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Isaiah was reminiscing the good old days here. The good old days he perhaps had never seen. If we look at our Hebrew Bible history, this communal lament in Isaiah lies between the exile of Judah and Israel and before the rebuilding of the temple. The economy was ruined, the nation state was no more, and Isaiah stood among the ruins with the people, wondering the questions all of us ask when we can see nothing good. Both the religious and political leaders cared more for their own monetary gain than the people. The Hebrews had returned to Zion, only to find it in ruins. Why doesn’t God show up? Why does God remain hidden?
Remember? Isaiah demands, of God, of the people, of himself. Remember when God intervened for us? When God showed up out the blue, and we didn’t have to wait? Remember, O Lord, when you said you’d comfort your people?
Remember? As Isaiah looks at the crowd, them staring blankly back at them. They do not remember. The exile, the destruction, is all they’ve known. Like their ancestors with Moses, wondering in the wilderness after escape from Egypt only to die. And yet Isaiah urges: Remember when we felt God’s presence in the sky, around us, when we were in love with God? When God was in love with us?
Remember? Isaiah pleads to the sky, willing the divine to move. Remember when you’d show up with your mighty deeds? Remember your covenants with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Remember how you delivered Moses and your people out of Egypt? Remember?
Isaiah is honest with God. He expresses his frustrations with understanding God’s ways. He wonders if God will abandon those whom God loves. Isaiah’s bitterness in his voice expresses frustration, weariness, and resignation.
Isaiah sighs. The wind remains still, and Isaiah can hear crows in the distance. No, it doesn’t seem as if even God remembered.
We’ve been there, right? The times when God’s presence seemed so near to us now feels like a distant memory. Do you recall knowing the divine presence was near? I remember walking the aisle at my little Baptist church in Centertown, Missouri, expressing that I had decided to follow Christ, and knowing my life would be forever changed. It was scary, really, to walk up in front of all those people (in reality, there were only like 30 people in church, and I was related to half of them). Or, when I join my not-so-great-singing voice with others in my church to sing on Easter “Christ the Lord has Risen Today! Made like him, like him we rise!”
Those moments are punctuated by silence, somewhat like the communal lament of Isaiah we read today. When the world seemed to be turning upside down, the longing in this lament is almost unbearable. Isaiah perhaps seems himself as a mediator between God and the people. The promise of the relationship between God and the people is perhaps the only thing that sustains Isaiah and his community during this time, even if this promise was many years ago.i Isaiah, the good negotiater he is, is in solidarity with the people, but also wants to commune with the divine.
Isaiah, in his stubborn faith, invokes whatever he can to stir God to act, to remind his community of God’s promises.
He recalls the imagery of potter and clay, Isaiah may be thinking of the creation account in Genesis, where God forms humanity out of the muck. He may also be reminding the people that this creation account was also a covenantal account. The medieval theologian Julian of Norwich describes God as creating “out of the slime of the earth.” Out of the dirtiness of the earth. The God who crafted humanity’s every bone, who made every organ with a purpose. And because God so lovingly crafted humanity, nothing could separate God from God’s people. Certainly the God who cared enough to form them so thoughtfully would not forget them.
Isaiah, in his stubborn faith, attempts to will the divine to act, blames God’s suddenness for the people’s sin. Sin could be the cause of God’s absence. Because you were angry, Isaiah tells God, then, and only then, we sinned. Because we did not see you, we took matters into our own hands. God’s suddenness led to the people’s impatience, which led them to sin.
Yep, me too.
I tend not to be a patient person. I hate, hate waiting in lines, so if I’m at a potluck, I’ll just sit down and chit chat until the line shortens. As you can imagine, I’m a delight to go Christmas shopping with.
I was somewhat tired when decorating the Christmas tree. So instead of calculating in my head the strands of lights in the tree and wrapping it accordingly, I just whirled the strands around, so that the top section has plenty of lights, but the bottom? Yeah, Not so much. And in the middle of adorning the tree with the ornaments, our freshly cut tree fell over, spraying needles and ornaments all over the floor.
