Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
When I was in high school, our youth group and various clubs at high school had fund raisers. We did lots of things: washed cars, sold cookies, held dances. The most successful fundraiser was always selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Now, this was before Krispy Kreme went public and showed up in every grocery store: before they became the Starbucks of doughnuts. Back then, back in the day, you had to persuade a parent to get up really, really early on a Saturday morning and drive an hour to Charlotte, to the Krispy Kreme bakery there. The lucky parent would fill up the back of the station wagon with boxes of doughnuts. Most of the time it was just the plain glazed ones, but some times, not often enough, the doughnuts included my favorites, the chocolate ones. I’m not sure whether it’s just nostalgia, but the doughnuts just tasted better then.
But, I remember biting into that wonderful doughnut. It was light, so light that picking it up would dent it. The glaze would melt with the heat of your fingertips. The first bite would dissolve in a cloud of sweetness and fat. Hmmmm. I’d eat one and another. They were so good. I’d sneak a third a few minutes later. After all, by tomorrow morning, they wouldn’t be nearly so good. After about the third, though, I’d get a little nauseated. A bit too much sugar, too much fat. And, though I’d consumed 750 calories, I’d still be hungry. I’d eaten three of the most wonderful, light, fluffy doughnuts, filled with calories and though I was a bit sick to my stomach, I was still hungry.
Christmas has become a Krsipy Kreme doughnut. It is a light, airy, fluffy thing. It is sweetness, sometimes a syrupy sweetness. Christmas has expanded and exploded. I was in Cokesbury, a Christian bookstore before Halloween, before Halloween, and I noticed a clerk beginning to string fake evergreen boughs on the stairway railing. Lit snowflakes appeared on Poplar the week before Thanksgiving, at least that’s when I saw them first. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, we will fill ourselves with enough sugar to give the entire world diabetes. There will be parties and gatherings, special television shows and theater presentations, not to mention all the musical productions. By the time Christmas Day comes, we will be filled with sugar, people and more than ready to say, “Enough! Enough!” And sometime in January, we’ll open the bills and wonder what on earth were we thinking. I was listening to interviews of shoppers on Black Friday and heard that most of the shoppers were buying for themselves. Even in this time of economic crisis and downturn, we’ll turn to shopping. We deserve a new whatever the toy we most want is just for living through this crisis. Sugar, sugar and more sugar. Whether the sugar be actual sugar, the sugar of shopping or the sugar of busy-ness and parties, we want that sweetness that hides for a moment our real lives.
William Willamon, the Methodist bishop, recounts a the story of a friend who had been invited to preach at a large church whose services were televised. The person who picked Willamon’s friend up at the airport told the friend, “People worship with us in order to feel good about themselves. Therefore, don’t mention the cross in your sermon. And don’t dwell too much on sin. And don’t mention [politics].” Willimon suggests that television limits preachers, but the spirit of our age does too. People come to church to be inspired, to be comforted, to feel better about themselves. People don’t want to be weighed down by their own sin, by what’s wrong with their lives, by the awfulness of the world. Willamon suggests that the preacher should be pitied this Advent. “Sunday after Sunday, it’s Isaiah and John the Baptist. Not the Isaiah who sings so well in Handel’s Messiah, but the Isaiah of chapters 63 to 64, who laments the fate of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is the raging plaint of a homeless people in a Babylonian death camp. They cry:
Thy holy people possessed thy sanctuary a little while;
our adversaries have trodden it down.
We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous
deeds are like a polluted garment.
thou hast hid thy face from us,
and hast delivered us into the
hand of our iniquities [Isa. 63:18, 64:6-7].”
It’s not a jolly old man with whiskers, ready to grant our every wish, who peeks from the pages of scripture. It’s a people who have been downtrodden, who were stripped of their homes, their possessions, their lives and taken to Babylon and who now, returned to their homeland a couple of generations later find the fabled Temple in ruin, nothing but ruin surrounds them. And they wonder where God is.
If we are honest, this Sunday morning, we must also wonder where God is. Over a hundred and seventy people murdered in Mumbai this week. A young store clerk trampled to death in the rush to buy, buy, buy something, anything at a bargain price. A fist fight in a children’s toy store. Cholera in Zimbabwe, that country already devastated by a selfish ruler who refuses to put the people of his country first, instead focusing on enriching himself and his cronies. Darfur, Chad, people starving. All over Africa and South America, a lack of clean drinking water. A planet we are destroying. Ice packs north and south melting at furious paces. Here in Memphis, children grow up without their parents. They are desperate to be loved and have been abandoned.
And in our individual lives, don’t we wonder where God is, if we are honest with ourselves? Thanksgiving is a family holiday and a time of happiness and yet, we remember our family members who are not with us. Daughters, husbands, wives, gone from our lives. We look around at our children, our friends, those close to us who have made horrific choices and devastated their lives. We face old age and sometimes feel abandoned. Our savings that would cushion our retirements have evaporated and the people who caused this mess retire with millions and millions. Where is God? Where is God?
A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon on joy. I talked about how we could choose our attitudes. And that it true, but it is also true, that sometimes, we are faced with incredible sadness and loneliness. We yearn for God and yet God seems far away. Paradoxically, the road to joy comes through our sadness and loneliness. As with our tendency to choose negativity and not joy, we choose to cover over our feelings of sadness and loneliness. We choose to put a band-aid on our wounds, put on a happy face, and pretend that all is well. We reach for another doughnut, filled with sugar and fat to cover over our emptiness. Unless we can experience all the real emotions in our lives, the ones we want to avoid, as well as the ones that are pleasant, we can not really experience the joy in our lives, either.
Several of you have commented on the joy you hear each Sunday from the [African American] worship services. Many African American churches embody that paradox of sadness and joy. The African American experience is one of immense sadness. Like the Jews ripped from their homeland and sent off to exile, African Americans were ripped from their homeland in Ghana, in Benin, in other west African countries and sold in to slavery. Worse though, families were torn asunder, children sold away from their mothers. The spirituals sang of their hope of liberation, their hope for freedom. The spirituals cried of their loneliness. After slavery ended, African Americans remained segregated, their options limited. The blues reflected their sadness. And yet, church services remained places of joy and yearning for the Promised Land. C.S. Lewis has noted” The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy, but it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
Isaiah cries out for God and then admits the sin of the people. Part of our despair must be a recognition of our sin, our brokenness, our need for God. Like Isaiah, we must submit ourselves to God so that God will mold us into God’s people.
Bishop Willamon reminds us: “That’s why the church generally refrains from singing Christmas carols during Advent. That’s why purple, the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher. We dare not rush to greet the Redeemer prematurely until we pause here, in a darkened church, to admit that we do need redemption. Nothing within us can save us. No thing can save us. We’ve tried that before. No president, no bomb, no new car, no bottle, no white Christmas can save. No! to all false consolation, we say. No! to the empty, contrived merriment of a terminal world. Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We find our way only because One comes, takes our hand and leads us home. No thank you, we shall wait here, in yearning and silence, in darkness and penitence, for that One. “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (64:5). Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us. God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.” Amen.