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Sun, Dec 03, 2017

All Our Righteous Deeds

Duration:16 mins 18 secs

“All Our Righteous Deeds”

Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9

First Sunday of Advent, Year B

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” This is the prayer of someone who has given up on conventional prayers. It is the raw, primal cry of a person who has been knocking on heaven’s door so long his knuckles are bleeding. It is the prayer of someone who has given up on polite, churchy-sounding prayers – who, in fact, has almost given up on God.

That’s what makes it an Advent prayer. Advent, if you pay close attention to it, can feel like a splash of cold water in the face. The appointed Scriptures for the first two Sundays of Advent are about wrath and judgment and the absence of God. The pulpit hangings are purple, a penitential color. Advent delivers a dose of gloom and doom in what is culturally the most festive month of the year. The somber mood of Advent may be unwelcome to many of us, but for many others Advent is the perfect expression of the way things really are.

As the days darken toward the winter solstice, we become painfully aware that the world is out of joint, and we are incapable of fixing it; that things are not as they should be, and don’t show any signs of getting better. Advent is the season when we talk about the absence of God. The Gospel texts for the season wrestle with the problem of the delayed return of Christ, who, we’ve heard, is supposed to come to set the world right. In his absence, we have a longing we don’t know how to satisfy – a longing for peace and wholeness, some essential rightness with the world. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” the prophet says, “and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” Advent is the time to admit that we cannot save ourselves – yet the one who can save us seems very far away. “You have hidden your face from us,” the prophet says, reproachfully, to God.

The prophet Isaiah was writing at the time when the people of Israel were getting re-established in their homeland after returning from exile with great jubilation. They had started rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem and setting up some governmental structures. But now they are dealing with dashed hopes and diminished expectations. There is partisan rancor, quarreling and dissension among different groups. The nations on their borders are rattling their swords. There are economic troubles. The bright hopes of the return from exile are being overtaken by a mood of darkness and chaos. There is still pain and ugliness in the world, and God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.

Isaiah’s world doesn’t sound so different from the world we know. Each week we hear news of ethnic cleansing being carried out in Myanmar, new and more deadly ISIS attacks, tensions escalating between the U.S. and North Korea; and our national political life takes an ever steeper descent into ugliness.

Today’s Scripture is not just a lament, it is also a call to repentance. The prophet struggles to come to terms with God’s absence and the people’s faithlessness. It is a call to national repentance, the repentance of a whole people, not just a few individual souls.

I think the idea of collective repentance, a mourning for communal sin, is something we have lost in this country. I don’t think I’m speaking out of partisan politics when I say that the growing alliance of so-called conservative Christians with the nativist, protectionist, and wealth-favoring agenda of the current White House is something of a scandal in Christendom. Prominent conservatives and evangelicals have in fact condemned this alliance. For example, Jim Wallis, an evangelical activist, and Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, have recently written in the Post to voice their alarm over religious conservatives’ capitulation to – even cultivation of – alt-right groups and white-identity politics, its winking at sexual predators, and its embrace of tax policies that disproportionately hurt the poor and benefit the rich. Wallis and Gerson have said rightly that these things are not Christian. It’s tempting to point the finger of judgment, but the fact is, the whole American Christian church is implicated in these distortions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I can’t help wondering how the church has produced Christians in whom the core Christian values of humility, hospitality to the stranger, and concern for the poor have so weak a hold. Have the church’s teaching and example been so timid that “Christian” doesn’t mean anything anymore, it’s just a marker of tribal identity? If that is the case, if that is what American Christianity is coming to, then truly even our “righteous deeds” are “a filthy cloth.” Wallis says that American Christians have not really reckoned with the spiritual climate that has been created in our country, and the spiritual obligation we have to repair it.1

I think we are still very far away from a mood of national repentance, and we ourselves may feel helpless against the currents of mean-spiritedness, bigotry, vindictiveness, and greed that seem to be sweeping away everything we hold valuable as Christians. Maybe an appropriate act of repentance for us would be simply to examine the ways in which we silently acquiesce to this deformation of our faith and its values – and when we hear these unchristian attitudes expressed by those who wear the Christian label, to speak against them. Maybe our small acts of resistance can be a form of collective repentance.

Listen again to the prophet: “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. …you have hidden your face from us.” These are hard words. But Advent calls us to look as fearlessly into the dark as the prophet did: at the darkness in our world and at those places of darkness in our own hearts, and to acknowledge our need of a Savior. Without this exploration of the darkness, the meaning of Christmas itself is lost.

Christmas becomes for us exactly what it is for the secular world, a glitzy celebration that has no enduring meaning beyond the pile of tinsel and presents, a toast to “good times” that will be over all too soon. Christmas belongs to the whole world now, but Advent belongs uniquely to the Christian church. And in spite of the apparent gloominess of the Advent Scriptures, the spirit of Advent is a spirit of hopefulness. It is not shallow optimism, it’s not denial, but a true hopefulness that dares to take account of life as it really is, and of ourselves as we really are, and not give in to the temptation to give up on God. Why is the Lord so slow to return to set things right? We do not know. God could well ask us, Why are we so slow to set things right? What are we doing here on the ground to make things better?

What we do know is that God really did “tear open the heavens and come down,” in the flesh of a human infant, who lived and died to let us know that however hidden, silent, and inaccessible God may seem, God does not will to be a stranger to us. God does not give up on us, and the evidence of that is in Jesus Christ himself.

C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.” The promise of that joy is our Advent hope. It is hope that can sustain us through the upheavals of life as it is now, and give us courage to act for and not against human flourishing. It is the joy that is promised to those who refuse to give up on God.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

December 3, 2017

1Jim Wallis, “How Donald Trump’s presidency is warping American Christianity,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2017, B3.

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