Let’s just say I was ready to be done. We put the important ornaments up, the ones from family members, the monogrammed ones, the ones that if our loved ones came over, they would be looking for them. But we didn’t put all of them up. And we haven’t yet decorated the staircase. But I was tired, and hungry, and frustrated, so I lugged the boxes down to the basement, swept up the needles, and ate some dinner. My impatience led me to a good enough tree. If I was grading it, maybe a C. Maybe
While this example is hilariously small in light of what Isaiah and the people are feeling, waiting for God to make the world right is hard. Our patience wears thin. We look at our world today, crumbling under rising inequality and corruption. Turning on the news causes more stress. We see refugees and the homeless and cannot possibly help all those who need it. We feel the burdens of our jobs and family responsibilities that seem unsustainable. Our world is tumbling upside down. O Lord, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
And yet, the season of advent prompts us to pause, to wait. To wait and hope. We live in an unfinished world, and the nearness of God is not always apparent. Sometimes we see God clearly, sometimes we cannot see the divine among us. As the Apostle Paul writes, we see through a glass dimly. As the world waited centuries for the Messiah, so the rhythms of Advent prompt us to wait, to linger in the moments, to hold onto the expectation. The essence of hope.
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann perhaps puts it best—the tension of the here and not yet, the waiting and restlessness. Moltmann writes in the aftermath of the death camps in Auschwitz of World War II, when theological trends and Time magazine were pronouncing the “death of God” and nihilism seemed to pervade the world. As a teenager, Moltmann himself had been conscripted in the Nazi army, and was a POW during that time. After the war ends, and he goes to college, he writes his very first book about hope.
faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but hope is itself this unquiet heart in humanity. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with the reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world.ii
So maybe this restlessness isn’t all bad—maybe our impatience has purpose. Maybe we can be patiently impatient. Or impatiently patient—whatever you prefer. I must say, the title of this sermon isn’t original—I saw it while browsing on social media by a guy inspired by this saying by Moltmann.
But it makes sense, especially in light of advent. Patiently impatient. We see Isaiah as patiently impatient—demanding God to act, appeasing the people in the process. We see Mary in her little sermon known as the Magnificat as patiently impatient, knowing the Christ child would lift up the lowly.
If we take a cue from Moltmann, and refuse to put up with the reality as it is, our waiting isn’t without results, or impatience came be put to good use. There are some things where we know the Spirit is moving—like within what the church is doing, or in the cries for justice. Even when God’s face seems hidden, and hope seems futile, we can do what we can, in our small ways, to attest to the love of God who does not let us go.
The English medieval theologian Julian of Norwich does this. In a world turning upside down, marked by the plague, church corruption, and the 100 years war, she wonders with the people: “How can all things be made well?” She sticks with what she knows, that God’s love for us is overwhelming, and that this overwhelming love is so great that it flows into love for other people. She never answers the question– “How can all things be made well?” But she knows, in her patient impatience, that God’s care for the people means “all manner of things shall be made well.”
We see this patient impatience in the black Baptist preacher Martin Luther King and his struggle for civil rights. He declares “the arc of the moral universe is long, and bends toward justice.” Yet, instead of waiting around for that bending to happen, he organizes protests, sit-ins, and marches. He writes in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.….This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Personally, I myself have struggled with this impatient patience. As someone who lives in the here and not yet of doctoral work, and job anxiety, and in just an in-between space generally, a professor from Central Baptist Seminary, where I got my MDiv, pressed me. What happens if things don’t go as planned? He asked. I stumbled and flustered. Theology has been my love since I was in high school. I couldn’t give him a response. He said: this is what you can do now. You can always write what God has given you. You can always preach. Do what you can in the moment. While your impatient, act. Make the waiting worthwhile.
And I know your church in particular seems to be in this waiting, in-between period. As you discern the Spirit’s working in the life of your church, and wonder what will happen next, it may feel scary or uncertain, as if God is absent. Thank goodness for a patient impatience, and for Isaiah, who both reminds us that God has, and will do great things, even when we screw up, and even when God seems far away.
Because we know God always lingers, in the slime of the earth and in the hands that form us with love and care. The hands that created us will not fail us.
We realize that on this first Sunday in advent, marked by hope, patient impatience may just be the essence of hope. It’s this stubborn faith in God, and God’s stubborn holding on to us.
iPaul D. Hanson, Isaiah III, Interpreter’s Commentary Series, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995, 240.
iiJurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, New York: SCM Press, 1967, 21.
*Inspiration for this title came from this tweet: https://twitter.com/RodneyDHall/status/935640755519000576