Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9
I think there a lot of people who might think that 2020 is the worst year they have ever lived through. I know for some people there have been some real bright spots and moments that are truly worth celebrating. For most of us though, 2020 it’s been a lot. It may feel like the worst year ever, but historians are quick to point it could always be worse. For instance, a little over a century ago was the last time a global pandemic raged. That influenza pandemic also led to mask mandates and shut downs, but there happened to also be a world war being fought at the same time. Another really bad year was 1816. This is known as the year without summer. A massive volcano eruption spewed so much material into the atmosphere that in Europe and North America it snowed in June and fell below freezing in July. That same year there were a lot of disease outbreaks. While it did not reach global pandemic levels, those with the means to do so chose to shelter in place. However, in 2018 Michael McCormick pinpointed 536 as the worst year in human history. That year also saw climate change caused by a volcano eruption. This eruption though led to a climate cool down that lasted for a decade. On top of that, 536 was also the year that the Justinian plague began. This pandemic ended up wiping out about half of the global population at that time. Ecclesiastes 1:9 proclaims “there is nothing new under the son”, and there seems to be a lot of truth to that biblical wisdom. Even though the bible was written centuries ago in a completely different cultural context we can often find some shocking similarities between the experiences and attitudes expressed then and today. Though the circumstances are quite a bit different, I think we can identify quite a bit with this morning’s scripture. Just like Isaiah, we too can find what we need to do the most right now is place ourselves in the hands of God the Father.
I know not everyone geeks out about biblical studies the way I do, but behind the scenes this scripture is an interesting one from a scholarly perspective. The focus of this section of Isaiah comes after the fall of Jerusalem. We stopped at verse nine, but verse ten makes it clear this scripture is set in a time after the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, burned the temple, and hauled the people off into exile. What makes this so interesting, is that this event did not happen until decades after Isaiah’s ministry and life. Biblical scholars offer two explanations. The first thought is that Isaiah as a prophet was speaking towards this future event. The other prevalent theory is that the book of Isiah was likely complied by disciples of Isaiah, and the later chapters sometimes referred to as 3 Isaiah, actually contain the writers of these prophetic disciples who continued on in Isaiah’s tradition. The origins of this morning scripture, while fascinating, do not change the validity or the truth of this morning’s scripture.
In broad terms we can paint a picture of the cultural and historical backdrop of this scripture that has elements that feel similar to today. There are two distinct ways where these similarities are evident. This was a time of upheaval and uncertainty for the ancient Israelites. Their entire way of life had been upended, their future was full of uncertainty, and there was a struggle to define and understand a new normal. Arguably, the experience of being conquered and exiled is far worse than anything we have endured this year, but that feeling of uncertainty, the feeling of our way of life being upended, and struggling with (or resisting the idea of ) a new normal are feelings that all too familiar to us right now.
The second similarity is in cultural religious attitudes. The Israelites were technically a people of faith. Their cultural history and identity was steeped in being God’s chosen people. The temple was understood to be the place on earth where God was most physically present and it was central to the city of Jerusalem. Yet, the people struggled to be faithful. This is clearly seen in the biblical history books of 1 and 2 Kings as well as in the writings of all the prophets. The Israelites kept turning away from God and the focus of their worship and devotion were on false idols and empty promises. This morning’s scripture accurately portrays the feelings of this time in verse 7: “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you.” Again, while the American cultural religious landscape is not the bleak I think we can identify with the feeling of a great turning away from God. American culture arguably still has a lot of Christian influence, the fact that we are quickly finding ourselves in the Christmas season speaks a lot to that influence. However, it also appears that American culture is quickly moving to post-Christian. It is easy to blame this on a whole host of reasons, but we have to wrestle with the fact that the problem is coming from within. Among people who regularly attend church biblical literacy has reached an all-time low, and people walking away or fading away from the faith has reached an all-time high. For instance, Thom Rainer of the website churchanswers.org estimates that on average 20% of people who attended church before the pandemic are not coming back, to any church, ever.
Given these broad similarities, a lot of people today probably really identify with the language used at the beginning of this morning’s scripture. It reads, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!” There are a lot of people who really resonate with the idea of God coming down here with some good old fashioned biblical wrath and cleaning this place up. This also is not a new thought. The whole book of Isaiah is full of verses that look to the future, that look towards a day when God comes to earth brining redemption, restoration, and justice. This consistent theme in Isaiah resonated with the Israelites during and after the exile. It continued with them after the temple was rebuilt and the promises of these scriptures fueled a lot of the messianic expectation that was present during the time of Jesus. Today many would like to see God come guns ablazin’ to knock sense into people who are not acting right, and that is similar to the messianic outlook that was held in the time of Jesus. The faithful Jews of the day were looking for a messiah who would come with shock and awe, who would make God’s name known to Israel’s enemies and cause the nations to quake in fear and trepidation. Because that is what they were looking for, the vast majority of those awaiting the Messiah missed it when not only did the Messiah come, but God became fully incarnate on earth.
If the way we are expecting God to work in the world or the way that we are anticipating the second coming of the messiah is similar in fashion, then we too might be looking in the wrong direction. The problem with putting a focus on what God is going to do to fix the world, is that it puts all of the focus on what God is going to do on other people. When our expectation and hope is that God is going to fix what is wrong with the world, we tend to being the viewing the world form only our own perspective. We think of what needs to change only from our point of view. The people we view as having to shape up the most, tend to be the people we disagree with the most. Again, this is not a new understanding. The Jews of Jesus day thought that the Messiah was going to deliver them from the Gentiles, not bring salvation to the gentiles as well. Instead of focusing on what we think God should do to others, we should read to the end of this morning’s scripture.
Ultimately this morning’s scripture put the focus not on others, but on ourselves. Verse six acknowledges that when it comes to following God, we all fall short. It points out that before God “all of us have become like one who is unclean.” When we stand in judgement of others then as this morning’s scripture says “all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” It can feel good to separate ourselves into groups, and claim that those people do not know how to act right. Doing so those ignores the fact that we all stand in need of a savior. At the foot of the cross there are no factions, groups, parties, or those people. We all stand in need of grace. Our focus should not be on how God can change others, but it should be on how God can change us. As verse eight states, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
As already stated, this year has been a lot. Given all that has happened, given all the uncertainty, it is tempting to focus on wanting God to change everything else, but the starting point should be our own hearts. If we want God to come down and change the world, then let’s start by inviting God to change our own hearts. Let us be willing to offer ourselves up as clay in the hand of the Father. When a potter works with clay, they often have to stretch it and really work with it to form it. It is not instantaneous and it is not always easy. In the same entrusting our very beings to God will stretch us in ways we are not expecting, it will take us down paths that are not always easy. However, it will transform us. May we let God mold us, shape us, and form us in to image that God has for us.
This year feels unprecedented, but there is nothing new under the sun. Yet, it is with great expectation that we can look forward to God bringing about great change. We can fully anticipate that God can and will make us new through God’s son. May you expect God to come down again and bring change, but may the change be in your heart. May you be willing to offer yourself up as a ball of clay that through the Holy Spirit God can transform. May we better become God’s people who wait on God and who gladly do right.