Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
DECEMBER 3, 2017 – First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah is quoted in the gospels more than any of the other prophets. The book is written over a period of time, with First Isaiah, chapters 1 to 39, describing the last days of Jerusalem, Second Isaiah, Chapters 40 to 55, narrating the days Israel is in Exile in Babylon, and Third Isaiah, Chapters 56 to 66, talking about Israel after their leaders were permitted to return to Jerusalem.
Our reading from Ezekiel last week would have been written during the same days Second Isaiah was being written. Today, we are in the time frame of Third Isaiah.
The intelligentsia has returned to Jerusalem, but they are still under Persian rule. The return has raised the hopes of God’s faithful, but they do not have freedom from foreign oppressors who rule their daily life, and they are constantly under the influence of foreign Gods.
There is also some conflict between those who had been led away and returned later, and those who had remained behind. So there is some quarreling among God’s people, in addition to the domination they had suffered…and continued to suffer…at the hands of the Persians.
We read the lament from this third period today. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with us? Will you hold our sins against us forever?
It reads more like a psalm than a prophetic work…more a song than a purely rational scientific work… so that Isaiah speaks deeply to his people’s pain. If they are the chosen people of God, why are they being humiliated before all the world?
We hear their bewilderment and their longing as they raise their prayers to God. They have tried the easy way and they have tried the interesting way.
Now they will try God’s way. You are our potter, they sing. We will be clay in your hands. We will seek your will…and bend to your will… in all our affairs.
We don’t do that because we want to. We are still the distracted and quarrelsome creatures our ancestors were. It’s just that…now…we realize that our actions produce consequences at every turn in the road. For every action we take in this world, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The best of consequences flow from a desire to help the widow and the orphan, to feed the hungry and protect the weak. Everything else… and we have tried everything else… doesn’t turn out well.
They sing their repentance and they ask God to hear their prayer. They watch and listen for an answer.
Their listening question is basically the same one we have been asking this year as we have dreamed of ministries we can realistically engage in soon. Lord, what is it that you would do through us this day? What is it that you want to accomplish through me this hour?
We have the luxury of self-government. For all the criticism we heap upon it and the people who serve in public positions, it is, as Winston Churchill put it, the worst form of government in the world… except for all the alternatives.
I think that the people who founded the country understood that, too. They believed in their country and in their neighbor. They believed that people were good but that power had a negative impact on them. It could devastate their character…turn them away from love.
They quit asking what they should do…what is it that you want to do through me this day?...and they start asking what they could do.
I offer a possible cure for that tendency to wander from the straight and narrow path…Let’s be in ministry together.
Whether you belong to a church or not, this is a prescription that I think would have all kinds of positive consequences.
Let us think of ways we could make life better in our community and in our world. Then…let’s do them.
It doesn’t have to be heroic or grand. It just has to be good. Our Thanksgiving dinner, looked outward this year to our community and we invited anyone who wanted to share a good meal and good conversation with good people… and had a side dish.
This is the third time I have been to that dinner, and I have always felt better when it was over. The food is wonderful, but the sense of community over a shared meal…a potluck…gives a person a very special kind of glow.
We are shaped by our days and we can choose how we will be occupied to a great extent. We are free to do more than any people. Technology has lifted most of our heavy burdens.
Poor people today are richer than rich people once were. Ulysses Grant, for instance marveled that the train he was on was hurtling through the countryside at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.
Today, if our train slowed to 35 miles an hour, we would be asking the conductor what the problem is.
We are far more able than any generation in history to have a positive impact on the future in our community and in our world.
The things Bill and Melinda Gates are funding…with many other billionaires…is breathtaking. Ending polio and malaria…finding ways to assure people everywhere have access to safe drinking water… researching ways to turn sunlight into fuel…it is a time of great potential.
Isaiah would have been amazed at most of what we take for granted. He might think God had blessed us in ways he had never dreamed to ask.
And it is amazing what we can do for good if we only set our hearts and minds on it.
And there good things we can do that we can see all around us. We only need to awaken to the possibility.
Jesus calls us to be awake today. No one knows the time or the seasons, so stay alert. He could have been talking about the end of the world, but he also gives us an insight into the end of suffering in this world. We might be amazed at where we end up.
We aren’t able, we say. We have a disqualifying disability. But sometimes it’s our inabilities…or our disabilities… that prepare us to see the opportunity that everyone else is overlooking.
It’s like the story of The Verger, by Somerset Maugham. He couldn’t read or write but the verger set up the paraments for all the services at a little church on a corner in downtown London.
A new vicar came and said he needed someone who could read and write and he fired the verger. It was a blow, but he had saved money, he was good at making things work out, and he would be alright.
He thought about it as he walked home and decided to have a cigarette, but he was out. He looked up and down the street and there was no tobacco shop. It was a busy street. There should be one there. He decided to open one.
Things went well. He was thrifty and attentive and soon he opened another shop and another. As his business grew, he only had enough time to drive around to visit them.
One day his banker called him in and told him he had so much money on deposit that he should put it in a trust to make more money on it. He agreed to come back in a few days when the banker would have the papers drawn up.
On the day, the banker asked him to read the papers and sign at the bottom. He apologized and told the banker he couldn’t read or write.
The banker was astonished. Do you know where you would be and what you would be doing today if you were able to read and write?
The verger told him, “Yes, I’d be the verger at a nice church on a corner near here.“
It had all happened because he was an ordinary person who was able to see things no one else could see.
While my example might seem fanciful, I have seen a version of it come true from time to time. Jack Horner was here last March because he is a preeminent world authority on dinosaurs.
Jack flunked Earth Science but he always won the grand prize at the Science Fair. His teachers thought he was lazy, but he was dyslexic.
His mind processes information in a different way. But he has a singularity of focus because he is also magnificently curious and when he was six years old he happened to discover a dinosaur nest. In it he found a mystery that is his life’s work.
The rest is science. Many inquiries up many blind alleys have helped the world imagine much more clearly what a world of dinosaurs would have been like.
By being attentive and using the unique knowledge we have about our community, the needs of the people here, ways those needs might be met, we can things for the glory of God that no other people ever have done.
I have had more than one person now say to me, why should we wait until the mortgage is paid off to embark on new ministries. We have paid down the principal, our interest payment has been reduced by $600 per month. Why not get started on something now?
All I can say is: Look…and Listen…and Pray…and Look…and Listen…and Pray…, “Lord, what is it that you want to do through me this day?” Then we look and listen and pray some more.
It is those quiet times of humble conversation with our Creator that help us calm ourselves, set aside our anxieties and see what has been right there in front of us all along.
We are the clay. God is the potter. If we are willing to be shaped by the master, there is no limit to how good our lives can be. Brother Van, one of the first Methodist missionaries in Montana, said it well: Be good and you will be happy.
St. Francis gave us a prayer to remind us that it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
So when the day comes for the head of the household to return to see how the servants have taken care of the property, we will be caught working…and not sleeping…to make a wonderful place even more hospitable than it was before.
May we ponder the possibilities God has set all around us as we enter this season of hopeful expectation. God did so much with a child from an obscure family at a time when people thought the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. Let us open our minds and hearts to our calling to be true and faithful children of that same God. Let us become the clay in God’s hands. Amen.