Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 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. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

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. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

SERMON A Time to Wait 11.29.20
Remember what it was like back in March when everything first shut down? Remember how careful everybody was. I remember wearing plastic gloves to grocery store and using a disinfecting wipe on everything before even bringing them into the house. I doubt any of us are doing stuff like that now.

And remember at first thinking, “Oh no…This might go on for weeks!” And when we first heard them talking about months we found it hard to imagine what it would be like if this went on for months. We now know it will be well over a year.

Initially it felt as though our lives came to a standstill, except for those poor people like doctors and nurseries and grocery store clerks.

I remember I wrote to all of you every day for the first few weeks….sent out a Daily Devotional where I did my best to theologically reflect upon what we were going through…frankly I didn’t know what else I could do at that point…hadn’t figured out Zoom yet… and whether you found those devotionals helpful or not I can say that I found it helpful writing them.

So this week I looked up the first one I sent to you at that time. In it I suggested that we had suddenly found ourselves thrust into a Wilderness and I connected it to the wilderness experience of the Ancient Hebrews. I thought about their first days there and the logistical problems they initially faced….what would they eat? Where would they find water? What if someone needed medical care?

So too we found ourselves trying to figure out the logistics of living in a pandemic. We learned about things like Instacart and Doordash. We were relieved to find out that we could get just about anything we needed on Amazon. And somehow we survived the initial toilet paper famine.

At first there were just so many unknowns. But slowly and surely we started to figure things out and the reality is that now we know a lot more…even if a lot of what we have learned is not necessarily good news….and at the top of the bad news list is just how long this thing will last…how long we will have to wait before we can gather face to face again….hold hands in a big circle in our sanctuary and sing We Are One in the Spirit…sit down together for our weekly post-worship feast in the Community Room.

Those of you who have started coming during this pandemic, wait til you see what happens every Sunday after church when we’re able to gather together. Just wait. It’s great!

Waiting…This is the first Sunday of Advent…..a season that reminds us that we are waiting. Some would say we are waiting for the birthday of that little babe in a manger…That this is a gestational period…that in some ways, even those of us who are incapable of giving birth are pregnant…expecting….awaiting for one to be born not only in our world but also in us.

And while I have never given birth, I understand that such waiting can be a test of patience and endurance. All I can say is just be grateful you aren’t an elephant whose gestation period lasts 350 days…or even worse, a frilled shark whose gestation period last 3 and a half years!

Of course some would say that we are also waiting for Jesus to come again…to finish what he began….which, if his intent was to usher in a new kingdom, a new realm of peace and justice on earth, he obviously didn’t finish.

The earliest followers of Jesus thought he’d be back any day…so they waited and then they waited some more…thinking that any day…any day he’d come back. It’s why the gospels didn’t get written until long after Jesus’ death…because they thought he was coming back any day. But eventually, after waiting a few decades, somebody figured out that it might be a while so they had better start writing some stuff down…and thank goodness they did.

Years ago, driving through the very rural south, I remember seeing lots of signs that said, “Jesus is coming!” They usually looked hastily painted on a piece of wood…maybe attached to a barn or a post and stuck into the ground. I must admit Jesus’ return is not something I think about often….but for some it is still just around the corner and I was reminded of that driving through the rural south in the mid 60’s…seeing those hastily made signs.

But then one day I think I was in Tennessee, I saw a sign that was very different. The message was the same…Jesus is coming… but the letters had been carefully stenciled onto a carefully painted white board, framed by stones that had been cemented together and then set on a large cement slab. That sign was meant to last for a very long time. Jesus might be coming but the owner of that sign was open to the possibility that it could be a very long time before he came!

Advent is a about waiting…. for a birth….for a return….for this to be over….and it looks like we’ve got a lot more waiting ahead, don’t we?

Actually life involves a lot of waiting, doesn’t it? You call the doctor’s office to set up an appointment and we are put on hold, a hold filled with irritating music. You’re waiting for a package, or for your spouse to get home. You wonder if the rains will ever come or if the winds will ever stop. You have to wait until the paint dries or the pot boils. You wonder if you’ll ever find true love in your life or that job you’ve been looking for. And yes, will this Pandemic EVER come to an end? This is a waiting time.

Of course having to wait is nothing new. The Bible is filled with stories about waiting. The children of Israel were caught as slaves in Egypt for an impossible length of time. They longed to be set free but they had to wait for years.

And when they finally got out they get stuck in the wilderness for 40 years. 40 years!! We’re talking a couple of generations….little ones born who never experienced the bondage of slavery….a whole generation of old ones dying out without ever making it to the Promised Land.

Today’s reading comes from a time many years later…after they made it to the Promised land….after they built their temple…after generations of Kings….after they were conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile. Kicked out of their homeland they are now living as captives in Babylon…longing for the God of Sinai, the God of the burning bush…longing for God to tear open the heavens and come down.

But it would be years before that would happen. They would have to wait.

The story of the exile is very different from the story of the Exodus and the Wilderness period in one very important way. The Exodus is a story about liberation and the Wilderness period is a story about the formation of identity and community. But the story of the Exile is a story about repentance.

Living in exile many years later the Israelites came to understand what had happened to them…that being conquered and losing their homeland…was their own fault….that they had really messed up and needed to take a good long look at themselves. They thought about how they had come up short in terms of being the people God had called them to be and building the kind of community that God had called them build.

So what about this Pandemic….this waiting time that has been uexpectedly thrust upon us.

While some may rightfully argue with me, I personally tend to think we bear a lot of responsibility for this. I really believe that we have messed up our planet so badly that God…or Mother Nature if you prefer…decided we needed to be put in time out for a while. And it’s serious enough that we are already being told that others are to come unless we make some very big changes in how we relate to this planet and the beings that inhabit it.

So maybe this isn’t a Wilderness we’re in so much as an exile. And I’m hearing a call to repentance.

But I believe that out of exile something new might be born….that this waiting time might be a time of liberation from old ideologies that have gotten us nowhere….a time to understand human community as transcending national boundaries….and political party and religion and skin tone.

Yes, these truly do feel like dark times, but earlier in Isaiah that same prophet who now cries out to God from exile in Babylon, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” once heard God’s voice say, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”

In this waiting time, what if we were to believe in and seek those treasures in the darkness…the riches hidden in secret places.

I know….it takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the dark….it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust to the night sky….but even just one lit Advent candle is enough to show us the way to Bethlehem….where we see the kind of God who slips in beside us in the middle of the night…the greatest treasure of all to be found in the darkness.

Have your eyes adjusted yet? Just wait….they will…and you’ll see him….because he never left us….he was always here.

Let us pray:
O God, yes, these are dark times, but we thank you…we praise you….for your presence with us here…even here…maybe especially here. Open our eyes to the signs of your goodness and grace, your mercy and peace, your justice and compassion among us….move our hearts, our minds, and our bodies to be the bearers of your bottomless and boundless love in this world so that others might know that you are still here and that you never left us. May we see the signs dear God. And may we BE the signs. Amen.