Justice

(Message given November 30, 2014 at Newberg Friends Church)

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.
Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:1-8, TNIV)

Many churches around the world will be following what is known as the common lectionary today, and will be reading these same verses.

I read them to Elaine earlier this week, and she said: “This is one of the key reasons I believe in Jesus. I have a hard time with the wrongs in the world…and still something inside me has a hard time feeling like the wrongs are going to stay that way.”

She captured with those words what the season of Advent is all about. We see this broken world, we feel the pain of relationships gone wrong and of discrimination and of war and of disease, and we cry out to God to DO something! Move heaven and earth and get down here and fix it!

And it is true that the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God as a human being is the answer to this longing.But it is also true that God isn’t finished yet. It is also true that our world and our lives do not yet have the fullness of what we somehow deep inside us know still needs to arrive.

This is why many feel it is important to observe Advent, and not just Christmas. Even though Jesus has come, even though our faith believes everything has changed, we are still waiting for the fullness of what God will do. It makes for a striking contrast here in the United States. We’ve been counting our blessings and looking at the good things God has brought to our lives and thanking God for them, and then just a few days later this first Sunday of Advent rolls around, and we’re asked to look at the pain, look at the injustice, look at the wrongs in our world…we’re asked to look at the ways in which we are still waiting for God to make things right.

I don’t know if it is easier, but it is definitely more enjoyable to focus on thanks and blessings. And for many of us, the warm family feelings of the holidays cause us to want to jump from the warm fuzzies of Thanksgiving to the wonder of Christmas. Sometimes wisdom calls me to go against the grain, against my desires, and to face into things I may not want to face.

In addition to that, there are many for whom jumping from warm fuzzy to warm fuzzy isn’t even an option. For many the holidays are already wrapped with pain and longing, a struggle with family relationships that aren’t what they once were or that never were warm and fuzzy. For many, the longing for God to come down and bring healing is a 24/7 reality.

On Tuesday morning, I was painfully aware of the people for whom longing for God to intervene isn’t a seasonal “choice” like Advent, but rather is the 24/7 reality.

Tuesday morning is when we gather to plan our Sunday morning worship gathering as well as to meet as a pastoral team. Tuesday morning was also the morning after we had heard that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted, the morning after we watched Ferguson Missouri explode again with violence.

I sat in my office, and I couldn’t help but read Isaiah 64 from the perspective of African American mothers in Ferguson, longing for God to rend the heavens and come down. The Bureau of Justice says that if incarceration rates continue as they are today, 1 in 3 African American males will be imprisoned in their lifetime. I picture their mothers waiting and longing, against the odds, for God to help their sons and keep them out of jail and out of trouble. Longing for God to give them a life where they are free to choose and where they do choose to live as God intends them to live.

While these verses never use the word “justice”, Isaiah as a book is dripping with justice as a theme. I read this longing for God to move heaven and earth and do awesome things as a call for justice, and on Tuesday morning, these verses screamed out to me the African American cry for justice.

Some of you may find that confusing, because to you, justice is exactly what happened. The facts were heard in our judicial system, and justice was served. Why the outcry? Why the longing? Why would I, a white man thousands of miles away from Ferguson immediately read these verses and go there?

Those are legitimate questions, and they are ones that have guided me as I’ve studied and wrestled this week, asking God what I should say today. I know that I wasn’t the only one who struggled to see the polarization on this issue in our country. So I’ve let the tensions and differences I’ve read and heard this week guide how I’ve looked at this section of Isaiah, trying to pull back for a little wider view and find the bigger themes of justice, of longing, of trust in God, of repentance, and of God’s love for all people.

But there is no doubt that the headlines of the last few months in Ferguson have shaped this look at Isaiah 64. Join me in looking at this piece by piece.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you! (64:1-2)

Several things jump off the page in the first two verses.

These verses express a longing for God to “rend the heavens and come down”, using graphic images of mountains trembling and of fire. Think with me about the assumptions that lie behind this passionate cry to God. Underneath this crying out there’s a belief that things on earth are not as they are in heaven, not as God intends. Underneath the crying out there’s a belief that God hasn’t given up on earth, that God could do something about what is wrong here. There’s utter confidence that it’s ok to ask God to act.

