Sunday, November 29, 2020
"The World Is Turning"
Pastor Scott Landis
The Canticle of Turning – the first verse and the chorus of which you have just heard – is a beautiful and challenging song based on Mary’s Magnificat. Its words are prophetic in ways that resonate with our Advent themes. I’ve asked Amanda Eller to sing one verse and the chorus each week so that you might listen to those challenges, and also to allow the tune to sink in as you hear it repeatedly. We’ll sing the whole song together on the Sunday after Christmas as a way of culminating the entire season.
A prominent theme of the song is given voice in the chorus: “for the world is about to turn.” This is Advent in a nutshell, and this is our reality today, as we hope and as we wait for some exciting new possibilities that we’re just beginning to see on the horizon. Even here, today, we are experiencing that turning as we have switched to a whole new electronic format for virtual worship, AND as we reopened our doors to a limited number of in-person participants. The world IS turning.
We hear the promises of a vaccine that may first, ensure the health and safety of those working on the front lines, and later the general public, so that we can gather together again in relative safety. The world IS turning.
We listen, with anticipation, to words from a president-elect promising hope and healing, restoration and reconciliation. Regardless of who you voted for we sense something new in the offing. The world IS turning.
Today, we embark on a whole new liturgical year. It begins with Advent Sunday, and we are drawn to prophetic voices calling for change even in our scriptures. The world IS turning.
Our lesson today comes from the prophet Isaiah, speaking to a group of beleaguered Hebrews who were living apart from their homeland. Their temple lay in ruins preventing them from worshiping in the ways to which they were accustomed. They longed for what they remembered. And they struggled with the reasonable question of “why?” Why had this happened to them? Only, to be followed by, “did we do something wrong to deserve this?” Were they not living righteously? Were we not living pono?
They were operating out of the assumption that God holds God’s people to a certain standard and fully accountable for every action. And if they didn’t measure up, they would pay. Punishment being their only recourse. And while they pleaded for God to intervene into their lives and change their lot – God seemingly remained silent, distant, unavailable. You might say God was giving them “the silent treatment.” And that scared them. A lot!
Personally, I find this assumption of how God acts – or doesn’t act – rather troubling. I was never reared with the notion of a God who watches over me like some “Santa Claus” making a list and checking it twice – which then resulted in specific consequences for my actions. But I heard something recently that gave me pause and forced me to reflect on my understanding – wondering whether my beliefs did, in fact, square with the scriptures. [Pause]
The other evening Randy and I were sitting out on our lanai talking with some friends when another person came along and joined the conversation. At some point we began discussing the virus, its terrible effects – especially on the mainland, and challenges faced in treatment or cure. Well into the conversation our guest asserted the belief that this was God’s “punishment” on us for some unknown reason. As soon as I heard this, I began to squirm in my seat.
“Really,” I thought. “You believe God would actually do that?” I bit my lip. Kept my thoughts to myself. Because I could tell, this comment was coming from a very different theological understanding than what I believe.
Now, I do believe there are consequences for my actions. Like, if I don’t look both ways before crossing the street the likelihood of my getting hit by a car on S. Kīhei Road are quite high. And, like Smokey the Bear has warned me repeatedly, I concur, “only I can prevent forest fires.” I have to be careful. Foolish actions HAVE attributable consequences. If I don’t wash my hands and maintain proper physical distance or wear a facemask in the midst of this pandemic, the chances are much higher that I might either communicate or receive the disease.
But I don’t believe God punishes us with illness, or accidents, or tragedy for no apparent reason – and particularly not on a grand scale simply to get us to “behave.”
Can God use the pandemic to get our attention? You betcha. Does God inflict an illness upon society of this magnitude to scare us into proper behavior? If that’s the case, I don’t want any part of that God. That is NOT the God of my understanding. The God who wants nothing more than for me to live in right relationship with my neighbors and with God. The God who, I believe, calls for me to live – pono.
If you read carefully these words from Isaiah, you see another idea about God that is also problematic given the sequence. The Hebrew writer is obviously struggling with which came first – the chicken or the egg – as the shift is made from God punishing for bad behavior to the people sinning because God had apparently abandoned them. With words like, “But YOU were angry, and we sinned; because YOU hid yourself we transgressed.”
The writer of Isaiah was still searching for a cause-and-effect relationship with God – but that doesn’t seem to be the way God operates. God, instead, wants us to yield as the writer finally concluded. “You, O God, are the potter – we are the clay.” [Pause]
I’ve only had the opportunity to try my hand at pottery a few times in my life. I know very little about the techniques, the correct consistency of the clay, the glazing and firing that follows. But I do remember it is a process you cannot rush. It takes time and patience to shape the desired vessel – as slowly the potter’s hands gently guide the clay into a hoped-for outcome. You could say, the potter and the clay have a kind of intimate relationship in a process of becoming – one in which both learn from the other in the give and take of formation.
It took the Hebrews a long time to learn that. In silence, and in intense presence – God was gently shaping them into the people that would become a great nation. A nation that often made mistakes and suffered the consequences, AND one that periodically got it right and experienced overwhelming joy.
Learning that lesson takes time – sometimes a life-time. I believe, Advent invites us into a time of learning. As we light candles, sing carols, decorate our homes, and prepare for the coming of Jesus – let us also yield – our lives, our prayer to the One who longs to shape an intimate relationship of pono with us - as the world is beginning to turn.