This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the First Sunday of Advent. The text I preached on was Isaiah 64:1-7.
The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey, a man who spends his life taking care of people in the town of Bedford Falls. He runs the town’s Building and Loan. And if it weren’t for the Building and Loan, and the way George ran it, many people in town would be bankrupt and homeless because of the greedy and villainous Mr. Potter, the owner of the bank.
Well, on the morning of December 24, 1945, Potter steals $8000 from the Building and Loan, which was a huge sum of money in those days. George thinks the money has been lost, and he knows that without it, he will go to jail and the Building and Loan will fall apart. And all that he’s worked for would be for nothing. In a fit of desperation, he crashes his car into a tree and contemplates ending his life. A miracle occurs that changes his mind, and fills him with joy and hope. And when he returns home, he finds another miracle: the whole town has come together to raise the missing money. And from their gifts, there is more than enough. The film ends on such a high note, George and his family on Christmas Eve, happy and delighted to be alive.
A miracle happens, the story ends, and all is right forever in Bedford Falls.
But that’s not our experience. It’s a Wonderful Life ends around the Christmas tree, but if Bedford Falls were in the real world, the tree would come down a few days later, and life would go on. Potter would still have that stolen money. Some of the people in the town who gave so freely on Christmas Eve would find themselves in desperate straits again. And George’s car would still be wrapped around that tree. There would be rough days ahead for George and for Bedford Falls. In the real world, Christmas miracles don’t last forever.
In the real world, miracles do happen, but they end, and life gets hard again. The magic of Christmas we once knew isn’t there anymore. The thing we thought would change our lives for the better hasn’t. The pounds we lost come back with reinforcements. The prince or princess who swept us off our feet turns out to be a frog after all. And sometimes we wonder if it was worth it.
This is where the people of Israel were, when today’s reading from Isaiah was written. They had experienced a miracle. The miracle was that God brought them out of exile. You see, in the beginning of the sixth century BC, the Babylonian Empire attacked Israel. They sacked the capital city of Jerusalem, they destroyed the temple, and they took many of the people into exile in a foreign land. This exile lasted seventy years, and was a time of great pain and suffering for Israel. Many people had come to believe that God abandoned them. But then, the miracle happened. The Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, and the Persians set the Israelite exiles free, sending them back home. The emperor gave them resources to rebuild their city and lay foundations for a new temple. It was the dawn of a new day. God had remembered them. God had brought them home. But the story didn’t end there. It turned out that life back home wasn’t as perfect as they’d expected. The Israelites returning from exile did not get along with those who had stayed in Israel the whole time. There were great arguments, fights, battles. Rebuilding the temple took many decades, because of politics and infighting. The future looked bleak. Life didn’t seem any better back home than it was in exile! Had God still abandoned them? It is in this setting that the author of Isaiah cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
The book of Isaiah is filled with promises, promises of someone who is coming to redeem Israel and make it a light to all nations. Promises that God will come and make things right. As Christians, we believe that these promises did come true in Jesus Christ, in the manger, on the cross, in the empty tomb. But that was five hundred years in the future for those who first read Isaiah. They did not see those promises fulfilled. Nor did their grandchildren, and nor did their grandchildren. They had to wait. Wait and trust.
And they did. But they did not wait quietly. They cried out to God, yearning for God to come. They reminded each other of God’s past deeds of power. They reminded God of this too! They cried out for forgiveness. They reminded each other, and God, that God was still their loving parent, still the potter who fashioned them from clay. They hoped against hope, trying to trust that God would still return to them. That the mountains would once again quake at God’s mighty presence. That the nations themselves would tremble at God’s presence. That they would be redeemed. Saved. Loved.
We yearn too. We have seen signs of God’s presence, glimpses of God’s power. We have experienced moments of peace and joy. Yet we still yearn. We still wait. We still feel like crying out to God, “O that you would come down!” And it’s okay to do so. It’s not a sign of weak faith to plead with God to come. In fact, it’s a sign of strong faith. Faith that says, “Despite how things might seem, God is real. God does love us. God does desire our salvation and our peace and our joy.” It is good to cry out for that. It is good to recognize that we need God right now.
So I invite you to cry out with me right now. If you yearn for God right now, if you crave God’s presence in your life right now, if you need to experience God in a new way, then I invite you to call out these words after me, the words Isaiah used.
Lord, tear open the skies and come!
Let the mountains quake at your presence!
We are the clay, and you are the potter.
Come, O Lord, come!
God hears us. Christ will come. The Holy Spirit is with us.