Soul Train and the Face of God

By Aaron Zimmerman

Almighty God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

The gospel reading from the 13th chapter of Mark’s gospel this morning gives you good reason to ignore any billboards you may see that purport to tell you the accurate date of the Lord’s return. You may also ignore bumper stickers or that annoying relative.

I’d like to preach this morning, however, on the text from Isaiah, the 64th chapter, which begins, “O, that you, God, would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

This is the First Sunday of Advent. Happy New Year!

You may think that the new year begins in just over four weeks on January 1. But in this space, in Christ’s Church, we follow a different calendar, the Church Calendar, which walks us through the life of Christ every year. And so, we begin with Advent. The lectionary readings start a new cycle. It is a new year in the church on Advent 1, which is today.

Now you who are getting ready for the secular new year, you may be one of those folks who are still laboring under the delusion that resolutions work. You may be thinking about your resolutions. You may not realize that studies have shown that 80% of them fail by Valentine’s Day. I’ll let you figure out the connection there.

Advent invites you to see a new year and a new way. Because, see, New Year’s resolutions, the ones we typically make, tend to be all about us fixing ourselves on our own steam – using our own power, our own willpower, our own sense of resolve, to make us better people.

And so, we end up a little bit like Samuel Johnson, that great 18th-century English thinker and writer who kept copious diaries. And every year, as the calendar turned, he would write down his resolutions. And in the latter half of his life, we read from 1764, “I have now spent 55 years in resolving. O God grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions. I resolve to rise early, not later than six, if I can.” One year later, 1765: “I purpose to rise at eight, because though I shall not rise early, it will be much earlier than I now rise. For I often now lie till two.”

Fixing yourself doesn’t quite work, at least not for as long as we would like. Advent is about help coming from outside ourselves, help coming from God.

I want to say a little bit about that. I want to talk about this gift that Advent gives us, help coming from outside, with Isaiah’s help. Then, I want to say something about you and me – a twist in the plot. And I want to end with God’s face.

So, Isaiah 64: the gift of Advent.

I was sitting at a doctor’s office recently and someone who has not read the same etiquette books I have was having a loud cell phone conversation in the office. I could only hear half of it, and since this was the only entertainment offered, I listened. And, at some point in the conversation, the woman cried out, “Soul train!”

So that’s been in my brain. And as I turned to Isaiah 64, I thought of him inviting us onto the soul train, in that he invites you to connect with that part of your longing that is deepest, that goes down to your soul, to the marrow of your bones; not just the things that you want on your Christmas list, those numbing activities or possessions that might make you feel a little bit better about your life. But what do you really want in your soul?

Because the Isaiah begins, he says “God, would you please open the heavens and come down immediately to help us right now? God would you tear open the heavens and come down? So, what you need to envision here is the high school football team breaking through the banner and coming out in great urgency onto the field. Or you need to envision from your childhood that Kool-Aid commercial, that giant picture of sugary drink first thing bursting through the wall. Macho Man Randy Savage does the same thing. Whatever you need to picture – somebody bursting forth immediately to help in a crisis.

This is the prayer of Isaiah: help me right now. Don’t even go the normal routes, just cut straight to the chase. Break down the walls. Tear open heaven. Come down, as I need you right now.

Our soul longs for God to come immediately and fix those things in our lives which seem unfixable. Maybe it’s a person who needs to apologize, and God would you please help them see the error of their ways. I am willing to forgive, but they have to make the first move. Or maybe it’s something in you: God, would you please help me stop wanting the thing that I know is killing me. Or maybe it’s something outside yourself. Maybe you want God to come down fix all the people who don’t agree with your opinions. They’re all over Facebook. These morons. Would God change their hearts?

So, Advent begins with asking God, “Tear open the heavens and come down. Fix the unfixable. Set things right. Be that righteous judge. Distribute justice. Make the world fair.”

But the plot twists; and this is where it gets to you and me. In verse six of Isaiah 64, something happens. Having invited God, Isaiah begins to look around, and he realizes there’s a problem. The same thing happens when you invite guests. You look around your house and you begin to see things you didn’t see before: the greasy handprints on the refrigerator, the things in the back of the vegetable bin that have been there, lo these many weeks. You notice the fine layer of dust on everything. And the floors are atrocious. When someone is coming from the outside, you begin to see your own surroundings, and you realize things are not as well-kept as you would like.

