The First Sunday of Advent, Year B, Church of the Advent, Nashville

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever” (Isaiah 64:9).

Even those who have never been in a courtroom know how the justice system works. Someone gets charged with a crime; there’s a trial or more likely a plea in which confession is made; all of it followed by punishment or a fine. I don’t know about you but I was brought up on reruns of Perry Mason, where the confession usually took place in the courtroom under cross-examination. In real life, of course, that doesn’t happen much. Since the days of Perry Mason courtroom dramas have become more sophisticated but no less formulaic. The basic elements involving charges, pleas, and punishment haven’t changed much since justice itself was invented.

Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah is a case in point, though there are some surprising twists. The form of the reading is a so-called “song of lament” in which the speaker recounts the desperate state of things in ancient Israel and begs for relief from God. The People of Israel were surrounded by enemies and in need of help. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence… to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is. 64:1-2). The enemy presses hard and the speaker cries for God to appear, to break into his time and his world as God had done in the past.

In the song of lament, this petition to God to intervene, we also find charges, pleas, and punishment. You might expect, given the pressure that the nation was under from its enemies, that the People of Israel would be the ones who are up on charges, the ones feeling the pressure of prosecutorial questioning. But that’s not the case in this song of lament.

The one who is being charged is actually God. It’s a little clearer if you go back to the previous chapter of Isaiah, but it’s still present here. “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5) God is under indictment in this song of lament; he’s the one who has created this situation by absenting himself and disappearing from the scene and failing to appear. God was angry and these terrible things happened as a result.

This actually makes theological sense. Because the “buck stops here”, God is ultimately responsible for everything including the mess. Here he’s up on charges. That’s his role in the song of lament. We might have expected him to be sitting in the judge’s seat, but here he’s being arraigned.

Now don’t freak out here because God is not really in the dock, not really guilty, and not subject to conviction. We’re not going to see him standing before the judge on Law and Order. God is responsible for the universe but not morally culpable.

The proof that God is not guilty is the plea that follows.  “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” (Is. 64:6). The People are confessing, not God. As they call upon God to appear, the People are conscious of their own inadequacy, of their own limitation, of their own sin. Here in the song of lament, there is confession of sin, and it belongs to the People. “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Is. 64:7).

If we can identify with this movement, with this confession, I hope we can also identify with the final element of Isaiah’s song. Unlike the courtroom drama, which ends in punishment, the judgment of God leads to confidence. What the People of Israel learn is not that God will sweep like a wind through their ranks leaving nothing behind, but that they are God’s own People. “Now consider, we are all your people” (Is. 64:9), the prophet reminds God. The People can trust in God who has been faithful to them in the past and who will be faithful now.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Is. 64:8). We are so familiar in our tradition, taught by Jesus to call God our Father, that we can miss the extraordinary character of these words. Out of confession comes confidence in our relationship with God, who continues to shape and form us just like a potter with the clay.

As we look ahead on this Advent Sunday to the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, to open the heavens and to come down, our attention ought to be fixed on God, leading to confession and confidence and Christian hope. We are need of help, true; like the People of Israel, we look for God to intervene and show himself. But in the face of Christ’s coming again we are convicted of only one thing: God’s power; and we are confident in our hope.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee