O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 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. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Sermon Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
Good morning and happy new year! Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the new year in the church calendar. This is the Sunday when we celebrate hope—the hope for the coming Messiah, the Christ-child who will come to save us. The Christ who will return to the world.
I borrowed my title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, but my title was also inspired by a really heartwarming story that I saw on Facebook a few days ago. Perhaps you heard it, too.
This year’s Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center was harvested in Oneonta, NY. The tree arrived at Rockefeller Center a couple days later, and then workers set up the tree and began to decorate it.
During the process, one of the workers found a stowaway—a tiny owl, a saw-whet owl, was clinging to one of the branches and it didn’t want to leave! Apparently, it was in the tree before it was cut down and it rode the tree all the way to Manhattan. Can you believe that?
The worker who found the owl went back down to the ground and got a box. I’m guessing that the worker cut off the branch to which the owl was clinging, and then placed the owl in the box. It’s an adorable picture. Then the owl was taken to a rehabilitation center and examined by a veterinarian. It will be released back into the wild once it’s safe.
I don’t know about you folks, but that’s the kind of story that makes me feel good about humanity. A lot of people decided to do the right thing, and in the process, they helped out a little owl that was probably very scared and confused. It gives me hope that we can all do kind and merciful things.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah is filled with longing—the prophet hopes for deliverance from unbearable circumstances; he doesn’t understand why God hasn’t delivered God’s chosen people from their suffering. This text speaks to me, especially verse 6: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” This brings to mind all of the hand-sanitizer and N-95 masks that characterize our lives these days. There are many parallels.
The Book of Isaiah was most likely written by three different authors, over a period of a couple centuries. Today’s reading comes from the third author, after a time known as the Babylonian captivity. During that time, the Babylonian empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah, captured all of the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem, and then took them into captivity in Babylon.
The exiles remained in Babylon for 60-80 years—new generations were born in captivity. During that time, they prayed. They lamented their fate. And they asked God for deliverance from captivity—and eventually they were set free. The Persians defeated the Babylonians and the exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
Everything was going to be great!
The exiles weren’t welcomed home. The people who remained in Judah moved on without the exiles. They picked up the pieces and carried on. The were not impressed by the returning exiles.
So here we are. God’s chosen people, Israel, called for deliverance, and they got it. But deliverance wasn’t as good as they thought it would be. And now Isaiah is pleading with God, again, for something new, for a better reality. This is part of a much larger pattern for the people called Israel. Consider their history.
The Israelites lived as slaves in the land of Egypt. They asked for deliverance and they were set free. But as they were wandering in the desert, they lost faith. They made an idol. They couldn’t let go of their old ways in Egypt. They prolonged their journey; they made it worse. Moses and Aaron and the Israelites who left Egypt never got to move into the Promised Land. Moses got to look at it from a distance, but that was about it.
God raised up a new generation of leaders and they crossed into the Land of Canaan. Each tribe of Israel took its own part of the land and things seemed good. At first. But then the people turned away from God. They were ruled by chieftains, also known as judges—many of whom were corrupt.
So, the people cried out to God for a king.
It seemed like a great idea at the time, but it didn’t work out so well. The first king was Saul. He started out great, but he lost his faith.
God chose another king, David. David started out as a virtuous young man, but he was corrupted by power. He became unrighteous. David was followed by Solomon, who was blessed with wisdom, wealth, and power. And like his father before him, Solomon was corrupted. The kingdom shattered; the people suffered.
None of this was lost on Isaiah—on any of the Isaiahs! The prophets all knew this history. They knew how kings and commoners all fell short and failed to keep the faith.
It’s hard for us, too. It’s hard for us to keep the faith when we are so often separated from one another. It’s hard to keep the faith when our technology fails us and we can’t hear the livestream of our worship service. It’s hard to keep the faith when we’re all so busy arguing with one another.
This pandemic has forced us to make a lot of changes. Some of them have been unpleasant, like this Thanksgiving, for instance. Other changes have been difficult, but worthwhile, such as the way that so many of us have embraced the new technologies and the new opportunities for worship that we have because of all the new technology. And yet, we’re all tired of the masks and the Zoom meetings; we want this thing to be over. We want to be delivered.
As I think of this, I can’t help but think of that little owl in the Christmas tree, clinging to that branch—it’s quite an image in a time of crisis!
The saw-whet owl is one of the tiniest species of owl in North America. It’s about the same size as a robin; its wingspan is about 18-22 inches. Not very big. While it is a predator, it’s not so big that it’s safe from other predators—hawks and larger owls will eat the saw-whet owl. So, it likes to take shelter in pine trees where it’s hard to see and even harder to get at.
I think we can all relate to the idea of taking shelter in this weird time. Shelter is good, but its twin sister is isolation, and that’s not healthy.
Emily Dickinson wrote most of her poems in isolation. As she became an adult, she turned into a recluse. None of her poems were published in her lifetime, yet her poetry has influenced countless writers over the years. I think it’s worth hearing this poem:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Scholars read the word “Hope” in this poem as a metaphor for salvation. Perhaps “Hope” is that bit of God that dwells within us and keeps us from giving up, no matter how hard the wind is blowing; no matter how violent the storm.
We see that violent imagery in the prophet Isaiah’s plea to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—” This tearing of the heavens, this storm from on high, this should sound familiar to every Christian. We hear this phrase used in the gospels in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus.
As Christians, we read this plea from Isaiah as a call for a Messiah. We see the fulfillment of this cry in the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. This isn’t just about God’s act of self-sacrifice. This is also about God’s self-awareness. This is about a God that changes his mind, a God who loves us so much that he’s going to keep on trying, no matter how foolish, or blind, or mean we can be. Our God loves us so much that he’s going to keep trying new things, even when we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes.
God hears our pleas, just as God heard the prophet Isaiah. We have to be patient. Isaiah cried out that God would tear the heavens open and come down—and God did—something like four hundred years later. We have to be patient, too. At the same time, we have to have the tenacity of that little owl, yet we also have to know when to let go of the old things and fly off into God’s hopeful future. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, be hopeful and shine with God’s love. Rebuild and repair relationships. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!