There’s also no doubt that if God did leave heaven and come to earth that heads would roll, nations would quake, the status quo would be shaken to the very foundation. God, it is assumed, does not bring an easy, calm, non-disruptive fix. Things are so bad, so wrong, that for God to come means massive, damaging change to everything that seems solid and authoritative on earth. God’s goodness and power tears and melts and burns and breaks human authority.

Do you see this? Have you thought about what this means?

Years ago, Clint Baldwin asked me to join his book group, a book group full of college students at George Fox. 

I became the old guy learning alongside some brilliant undergrads as we read and discussed Walter Brueggemann’s book, “The Prophetic Imagination”. Isaiah, and the book of Isaiah, are part of the people and books of the bible that are in the prophetic tradition.

Isaiah’s assumptions in Isaiah 64:1 and 2 are perfectly in line with the “Prophetic Imagination” that Brueggemann writes about. Predicting the future is not the main thing with prophets. No, says Brueggemann, the prophets were led by God to stand against a rigid and dying status quo, to have the imagination to see that God’s love and justice and fierce hatred of oppression and sin are so radically at odds with the structures of the world we live in each day. To gain that imagination, one has to go back to the beginnings of the nation of Israel.

God had brought the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, camped in a tent with them in the desert for 40 years, led them by fire and cloud to a promised land flowing with milk and honey. While God was right there in the middle of their camp, so close, we read of many examples that show how scary the holiness of God was up close…so much that people were afraid to even look.

They were a people rescued from slavery, daily led by God to the place and the way of life God designed for them. In so many ways, this was the pinnacle of relationship with God…even though it was full of grumbling and disobedience and failure. Who is God? God is the one who hears the cries of people in distress, who comes down and rescues miraculously, who lives right in the middle of the camp and daily leads and guides and directs.

This pinnacle moment of the exodus, defining who God is and who the people of Israel are…this is what Isaiah talks about in verses 3 and 4. 

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (64:3-4)

They didn’t expect it! God did it! When God does stuff, seas part and armies are drowned, mountains tremble, and no one on earth can ever comprehend the power, majesty and goodness of God! God chose this people; God was FOR this people, not distant and impartial.

But people forget. People rebel. People sometimes even want to go back to Egypt, back to a life of order before God came in and shook things up.

In one strand of what we read in the Old Testament, we read that it wasn’t God’s idea to have a king in Israel. Rather than a human king, God seems to prefer the tent in the desert. God seems to prefer living right with us and leading us day by day. But that’s a nomadic life. That’s an unsettled life. So people asked God to give them a king. Give them security. Give them a home. Give them status in the eyes of other nations.

This is what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness.” It is more than a political system It is a mindset that settles and builds, that trades living up close with a fiery and scary and unpredictable God for a more stable life.

I grew up seeing prophets like Isaiah condemning the kingdoms of Israel and Judah for their sins against God. And that is true. 

But Brueggemann among others has helped me see something else, something deeper, something more disruptive.

The prophets recognize that when the “royal consciousness” is ruling, God has become domesticated. In very real ways, the empire of Egypt from which they were rescued comes to life again in the very kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It’s not just that the kings worshipped other gods and led the people to do the same. There’s something more the prophets are against: they are against the system of “royal consciousness” that must protect itself, must maintain itself. It looks to sustain itself rather than follow God wherever God leads.

The values of the “royal consciousness” are preserving order and the status quo, a status quo that as time goes on favors a fewer number of people at the top. That may sound like I’m making an American political statement, but in this case I am not. I’m talking about what Brueggemann and many other scholars see all through the bible. Kings consolidate their power, forget God, and maintain themselves at all costs, creating in God’s chosen people the very same conditions that had been true in Egypt before God rescued them.

The prophets do more than condemn individual sin.

They are condemning a way of life that doesn’t want to change, that wants to keep order, that gives power and wealth to those in authority, at the expense of oppressing many of the people.

People and structures are selfish. That’s what I see, even in these first four verses of Isaiah 64. Even the cry for justice is selfish. The crying out here is crying out for God to act on our behalf, for God to act for us. Come down, shake things up, make everybody else quake as they realize you, God, are on our side!

Our cry for justice is loudest when we feel as if we are experiencing injustice. Israel and Judah had been in exile, had lost everything. Why, God, won’t you act again on our behalf? Please…come do what you did before. We’ve lost all our power, fix us and heal us.

