What do you do when your world falls apart, your sins are exposed and even God seems to be absent? That is the situation of the people of Israel at the time of the reading from Isaiah today.
The people returned to Jerusalem from years in exile in Babylon, but Jerusalem was no more. Their businesses, their government, the temple, their homes were all gone. Their whole society had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The prophets had warned it would happen and advised them to accept the situation and make their home in Babylon. But the people ignored the prophets and tried to avoid the invasion through military alliances—to no avail. None of their plans had saved them from this disaster.
Here, they try bargaining with God. “There is no God like you. You have done great things in the past for us. You meet those who gladly do right, like us,” they think. They make one more attempt to cover their shame with their spiritual prowess. But it doesn’t work. God doesn’t answer. Their desolation is complete.
Finally, their shame and desolation brings them face to face with themselves. “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.” They have lost control of their lives and now it is clear they cannot control God either.
We human beings, whether as individuals or nations will do everything we can for as long as we can to hide our sin and our shame. Witness Bernie Maddoff, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the abuse scandal, the Penn State athletic department, our own hearts. I’m a perfectionist and I know the strong resistance in me to letting anyone see me as other than flawless.
Nevertheless, there is a paradox in admitting our flaws or having them exposed. We see it in this text. At the very moment when the people of Israel admit their helplessness, they remember or re-discover their true nature which lies in their intimate relationship with God. “Yet, O God, you are our Maker; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand….Now consider, we are all your people.”
It’s a paradox of our faith. In the loss of all those things that usually prop up our egos, we come face to face with who we really are: flawed, sinful, broken human beings in an intimate and unbreakable relationship with a God who created us, forgives us and wants nothing more than lovingly to shape us in God’s own image. In facing ourselves this way, not only do we find our authentic selves, but we find the God whom we seek with us in a new way.
James Finley told a story at the retreat he led in October that illustrates this experience. On an inpatient alcohol unit in a VA hospital where he worked once, the patients developed an initiation ritual that every new patient went through when they entered the unit. A large room was cleared out and set with chairs in a circle and two chairs facing each other in the middle of the room. The new person sat in one of the two chairs with one of the patients in the chair opposite him. The rest of the men on the unit sat in the circle with their eyes cast down making no eye contact.
The interviewer asked the newcomer: “What do you love most?” The newcomer usually answered: “my wife.” At that, everyone in the circle looked up and yelled an expletive I won’t repeat. The newcomer was asked again, “What do you love most?” He answered more tentatively, “my children?” The same response comes from the group. He was asked again and again until finally, sometimes with some coaching, he answered, “Alcohol.” At that, everyone gave him a standing ovation and one by one they came up and hugged the newcomer who stood there with tears streaming down his face. It was clear he hadn’t been touched that way in a long time.
In moments like that we are vulnerable, defenseless. Our failings are laid out for everyone to see. At the same time, our authentic self is manifested, our God-given self – guileless, transparent, with a numinous power. We experience our brokenness and at the same time find that there is more to us than our brokenness. We experience ourselves as beloved child of God even in our sinfulness. In moments like this we know ourselves to be one with all people who are also flawed, sinful, beloved, gifted children of God. In moments like this, God is intimately present to us as our maker and sustainer.
Now you may wonder what this has to do with Advent. It is in this humble, flawed and forgiven state that we are called to watch and wait for Christ’s coming in Advent: stripped of all pretense, humble, open to God’s molding touch on our life, manifesting our authentic self with its brokenness, its longing and its giftedness given by God. It is from this stripped down place that our true longing for God comes. Our stripped-down, unpretentious selves are the ones who are able to receive our faithful God who comes to meet us in the neediness of an infant; in the shame of a poor, pregnant, unmarried woman; in the tenderness of a parent who will never forsake her or his child. At the beginning of Advent, we stand before God in our humility, watching, waiting, and yearning for our lowly God to come and mold us into God’s people. We are confident to say: “Now consider, we are all your people.”