by Peter Lockhart
“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.”
Today we begin what is known as Advent. It is a time of reorienting ourselves towards the promise of the coming of Jesus into the world – not simply his historical coming but his promised coming in the future.
As we begin this journey of 4 weeks leading into remembering the birth of Jesus, the very first reading, recorded in the lectionary from Isaiah, confronts us with a Psalm of lamentation of the Jewish people about their feeling of separation from God, including this confession of sin.
Isaiah’s prophecy occurred in tumultuous times for the people of God threatened as they were by internal divisions and external pressures especially from the ancient Assyrian power.
It is this confession that draws us into our own contemplation of who we are, and of whose we are.
For Isaiah the confession found in verse 6 begins with an admission that the people had become unclean. The language here is beyond most of our everyday understanding because for the Jewish people to be unclean was to be unable to come into God’s presence and God’s holiness. Someone who was unclean could not approach God and the source of such uncleanness was sin.
The description in the verse of sin is twofold: firstly, so-called righteous deeds gone wrong; and secondly, iniquities, or wrong doing, carrying the people away.
I want to dwell on the first of these issues for a moment, “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” The criticism and confession contained within these words are confronting. Even the deeds that the people had done thinking that they were doing the right thing are no better than filthy clothes.
As I was reading about this image a couple of the commentaries pointed out that this phrase actually means dirty undergarments. To rephrase Isaiah it is like saying that those things that you think you are doing that are good are really like that pile of dirty undies on your floor.
But it is not just that they were missing the mark when it came to doing good deeds it was also that they had been caught up in their iniquities as if being blown by a strong wind. A seemingly small error catapulted into the path of a rushing wind and so caught up in the wind unable to resist its power and force.
The consequences of their iniquities were having effects beyond their vision and understanding. Like an avalanche of idolatry their behaviours drove them away from God and had escalating consequences. These are strong words but any time people are moving away from God they are moving into idolatry – replacing God and God’s ways with something else.
Now Isaiah sites one of the reasons for this as God’s silence and supposed inaction, saying, “because you hid yourself we transgressed.”
Of course, blaming God’s silence for transgression doesn’t really cut the mustard but Isaiah’s lament reminds the people and prophesies appealing to God and reminding the people: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
At the heart of Isaiah’s lament is this conviction that even if God’s people have become immersed and enmeshed in their transgression they are still God’s people and God is their God, silent or not!
In this the lament beginning in Isaiah 63 and carrying into chapter 64 is focussed on memory. It is about God remembering the covenant relationship with the Israelites and the people remembering that they are indeed God’s people.
As an aside the liturgical act of remembrance within the life of the church is called anamnesis. It is a word that I appreciate because it sounds so close to that word for forgetting in our won language amnesia. In the church and for Israel anamnesis is the antidote to amnesia – remembering the story of God even if we did not know we had forgotten it!
This serves as a bridge from Isaiah’s time to our own. The Israelites were really struggling to be faithful in their relationship with God and it was the lonely voice of the prophet that confronted them with their errant ways. The people had been seduced into idolatry without even being aware.
This is the same issue present in every age of Israel and the church: the forgetting of God and God’s ways and the seduction of alternate views of life and the world. As the book of Ecclesiastes might say, “there is nothing new under the sun”.
In our era we might speak of the Babylonian Captivity of the church in terms of the consequences of things like the enlightenment and humanism. The enlightenment which was so full of promise for humanity and has no doubt brought many blessings with it but like Isaiah’s lament may be seen as being like dirty undies on the floor.
It has brought us great thinking and high standards of living and even notions of the possibilities of humanity but it has also bought with it the rise of rampant individualism, where my rights are more important than the notion of community. It has brought with it the rejection of God and the rise atheism, in favour of an anthropocentric view of the Universe.
We might also speak of the problems of imperialism and nationalism which have lead nations to war and to the subjugation and exploitation of other nations.
We might speak of free market capitalism and liberal democracy which seem to have within them some right ideas but so often seem to get perverted.
And then there is consumerism and the incessant desire for growth, a logical impossibility in a finite world: consumerism which has clearly subverted our holy celebrations in the West. I want to share a brief video about this from Gruen World last week.
What struck me about these video exposés about Christmas is that mention nothing about Christianity. So far removed from the Christian narrative by the avalanche of idolatry around Christmas are these videos that Jesus gets no mention at all. For me this is a slap in the face a wake-up call to all of us in our faith and how we might express our hope in Christ’s coming.
As with Isaiah we find our hope in remembering, in anamnesis. Hearing the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear of the promise of God’s graciously at work in each one of us already: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.”
Our hope remains in God, even when we find ourselves hurtling down the mountain trapped in the avalanche of idolatry moving away from God, God reaches out to give us hope and to reorient our lives in the life of Jesus, the promised coming one.
As Paul goes on to say, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
It is in this fellowship with the son that we remember and look at the weeks ahead with hope. As we wait with patience anticipating that we are not preparing to have a nice Christmas day but that in the fullness of God’s time Jesus will come and correct those things which are not of life but of death in this world.
In this our preparation shifts in focus away from the commercialism and obligation we may feel to give gifts to those who have no need of them into reconsidering what it means that in Christ we know that all people are loved by God. The hope of Christmas is about the kingdom coming near in all people’s lives in our present age as we wait for the coming of the new creation which is begun in Christ and the church already and is promised for all things.