Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Waiting in hope

Message preached November 30, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 63:15 - 64:11

Order of Worship

listen to this sermon (mp3)

            Several years ago, a therapist wisely encouraged me to use my gift for music to compose a song that might express the anger I was suppressing within. For help, I turned to the place where countless others have found relief before me - the Psalms, particularly the Psalms of Lament. Putting scripture into my own words, I then became able to voice what I felt inside.


        The songs of Lament in the Old Testament, whether found in the book of Psalms, or scattered elsewhere, are texts we often find difficult to read. A perfect example is the 137th Psalm, where God’s people mourn in exile beside the waters of Babylon, wondering “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Their solemn grief we can handle, but not their anger, for the Psalm ends with a terrifying beatitude in which the infants of the enemy are dashed against the rocks. Needless to say, we usually omit this verse when we read the Psalm publicly. Its anger is too graphic, even in this age of televised violence.


            The passage of scripture I just read is also a lament. Isaiah, like all God’s true prophets, not only spoke God’s Word to God’s people, he also spoke for the people to God. This lamentation is such a prayer. In it we find some pretty heart-rending stuff. “Where are you, God?,” the people ask through Isaiah. “Why are you so silent when we’re going through our troublesWhy have you turned your back upon usDo something!”


            Sound familiar? When children get into an argument, threatening to do violence to one another, they often come running to mom or dad, pleading “do something!” When that parent doesn’t act, or when they do different from what is requested, the response is (in effect) “why have you turned your back on me. Don’t you care? It isn’t fair!” Children also do a good job of blaming each other. “He made me do it!” When a parent gets caught in the middle, which happens a lot, either through what they do or don’t do, the refrain becomes, “you made me do it.”


            There’s a bit of this same sentiment in Isaiah’s lament to God for the people. “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways, why do you harden our hearts?” (63:17)  Depending upon which translation we read, we may even find this statement expressed to God: “you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” (64:5b, NRSV)  Now, before we begin admonishing the Israelites of Isaiah’s day for trying to evade responsibility, it’s important to recognize that this prayer of the people is full of confession. The overall tone is not one of blaming God for what has happened. “We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.” (63:19) “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. 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.” (64:6-7)


            Rather than blaming God for causing them to sin, the people through the prophet Isaiah are brutally honest about themselves. Maybe it’s this part that we have trouble with. It’s not just the anger expressed, but the confession made. Two weeks ago, we had a bit of fun in worship by acting out Jesus’ parable of the talents. The ending didn’t seem fair to our youth who did an excellent job with it. It may have seemed like God was a “mean, old man,” instead of someone who richly provides for our needs. One of the problems of trying to speak the truth is that so often there is a “Yes, but” to what we say. After getting across that God is not a vindictive, angry, old man, we then struggle to say. “Yes, but God is also not a nice, sensitive, modern kind of God, who tells us, “Doggone it, that’s all right, because you’re all right and so am I.”


            No, God is a holy God. Before our God, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. We don’t stack up. All the good things we do can easily amount to no more than (to borrow Isaiah’s image) a filthy piece of clothing that hasn’t been washed in years. The apostle Paul referred to it as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). And that’s the good stuff. There is a whole lot more “junk” in us. If we are honest about ourselves, we recognize how deeply stained with sin we are, each one of us. We just sang, from a much-loved Christmas carol, that haunting line about “the hopes and fears of all the years.” Well, this is the “fears” part - the lamentation over the way things are, in the world and in ourselves - brutally honest with our anger and our confession. How much has really changed in 25 centuries?


            But what of the “hopes ... of all the years...”? Hope pops up in some pretty strange places in the Bible, often where we least would expect it. One of my all-time favorites is the book of Lamentations. The very title of this book makes you think, “there is no hope,” only grief. In it we find such mournful mouthfuls as: “the thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! (what a depressing thought) My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.” Then, strangely enough, these words come next: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (3:19-26)


            The prayer from the mouth of Isaiah for the people to God also contains hope even amid lamentation. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 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.” (64:3-4)  “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (64:8)


            We are like a piece of clay, Isaiah says. In the present this seemingly shapeless mass is being formed by the hands of the potter. Hope is the belief that this clay will someday amount to more than what it looks like at present. Its future shape can only be hinted at. We can dream about it, but ultimately it is in the hands of the one doing the shaping. Today, it may not look like much. Today may be the digging day, as the potter sets apart this clay from the earth that surrounds it. Today may be the kneading day, as the clay is prepared for use. Today may be the throwing day, as the clay is tossed, almost harshly, upon a hard spinning wheel - talk about disorientation. Today may be the shaping day, with both hands of the potter firmly squeezing the revolving clay, first this way, then that - pulling out, drawing up, digging in. Today may be the drying out day, being left all alone. Today may be the firing day, as the heat of the moment tempers and hardens the clay. Today may be any of these days. Hope is the belief that this present day is not the final day, that there is another day when the pottery will be finished and put to new use.


            Now, to say that we are only clay, doesn’t mean we are helpless, inanimate objects that are totally at the mercy of the potter - though there is some truth to that. In reality, we play a part. Hope is not passive. To wait in hope is not merely to sit idly by. Waiting in hope means becoming involved in the dream, working with the potter.


            There was a study done of concentration camp survivors. What were the common characteristics of those who did not succumb to disease and starvation in the camps? Victor Frankl was a living answer to that question. He was a successful Viennese psychiatrist before the Nazis threw him into such a camp. “There is only one reason,” he once said in a speech, “why I am here today. What kept me alive was you. Others gave up hope. I dreamed. I dreamed that someday I would be here, telling you how I, Victor Frankl, had survived the Nazi concentration camps. I’ve never been here before, I’ve never seen any of you before, I’ve never given this speech before. But in my dreams, in my dreams, I have stood before you and said these words a thousand times.”


            Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Traditionally, the focus of this day has been upon “Waiting in hope.” As a season in the Christian year, Advent anticipates both the birth of Christ and his long-awaited second coming. The first has already happened. As Christians, we believe that this scripture from Isaiah anticipated the coming of the Messiah, a desire fulfilled by the arrival of Jesus the Christ - his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Is this text only for a past experience, though, or is it a guide for us as we wait in hope for a new day to dawn. “The hopes and fears of all the years” are still there. We still wonder where God is, especially when rotten things happen, though we believe the Master Potter is at work. We still struggle with anger, and wonder why things happen as they do. Scripture gives us an example of how to express the anger and ask the questions. And it leads us toward confession.


            We can’t really see what tomorrow will look like. We do have hints. We can dream. Today is not all there is. Furthermore, we can call out as we wait in hope. "Come, Lord Jesus(Revelation 22:21b).


            The hands of the potter are still at work. If you believe this, would you stand and sing our final hymn:   “Bless’d be the God of Israel”  #174.

©2014 (adapted from 1996Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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