December 3, 2017
Oh, that you would tear open the heavens…that mountains would quake at your presence…fire kindles brushwood… We’ve had plenty of these images this past summer. Hurricanes decimated Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. Fires burned thousands of homes the ground in Northern California. We all know people touched by these disasters and are moved by their loss and heartbreak. The terrifying powers of these natural disasters remind us of the fragility of human life.
It is amazing to me that this communal lament begs God to send down disaster upon the earth. But I have never been part of a people group so oppressed that my prayers to the Creator would include disaster raining down upon others.
The people of Israel had been captives of the Babylonians. You might remember that they had been carried off to Babylonia as slaves. They intermarried, they made themselves at home. Eventually, the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians. The Persian King Cyrus had allowed the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem under Persian occupation. Those who returned from captivity in Babylon came back to their holy city, joining the Israelites who had not been carried off into slavery. Those who had not been displaced clashed with what seemed to them like a new immigrant population. They clashed over questions of status, of social standing as well as religious and political authority. Threats, divisions and land battles ensued.
These clashes were carried out under the nose of an overriding colonial power. Persia was in power. In addition to the struggles the Israelites faced among themselves, they also struggled with the occupying force. This raised new questions of identity and purpose. As they were rebuilding the Temple, who would get to serve as priests? Who had political authority? Did God reject the covenant with the house of David, or did it still remain in effect? Who could be trusted? Who is the enemy? Where is the God of covenant? As you can imagine, Identity is a big question here.
Understanding that the restoration of Jerusalem to its past glory was not going to happen, was devastating for the Israelites who longed to return to the glory days. When faced with such grief and sadness, why not just call down God’s creative power in nature upon your enemies? May God strike them down! Remember, this is a communal lament. It is presented as the community’s perspective on how they feel and what they need. They are complaining to God, hoping that God will obliterate those with whom they disagree. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt this a time or two since January.
This is a lament and the Bible is full of them. A lament is a way to express your deep grief about a loss. To lament means that something horrific has likely happened in your life and you are moved to cry out in grief, frustration and anger. We lament at a death and we lament at the loss of a job or a friendship. We lament when we think that we have been treated unfairly and we lament when we ponder upon the lack of peace and justice in our world.
As I said, this is a communal lament. The community is experiencing loss and the death of their hopes and dreams. They are complaining together. It is true that misery loves company. They are angry about their situation and they are angry at God. And of course, they blame themselves. We all do this when we are suffering don’t we? What could I have done differently? Where did I go wrong? What mistakes did I make, what sins did I commit? We sometimes share these feelings as a community as well. Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently? How did this happen to us?
But ultimately, they remember the covenant they have with God. They remind God that God is their creator, their potter and they are the work of God’s hands. Together they express their hope in God who keeps covenant. They reaffirm their identity as people who belong to God. God made covenant with Noah and every living creature in Genesis 9:8, promising that the world would never again be destroyed in a flood. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. God promised Moses that God would lead the people of Israel out of slavery. God promised David that his kingdom would be established forever. And through Jesus, a descendent of David, God brought forth the new covenant foretold in Jeremiah (31:31-34) and repeated again in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: after those days, I will but my laws in their minds and I will write them on their hearts, that I will be their God and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other ‘know the lord’ for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest. I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
God makes covenant with all people, inhabiting our communities and inhabiting our hearts. God’s covenant is a promise to always be with us, and walk with us no matter if we grieve, suffer from oppression, or are lost and alone.
Today, Aisha enters this covenant through the rite of baptism. The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God. Through baptism, Aisha is joined with the universal church, the body of Christ. She also makes covenant with us and we with her. She promises to grow in her faith and to attend to her spiritual journey and we promise to accompany her on that journey. In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God’s people always.
Water is an essential element of baptism. Water is a prominent symbol of cleansing and life in the Bible—Think of all of the stories you know about water in the scriptures: the water of creation, the great flood, the liberation of Israel through the sea, the water of Mary’s womb, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, the woman at the well, and Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples. That is why water is visibly present in our service. Water can keep us from dying and water kills. It is a powerful symbol.
Using this powerful symbol and by our mutual promises, Aisha joins us as pilgrims on a journey together as we covenant with one another to care for one another, to laugh together and to lament together. Together we are the work of God’s hands, together we are God’s people. God will continue to mold us in the divine image and likeness, a reality made clear when God molds the divine self on Christmas Day as an impoverished, displaced infant. God becomes the clay.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we savor our friend’s baptism and we savor this season, remembering that Isaiah invites us to surrender as God claims us as Sacred Clay.