SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 64:1-9
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.
God’s Silly Bandz
Sept. 5, 2010
One of the most special gifts I have been given in ministry is this chalice (show chalice). This chalice has a lot of meaning for me. I held it while I served communion during my ordination service. It sits in a prominent place in my office as a constant reminder of the centrality of communion for my faith and as a reminder the size of God’s gracious and loving embrace. This is an awesome chalice.
There’s only one problem. It’s big. I mean really big. I call it my Holy Punch Bowl. Which doesn’t make it very easy to use for serving communion. I’ve tried to use it for intinction, when you take a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup, but this cup is so big that you have to submerge your hand too far down in it to get to the juice. I actually had a young boy fall in and almost drown. So, in the past, I found another use for it. I’ve used it as a candy dish.
This is a chalice, a vessel crafted to hold the symbol of Christ’s blood poured out for us. This was not made to hold M&Ms and JuJuBes. I would imagine that the person who made this chalice put a lot of time and love into making it, thinking that one day a minister may hold it while saying the words, “This is my blood of the new covenant,” not, “Would you like another Jolly Rancher?” So I feel more than a little guilty for turning this sacred item into my own private confectionary. That’s not what it was made for; that’s not what it was meant to be.
I believe the Israelites were struggling with this same identity crisis in today’s passage from Isaiah. They know who they are, they know who they have been created to be, but they’ve lost sight of the Creator and their purpose. The Israelites have just returned from a long exile in Babylon, where they were forcibly removed from their homeland. They were finally freed from that captivity and were allowed to return home, but they easy, carefree life they expected never materialized. Life back home was harsh for them as they tried to rebuild the temple and restore the Promised Land. They were facing economic oppression and the constant threat of pagan religions encroaching on their turn and seducing their people. Home was not how they remembered it.
So in the midst of these challenges we get the today’s passage:” O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…so that the nations might tremble before your presence!” It’s been a long time since God came down in such a way that made people’s knees shake. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, God used such supernatural occurrences as a burning bush, a fiery pillar, devastating plagues and a parted sea. When the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness, God rained down manna from heaven and brought water from rocks to provide for them. The Israelites might have grumbled and complained, but there was no question that God was present and active among them.
But times have changed and now the Israelites are just not feeling God’s presence. And the ugly truth is that it is our human nature, in the perceived absence of God, to find other objects of our worship. And instead of taking responsibility for their transgressions and turning away, the Israelites seem to be saying, “Hey God, where did you go? Remember all that cool stuff you did, when you did those awesome deeds we didn’t expect. Wow, that was amazing. That’s the kind of God we want to worship. What happened? We’re tired of waiting. Where are you?”
Interestingly, just a few verses later, this accusation turns to a confession as the Israelites admit to knowing what happened. “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember your ways,” they say. The implication is that those who don’t do right or who don’t remember God’s ways may not have the same spiritually uplifting experience. The Israelites try to explain this absence by saying, “You were angry and we sinned,” but I wonder if their attempt at rationalizing their situation has caused to them to remember things a little backward. It’s the inverted logic people use when they say, “If I hadn’t seen your flashing lights in my rearview mirror, Mr. Officer, I wouldn’t have panicked and sped up so fast.” It’s so much easier to blame someone else, isn’t it? “God, I only sinned because I thought you were mad at me, so I figured, ‘What the heck!’” We may know what we’re doing isn’t correct, but sometimes it’s easier just to keep on doing it and rationalize it later.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try my hand at installing hardwood flooring. Don’t ask what got into me. I saw a workman putting in flooring in one of our rooms and I thought, “That looks easy!” So after a trial run in a smaller bedroom that went reasonably well, I was ready to tackle the master bedroom.