But then in the next few verses comes an awakening. We aren’t so innocent after all.

You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins. (64:5-7)

This is why justice and faith are so complex! 

Isaiah recognizes the longing to return to a time when God acted decisively and rescued Israel. And Isaiah recognizes how Israel had failed in so many ways…not just breaking God’s law, but pursuing an entire system and way of life that valued security and stability over obedience and God’s unpredictable, earth shattering presence.

If I were to put it in my words, I would say what’s so difficult is that each and every one of us has suffered injustice and every one of us has been unjust. Each and every one of us is both oppressed and oppressor. We all participate in a system, a system of “royal consciousness” that uses law and power and authority sometimes in beautiful, life giving ways… and sometimes in brutal, oppressive, self-serving and prejudiced ways.

When we step back and look at our whole world, we know this to be true. When we look at the broad sweep of the bible, we see this to be true. But in weeks like this one, in cases like Ferguson, we don’t always see things clearly. We don’t always see when our own wrong choices bring their own poor consequences. We don’t always see where the authority of the state is preserving itself and the way of life of people in power, at the expense and suffering of others.

So some look at Ferguson and say, “It’s about personal responsibility. If Michael Brown had just obeyed the officer, he would be alive today.”

And others say, “It’s all about a system of corruption that practices racial profiling and constantly destroys African Americans. If America could see the corruption of the system and change it, Michael Brown would be alive today.”

Isaiah shouts at us, “They are both true!”

Isaiah 64 tells us the status quo of life is so corrupt and oppressive and against what God wants, that many cry out in agony for God to come down…and when God comes, it will break systems and authority. It will disrupt security and safety and send us off into the uncertainty of the desert as we look for a new promised land where God’s will shall be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s why the poet Langston Hughes’ words ring so true for us:

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

This is the cry of Isaiah 64!

It is the prophetic imagination, calling us to see the brokenness of the world…the brokenness of individual sin, yes, but also the brokenness and corruption and oppression of the power structures we participate in. I see in Isaiah 64 a challenge…a call to repentance and brokenness before God, repentance instead of righteous indignation at the ones who are crying out for justice.

Whether this particular case should have gone to trial or not, can we hear in the outcry of African Americans across the country…can we hear in them the prophetic imagination arising, the cry to God to rend the heavens and come down? Can we wait with them, pray with them, cry out to God with them, long with them for a time when God will move mountains and set the world on fire and change the brokenness and corruption in the countless other examples of oppression?

Even if we have not personally oppressed, the way in which we are lulled to numbness by the “royal consciousness” demonstrates that none of us has clean hands, not one. This is the message of Isaiah. And this is the message of Ferguson to us thousands of miles away, who have never rioted or looted or even been pulled over by a cop; even to us who have never intentionally used a racial slur or discriminated on the basis of color.

“All of us,” Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean.”

Verse 8 has the beautiful and convicting reminder that I’ve needed to sort through the complexity of this week.

Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (64:8)

Where does this challenge us? Where does this encourage us?

God is the Potter, the Creator, the Leader, the Rescuer, the Ultimate Authority. Which means that God is both shaping us and also pounding out the bulges that don’t fit God’s vision.

We are right to go to God with our cries for justice and action! God is the one with the authority to bring it about. We can even go to God with our limited and sometimes self-serving calls for justice. That’s what Isaiah 64 begins with. Yet because God is the Potter, because God is the Leader and Authority, we must be willing to face our own wrongs, our own need to repent. We must be willing to see that God’s vision of justice is not always the same as ours.

Then there is the hope!

Even with the brokenness in the world, the brokenness and evil that I contribute to…even after recognizing we’ve all sinned and failed and hurt others and God…even with all of that, “we are all the work of your hand.” We are ALL the work of your hand. We are the clay, the clay that for some amazing and loving reason, God cannot give up on. Each person God created is clay, and we each take on beauty when God shapes each one.

Oh, God, may you shape us like clay! May you create and re-create, mold and break and mold again…in Ferguson. In Newberg. In the middle of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In Israel and Palestine, in Ukraine and Darfur and North Korea.

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” “May your will be done…on earth, as it is in heaven.”

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