And so, Isaiah, having demanded that God come immediately, looks around. And in verse six, he says, hold up, wait a minute. “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.”

Isaiah has looked around and having asked the judge of the universe to come, to head down from heaven and set things right, realizes that he and his people are part of the problem. We ourselves have fallen short.

It is been attributed to at least three people that I know, this quote. It’s been attributed to Niebuhr. I’ve heard it attributed to Chesterton and the retired Bishop of South Carolina. I don’t know who said it, but it is, I think, a good observation: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.” Meaning you can look around and find proof for it in everyone you know, and in yourself.

If we needed any help at all in being convinced of the problems that human beings have inside, despite our best intentions, the last few weeks have been a gigantic wake-up call. As one person after another is in the headlines for sexual harassment. It began with Hollywood people, and we weren’t that shocked, we weren’t that surprised. This was an open secret. But then Charlie Rose! Come on, Chuck!  I had to call my mom because I knew how disturbed she would be. Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer! The people whose livelihood is based on their image of being nice guys. As it turns out, there seems to be very little connection between one’s beliefs and one’s actions.

So, when we want to cry like Isaiah, “God come down from heaven and fix things and get rid of all the bad people,” we will find that we are part of the bad people. Haven’t you ever found yourself doing something you promised you would never do? Or maybe doing again something you promised yourself you would never do again? Don’t you believe in love? And yet, how do you treat the Starbucks employee when your order is wrong? How do you speak to the people in your house – with lovingkindness and long-suffering patience? Yet we believe in love.

And so, with Isaiah. We who have summoned the God and judge of the universe to put things in the scales and set them right. We find that we may be on the wrong end of that equation. And so, Isaiah says, in verse seven. “Because of this, God, you have hidden your face from us.”

This is how it feels. This is how it feels to realize one’s own humanity up against God’s divinity, and there’s a loneliness, there’s an anxiety, there’s an isolation. God you have hidden your face from us.

Advent invites us to consider this reality: the hidden face of God. You notice the Church Year doesn’t begin at Christmas. It begins with Advent. It begins the dark. It begins in the hidden places, it begins with this sense of longing; the lack, not the having.

So, we begin with the hidden face of God. But make no mistake, we are waiting for a revealing. We are waiting for a light to come. We begin Advent with this one lone candlelight. But it will go around the wreath, and the light will increase. Finally, the Christ candle will be lit on Christmas, as God comes and that face that has been hidden is now fully revealed in the face of the child. The face of God which is hidden now will be revealed and now will look at you and will not behold you with malice or wrath. Have you ever seen a baby? They look with love, most of the time.

I want to close, as we think about the face of God, just with a little story.

There is a podcast that features a therapist who each episode records the first counseling session with a couple. The names are obscured, but the situations are true. And they almost always involve a situation in which these people who once loved each other and maybe still do. There has been a break. There’s been a divide. There has been a cooling. There’s been a distance. And the result is, they find themselves talking to this therapist.

And what is often going on is that there is an inability to really see the other person and to really hear the other person. And so, they talk about the issues and whatever the case may be in the childhood trauma and the current difficulties in all these things. The whole ball of perplexities that make up our lives in our relationships and they get it all out there on the table.

But what happens at the end. And this happens more than once. It seems a repeated fact and the practice in this therapist’s work. I’m giving it to you today. I’m saving you thousands of dollars. And what she does in the end is she invites the couple to look at one another, and depending on the situation, she’ll pick the one to do this. She will ask one member of the couple to look at the other and to take their face and hold it with both hands and simply to look into their eyes. And in every case, the floodgates are opened. The tears fall, and, in this, healing begins to happen.

I was listening to this on my roof yesterday as I was putting up lights. So, if anybody on Columbus Avenue witnessed a crying man on top of a roof, you’ll know why. Because this is the thing: we in our human relationships know what it is to have a face hidden from us. We also know how it might feel to be fully loved and known and have our face held and looked at with a loving gaze, a fully accepting, nonjudgmental, uncritical gaze.

And this is what God does, when we ask him to come down and help immediately, but then realize that maybe we are part of the problem. God incarnate appears. And his once-hidden face is now revealed, and it is a face of love.

Let us pray: Almighty God, where are aware of our own failure and lack and need. Give us grace to behold your loving face, Amen.

The Rev. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman is rector of St. Alban’s, Waco, Texas.


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