Bad decision. Not only did I not really know what I was doing, but I was too proud to admit it. So I forged ahead, putting down the flooring and leaving in my wake a trail of mismatched angles, poorly executed cuts and a rash of unslightly seams in the floor. My rational was simple: we can buy some rugs! This will be easy to cover over. What I didn’t bargain for was these glaring mistakes were mainly in the doorways and walkways, which couldn’t be covered over. My errors were there for everyone to see.
The Israelites knew they were doing wrong, but instead of owning it and trying to fix it, they look to God for a scapegoat. “Where are you? Come down here and fix this mess we’ve made! We’re looking for your everywhere but we can’t see you, so we’re just going to keep on screwing things up until you do something!”
But what the Israelites had forgotten is that God IS with them, because they are God’s creation. God made them, like a potter crafts a bowl or a plate, and to see God they only need to look for God’s fingerprints on their lives. But here’s the problem: God created them to be chalices and they’re acting like candy jars. God created them to be vessel which held God’s love and forgiveness and shining light, and instead they’ve filled that space with frivolity and cultural junk and empty pagan rituals. They’ve taken the sacred and made it profane, and now they’re mad at God for delivering them into the hands of their iniquity.
The Israelites answer their own question. You want to see God? Don’t look to the heavens or for some supernatural sign. Don’t wait to walk on a dry path through the sea or to glimpse a bush that’s on fire before you acknowledge God’s presence. God is here, right now! If only we have the eyes to see it.
A few years ago I took a group of youth down to New Orleans to do some rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. We worked at Westside Christian Church with Brother Vance, helping them rebuild their sanctuary which had been destroyed. My particular job was to build wooden boxes that would cover the steel beams supporting the church. This was not my area of strength because it involved math and power tools, but I did my best. The finished product was lopsided and catawampus, but it did cover the beam. I apologized to Brother Vance for such a sorry-looking box, but he smiled and said, “This is gonna be a sanctuary built by love!”
I’d like to think I’m there each week when they worship, in the form of that lopsided box. There is a piece of our youth group in that sanctuary because we left our fingerprints on the walls of that church. God has done the same with us. God has worked with us as a potter works with clay, molding us into who God created us to be. Author Caroline Bohler says, “We are works in progress – God’s works in progress, but still in progress. Some of us have been fired by life’s intense heat. Some of us are colorful, others are earthier. Yet the Divine Potter made us all, shaping us, handling us, gently, firmly, creatively. Sometimes life is well-centered; sometimes it is flying out of control. But God’s hand is always there, molding us into works of art.” Sure, we are imperfect, but that doesn’t mean God is done with us. Maybe the way we can motivate ourselves to keep moving forward in our faith and our lives is to consider that we are moving closer and closer to what God wants to express through us. We are becoming chalices.
If you have children or grandchildren, you’ve probably heard of Silly Bandz. If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. Silly Bandz are colored rubber bands that are molded into a variety of shapes: animals, musical instruments, food. There’s even a Silly Band shaped like the UK symbol. My daughters own about a gazillion of these things. This is one of those inventions that adults look at and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” With each Silly Band, no matter how much you twist it or turn it, it will always return to its original shape.
I say we are God’s Silly Bandz. God has created us and molded us into a specific shape and no matter how much we twist and turn and try to look like something else, we will always have a pull within us to be who God created us to be. We can run from it, fight it, deny it, act like I’ts not there, but God’s fingerprints are all over us. People may try to tell us differently, people may treat us as if this isn’t true. Can we convince an eagle that it is a worm? Can we convince a majestic mountain that it is just a measly molehill? Then why can others convince us we are anything other than God’s creation, a chalice made to hold God’s love?
The Israelites claimed that God was no longer with them, but I wonder where they were looking. Maybe they were looking up to the heavens when they should have been looking at each other. Maybe they were looking for a burning bush when they should have been looking in that their neighbor. Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says, “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian, but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.”
We are the clay and God is the potter. We are all the work of God’s hand. We are chalices, made to hold God’s love until it overflows from us to others. They question isn’t whether this is true or not. It is. The question is whether or not we will live out this truth.