Advent 1 Proper B1
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Isaiah 64:1-9 Sermon
November 30, 2008
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
8 "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates"
5 "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus"
10 "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns"
9 "Prepare The Way, O Zion"
3 "The Advent Of Our King"
ONLY OURSELVES TO BLAME
TEXT (vs. 5-7): "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."
Considering all of the stories regarding sadness and tragedy there are, some of the more tragic and heartbreaking incidents surround the stories of runaway children. From time to time, these stories become the plot lines to various crime/drama shows, e.g. CSI, NCIS, Without a Trace, and Law & Order to name a few.
Admittedly when some of these incidents make it to the small screen of television, various portions might be embellished and subject to editing. But if you talk with any law enforcement official, or DCFS social worker, or anybody who has had to deal with runaways, they'll be quick to tell you that these stories are indeed true, even though the names and places change with each individual.
17 year old Emily is one such person. Emily is in critical condition in the intensive care unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. Her face is battered showing multiple contusions, and she has a broken jaw and broken nose. He also has a fractured sternum and several broken ribs. She is recovering from an emergency operation to stop internal bleeding. At her side are her mother and father, and they can't stop crying.
So what's Emily's story? She grew up in Billings, Montana in an average middle-class home. Her father worked at a local bank, and her mother operated a small ceramic and craft business out of their home, and also did some substitute teaching. She had a brother who was three years older, who was attending college. Both Emily and her brother were good students, who were well adjusted in school. Otherwise, they were active in their church, and from all outward appearances, they were the epitome of the happy average American family.
So what went wrong? It all started when an older boy became interested in Emily. At the time, Emily was 15 and the boy was 18. He had dropped out of school, and was working for a lawn maintenance company. She got to know him when he was taking care of their neighbor's lawn.
When Emily's parents found out what was happening, they told her that she had to break off the relationship, and otherwise forbade her from seeing this boy ever again. So when Emily related this story to her boyfriend, he convinced her to grab some of her stuff, and run away with him in the middle of the night. And that's exactly what they did.
They made their way to Los Angeles where her boyfriend deserted her one night in a seedy hotel room. Faced with no money and no place to go, she took to the streets of Los Angeles; and of course being the innocent little girl from Billings Montana, she wasn't very street-smart.
She figured that since she was in California, the movie capitol of the world, she would get into acting. She had been in several school plays, and she loved her drama classes. So she answered an ad; and much to her dismay, her first acting job was doing pornography. At first she didn't want to do it, but since she needed the money, she consented.
Her acting career wasn't very steady however, so she got hooked up with a pimp who introduced her to the life of prostitution. She hated the life, and cried herself to sleep almost every night.
Then one night, she didn't earn as much money as her pimp wanted her to earn, and so he severely beat and kicked her, and left her for dead at the entrance of an alley. A Catholic priest who happened to walk by shortly afterward spotted her and called the paramedics. She then wound up at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
For awhile they didn't know who she was; but through various identification procedures, they discovered her name on the runaway list, and they contacted her parents.
It's a very sad story indeed. For the last two years, her family was in grief. They didn't know where Emily was, or whether she was dead or alive. Every night they waited for the telephone to ring, hoping it would be her on the other end. Her bedroom was just as she had left it, just waiting for her to come back home.
Emily however didn't want to face her parents. She felt that they wouldn't accept her any more for what she had done, and that they would desert her like she had deserted them. In her opinion, she had chosen this awful existence, and it was up to her to get herself out of it. Her parents' home didn't seem like an option to her anymore.
But we know that wasn't the case at all. All it would have taken would have been one collect phone call from any public telephone. Just one word from her, and the whole mess would have been all over. Anytime she wanted, she could have been back in the loving arms of her family, just like nothing bad had happened in the first place. It was all there just waiting for her-love, acceptance, forgiveness, and restoration.
This morning, as we look at our text which are the words recorded by the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament Lesson, we can see a similar situation with the Israelites.
The Israelites certainly knew God, and they knew his capabilities. God had blessed them and preserved them in the past by some great and miraculous things. Time and again he had shown them the absolute depth and certainty of his love for them. He loved them as his dear children, and he wanted the best for them. He was their God, and they were his people.
But, like the adolescents who run away from the safety and security of their families, the Israelites also did the very same thing to God. They turned to their own ways, and basically flew in the face of God. And God acted in their lives to bring them back to him once again.
The period of history during which this was written was the time the Israelites had returned from their exile in Babylon to their native homeland and Jerusalem. God had used this exile as a time of chastisement. Israel had grown more and more unfaithful. They needed to be brought back; and more than that, they needed to realize that the problems and hardships they were suffering were because of situations they had brought on themselves.
