoned them. They’d returned from the exile and things weren’t going at all the way God had promised they would. And because of the way they understood God and the world, that meant God had left them utterly alone.
The people returning were fighting with the people who never left. Their city and their house of worship had been destroyed and they couldn’t agree on how to begin rebuilding any of it, let alone which families would be allowed to serve as priests when the temple was ready for occupancy.
They were angry, and frustrated, and scared. They wanted it to just be done and things back to the way they were. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I frequently remind the midweek Bible study group that when we read a passage of lament or something about the consequences of people’s actions, to not stop with that passage – to keep reading and moving forward in the story. Because the story never ends with lament or consequences or judgment. And the same is true with this reading.
In Isaiah, chapters 63, 64, and 65 are a set. Ch63 names the specific tensions that the people of Israel were feeling. Ch64 is the lament and demand for God to come and fix it all. And ch65 is God’s response – and at the end of ch65 is the promise that the current situation will come to an end. That God is still there, and the hope of God’s promise will be fulfilled.
That promise gave the Israelites the encouragement they needed to look beyond what was right in front of them and to keep moving forward in their time of waiting.
Calendar year 2020 and all that it has held is not the end. There is more to come. The words of promise written in Isaiah thousands of years ago, are for us, too. God is still here.
Professor Christopher Davis tells the story of when he and his son became separated at a store several years ago while doing some holiday shopping. He could see the doors and knew that his son was still inside the store, but he was still scared and wanted to find him. But after walking up and down several aisles without any luck, Davis approached a security guard to explain what was going on and asked to see the security footage.
The guard scanned the cameras up and down the aisles, and Davis spotted his son surrounded by people he didn’t know and in a state of panic. So Davis asked the guard for access to the intercom and to keep the camera on his son.
Davis got on the intercom and called to his son – who looked around for the source of the familiar voice. Davis said, “It’s daddy. Stay where you are. Don’t move. Even though you can’t see me, I can see you. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”
In the moments when we think God can’t see us or isn’t around, God is still here.
I talk a lot about God’s activity in our world and in our lives. How God’s activity shapes who we are as God’s people – as Isaiah says, like a potter shaping a lump of clay.
We’ve been waiting for 9 months for this pandemic to end and even though a vaccine is in sight, it won’t be widely available for a while. In these last nine months – as a country – we’ve gone from being more or less united as a people in doing what is necessary to protect the vulnerable among us, to politicizing it and fighting with each other about it.
If we’re honest, fear has us in a vice grip. We’re afraid of how much longer it will take for the restrictions to be lifted. We’re afraid that a loved one will die as a result of Covid before the vaccine is widely available. We’re afraid of the long-term effects of being isolated from each other for so long and we’re afraid of being around people.
We’re afraid of being ridiculed for wearing a mask in public and we’re afraid of contracting Covid if we don’t. And in addition to all of this, we’re afraid that the damage we’ve done to our planet is irreversible. We’re afraid that racial and economic and gender justice will never be realized.
And I think, on some level – on some days, we’re afraid that God has abandoned us – never to return – and has left us to fend for ourselves. But if there’s one thing scripture has taught us it’s that God hasn’t left us.
In the same way there was hope and promise for the Israelites that God was still there for them, God is here for us, too. This time of waiting will come to an end for us. The pandemic will end. Our fears, which are real and justified, will end.
With God’s help, we can set our differences aside and look beyond ourselves, and correct at least some of the damage we’ve done to our planet, and bring an end to racism and injustice in all its forms.
God will act because God is still with us, shaping us and our lives with the gentle strength of a potter’s hands.
In this season, I invite you to look beyond what is immediately in front of you, and to notice the ways God is in your life. To be aware of the ways God shows up in the people and places you least expect – whether it’s to hold the door open for you, or to smile and greet you from behind a mask, or to listen when things get to be too much. Whatever it ends up being.
Notice the ways God is with you and the way that shapes who you become. And remember that even in the moments when it feels like God doesn’t see you or isn’t around, God is still there. Thanks be to God! Amen.