Isaiah 64: 1-9 (NRSV) 12-3-17 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
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.
The language of Psalm 80, “Restore us, O God,” gives us our theme for this month of Advent. The language of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” gives us our focus for today; it is a plea for God to offer mercy, to return to a relationship that used to be close and intimate, but has become strained, stretched, and estranged. It is a plea for restoration.
The book of Isaiah was written in three different periods, the first about 150 years before the Exile, the second during the Exile, and then the last about 50 years after the Exile. Today’s reading is from that last portion, when the Grandchildren of the Exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem. When they arrived, having grown up on glory-day stories of a city and Temple build to honor God, they found a city and Temple still in ruins, and the ancestors of the remnant who were left behind were squatters living in the ruins. They must have felt abandoned by God, and this prayer written by someone in the tone of Isaiah, is a plea to God to return in strength and glory, to destroy and remove the devastation, and then restore the city and Temple.
Restoration always comes with destruction first—think about our kitchen, which we will bless after church this morning.
This time of year, Advent, the first stories we are given are about the apocalypse, the destruction that must come before the restoration that comes from the re-birth of God. The Destruction before restoration, is rough, and yet there is comfort and peace in a future restored in better shape than the past.
This time of year always brings a nostalgia for times and traditions long past. The perfect Christmas to me seems elusively someplace between Victorian London, rural New England, and Grandma’s kitchen smelling of cinnamon and sage. Consumerism calls us to buy our way back to those Christmases past.
This year, I’m even more aware of the desire to go back to a time that we remember as better, a time of greatness, a time when God was on our side. We hear about making America great again and making Christianity great again. And I hear the echoes from Isaiah, “O that you would come down,” and the Psalm, “Restore us, O God;” makes us great again, O God.
Maybe we could use some restoration. The things we hold on to as dear seem to be overturning as a new world order makes itself present to us. Right now, we are redefining what it means for Black Lives to Matter, for immigrant Dreamers to live in our country, for poor people to have voice and choice over their lives, for women to name for themselves what is appropriate respect, and for people of faith to publicly claim their beliefs. We are debating what it means to be stewards of the Earth, and with our new Person of the Planet group, we are talking about how to restore our environment before the almost inevitable apocalypse occurs.
As the unwritten rules and systems of our society shift, and it feels like society is breaking down, we nostalgically hold onto a past that was never as peaceful as our memory tells us. We are redefining what it means to be human, to relate to one another, to relate to God, and there is a tension between the push for justice now and the nostalgic memories of a peaceful past.
So, with the ancients, we say, “Restore us, O God.”
But restore us to what? A time of naïve despoiling of the earth’s treasures through unbridled mining and black smoke spewing out of every factory chimney? A time when child labor and 6, 12-hour-day work weeks were common? A time when women were housewives, hostesses, and helpless creatures requiring men to not only protect and save them, but also fondle and grope them without their permission? A time when sewage ran openly in the streets? A time when travelling across open fields of snow in a sleigh meant frostbite or worse?
My sense of the present is a time of turmoil, trouble, and triumphant egotism. The future looks bleak and barren. But my memories of the past are beautified, and romanticized. So, restore us, O God, to a time that looks like those beautiful snow-covered memories of New England sleigh rides, and Victorian cobble-stoned streets, Grandma’s steamy, spicy kitchen, and stables where strangely sterile cows munch sweet smelling hay and sheep snuggle up to the sleeping Christ child.
Restore us, O God. Return, O Christ. Rebuild your relationship with us. Bring good news to the poor, heal the broken hearted, bring release to the captives. Save us. Restore us, O God, to the bliss of Eden when Creation was new and we had not marred it with our misunderstanding of stewardship of the Earth. Restore us, O God, to a time of freedom from Pharaoh, and return us from Exile. Re-create the world of our memories, and us in it.
But do not make this restoration difficult; we are tired and we do not want to live in the messy, deconstruction and reconstruction of a world being restored to its former glory. Restore us with your magic, God, in an instant; wiggle your nose and make it so. Leave our gifts by the fireplace, O God, while we sleep. We do not want the sound of saws and hammers to cut into our peaceful reveries, the dust of tearing down to be tracked all over our neat and orderly lives or to clog our meditative breathing, nor do we want to haul the debris out to the dumpster.
Restore us, O God, to a time when the truth was convenient, and we could easily ignore your cries for justice, the cries of your people, and the cries of Creation.
But that time never really existed, did it? A perfect past is less likely than a perfect present. Nostalgia for cinnamon and sage, and snow-covered hills and sleigh-rides is just that: nostalgia. So, God remind us, too, that we cannot go back to a better time, and that restoration is messy, yet will lead us to new ways of living and being. Restore us, O God, not to something old and used up, but to something new, and comfort us during the renovation of our hearts.
Restore us, O God, nourish us and restore us, so that we have the energy to survive and thrive. As old ways come to an end and we get used to the new, as we wrap up one year and look toward another, as we prepare for your re-birth in our hearts, may we have the tools for renovation, the tolerance for the upcoming deconstruction, and the endurance for the work of reconstruction.
We wander in a wilderness, and the highways to you are rough and crooked. Restore us, O God; nourish us, that we can repave the crooked, uneven path to you. Restore us, O God, so that our newly renovated hearts might receive the light you rekindle within each of our hearts at Christmas. Restore us, O God, nourish us for renovation, so that when you rekindle and replace the light in our lives, it will live in a splendid palace of peace, a home of hospitality, and a world of extravagant welcome. Amen.