In their way of thinking, God had deserted them. But of course we know that God indeed had not deserted them at all-that was just their perception. It was they who had deserted God, and invited the consequences upon themselves. It was just like young Emily in my opening story. She felt alienated and separated from her parents; but as we can see from their position at their daughter's bedside, they hadn't deserted her at all. It was she that deserted them. Emily herself was the blame for all her trouble.
The contents of our text for today are words known as a lament. A lament is a prayer that cries out to God in the middle of a desperate circumstance. It may be out of grief, or pain, or any seemingly out-of-control circumstance. By putting a painful situation into words before God, it is done with the faith that God can and will bring relief. So a lament isn't just a person venting with a long list of complaints. Rather, a lament is a strong and profound statement of faith in God out of the middle of human hopelessness. A person prays a prayer of lament in the middle of their pain, with the assurance that God indeed cares about their condition, and that they have enough faith in God to trust him with the outcome.
This section of Isaiah isn't one of the more popular sections of the Bible. The reason is because it identifies so clearly the depravity of the human condition. People don't like to hear that God's ways are right, and their ways are wrong. People don't like to be threatened with consequences. And of course people don't like to know that they're the only ones to blame when they get themselves into a huge mess in their lives.
Isaiah uses some very graphic words to describe our sinful human condition. In the first half of verse 6 in our text today, he records: "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags..."
Now when we think of filthy rags, we might think of those shop rags in the garage covered in grease, or the household cleaning rags we might have under the sink. And that in itself is a pretty good picture, but it isn't exactly the terms used in Isaiah. Some versions of the Bible use the translation "polluted garment" rather than "filthy rags," which is perhaps a bit closer to the original.
The exact translation should read, "A cloth polluted with menstrual blood." This made a lot of sense to a Jew, because such a cloth was ceremonially unclean, and anybody who touched such a cloth would become ceremonially unclean themselves. Today we would classify that as a biohazard. So to use that term to make the metaphoric comparison with mankind's sinfulness and his own self-righteous actions goes to show us just how detestable this is in the sight of God.
But of course, the various Bible translators had to employ terms that wouldn't offend or upset the stodgy old ladies with the long dresses and white gloves, so we have to settle for the term "filthy rags" to get the point across. And it certainly does. Thank the Lord that we are way beyond taking offense to the terms God uses in the Bible.
It's here where we need to bring Jesus into the picture. Jesus came to this earth to redeem sinful mankind. Regardless of how dirty and filthy and contaminated we are, we know that through Jesus' holy and precious blood, we are made clean and pure.
There's the story about a man who went to a friend's funeral. He heard about what a nice guy his friend was, a good neighbor, husband, father, etc. He heard his friend's life eulogized in very glowing and complimentary terms. After the funeral was over, the man replied: "I had to take another look in the casket to see if I was at the right funeral!"
If we ever think that a person gets in good with God or gets into heaven by his or her good works, all we need to do is remember the "filthy rags" Isaiah speaks of. That describes all of our self-righteous words and actions and intentions. If we attempt to come before God with anything else but the righteousness we have through faith in Jesus our Saviour, then we might as well be holding on to a filthy rag for all the good it will do us. And of course all of the glowing words and compliments spoken at someone's funeral won't mean anything apart from the saving faith a person has in Jesus.
No, we don't come before God clutching on to the filthy rags of our own righteousness, but clinging firmly to the cross of Jesus. It's through faith alone in him that we are saved and by which we will enter heaven. The hymnwriter Augustus Toplady in his famous hymn "Rock of Ages" puts it so well: "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
We know that God has indeed heard our laments and cries. He knows that we are steeped in sin and that we are suffering for it. He heard our cries; therefore he sent Jesus to us so that we might be delivered from sin, death, and the clutches of Satan. He sent us Jesus so that through faith in him alone we would be saved.
The example of people alienating themselves from God can be seen by the incredible number of adolescent children who run away from their homes and families. Officials from law enforcement and human services can relate one nightmare-ish story after another. The story of young Emily turned out with a happy ending. The family who hadn't heard from her in several years was now reunited, and tears of sorrow were replaced with tears of joy.
There are similar stories that don't end so well. There was 15 year old Bryan who, when his parents found him, was suffering from full-blown AIDS that he had contracted while working as a male prostitute. Or there was Marcia, a 19 year old girl that her parents could barely identify as she laid in a refrigerated drawer at the coroner's office. Her emaciated and disheveled body was found dead in an abandoned building from a drug overdose. Many people who turn and run away from a loving house never return. And usually, it's nobody's fault but their own.
If you can imagine how a parent feels when a child runs away and is never heard from again, you might get an idea of how God feels when we as his children desert him and go our own ways.
In our opening liturgy this morning, we heard some familiar words from 1st John, chapter 1: "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Aren't those great words to remember? Could there be any better conclusion for someone who has deserted their heavenly Father, and has subsequently returned seeking his grace? Can you imagine any happier of an ending than to be embraced in the loving arms of our Saviour?