Our technician didn't get this one recorded, so you won't be able to listen to it. But here is the print version.
Advent I; December 3, 2017
There have been times I've begged God to make some sort of show of power. When a greed-crazed CEO raises medication prices astronomically, do something about him. When government considers another way to cushion the lives of the well-off and stick the middle class with the bill, show them your strong arm. When society at large scorns the commitments of those who are dedicated to you, come in force.
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!
We tell stories from the Bible of God's power. When God's people were slaves in Egypt, the story is that God was not subtle about it, but that God sent ten plagues to show the government the error of its ways so that God's people would be freed. God used blood, frogs, lice, flies, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death to make the Lord's name known to God's adversaries, and the nation of Egypt did tremble at God's presence.
When the prophet Elijah was beset by unfaithfulness, he met the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal prepared an altar and a sacrifice and they danced around it, chanting and praying and even cutting themselves, but nothing happened. Then Elijah rebuilt the altar of the Lord, prepared a sacrificial bull, and even poured massive amounts of water over it. He simply prayed, "Show the people that you, O Lord, are God" and fire came from the sky and consumed the sacrifice.
So the poet of Isaiah 64 reminds God of "awesome deeds that we did not expect" and begs God, "Do something wonderful again." "Show them that you are God." Give them what they have coming to them and vindicate us, O God.
I get that. Maybe you do, too. Maybe you wish your struggle in life would be easier by God making some great show of power, tearing open the heavens and coming down and setting fires and shaking mountains.
So look at what God did. The only tearing open of the heavens was to make way for angels to sing, "Glory to God in the highest." And that was over quickly. God's great show of power was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. I'm calling that a holy inversion: that the great God whose word inaugurated a "big bang" to create the universe and who sent plagues to Egypt and fire to Mount Carmel chooses to be a weak, helpless child, submitting all this power and fire to the loving care of a young woman and her husband.
Our God is the God of upside-down, the God of holy inversions. Mary herself sang about that when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, when Elizabeth said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary replied that the Lord
Has brought down the powerful from their thrones
And lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
The God of holy inversions feeds the hungry and starves the wealthy; the God of holy inversions knocks down the powerful and raises up the lowly. Even God, the powerful God, takes the way of weakness and snoozes late at night in a manger, rather than shaking mountains and setting the rivers to boil.
Perhaps some of the turmoil we are experiencing now as a society is a holy inversion. Many powerful men have been brought down from their thrones as women have found their voices and been lifted up from their lowliness. We are struggling as a society to be fair and just, and as those who have been on the outs seek to find their place those who have held power fight to hold onto those places. If the God who creates the stars and the starfish chooses to hear our prayer for a show of power by giving us instead a show of weakness, then perhaps holy inversion should not come as a surprise.
The poet appears to me to think better of his plea by the end of our passage. The poet confesses that "we all" are sinners and unclean and then takes up a very different song from at the beginning: "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; We are the clay, and you are our potter; We are all the work of your hand."
We are all the work of your hand. Not just my party, not just my church, not just my family or ethnic group or socioeconomic class: we are all the work of your hand. And lest God forget or we forget, our passage concludes with the simple plea, "Now consider, we are all your people." When you created us, when you breathed life into us, when you shaped our evolution from the microbes to the present, you made us all your people. You said that you would make us in your image: not just white folks, not just African folks or Asian folks or native folks; not just men, not just women; not just people who speak English nor just people who speak Spanish or those who speak Nuer.
Now consider, we are all your people. Elijah for sure, but the prophets of Baal, too. Even the Pharaoh of Egypt, whose heart was so hardened after each plague until the last. We are all your people. Displays of power, shaking mountains and plagues will get people's attention for a while. But to remember that we are all God's people and for God to reach all of us: that takes a holy inversion, such as a certain baby, sleeping in a manger.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master