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An Advent Prayer for Our Predicament

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 27, 2011.

Isaiah 64:1-9

64O 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.

Christians begin our observance of Advent Season in 2011 in need of a prayer that God will intervene to save our world.  Human greed has resulted in a financial mess that has nations across the world reeling.  As Christmas melodies and carols call for peace on earth confusion seems to be pervasive.  People in the United States are struggling with crippling unemployment and under-employment. 

They’re witnessing home foreclosures while lenders who received billions of dollars to be rescued seem unwilling to show any compassion to financially distressed homeowners.[1]  It seems that government officials don’t care enough about the common good to work together. Or, perhaps they lust for power so much they can’t recognize the difference between the common good and political self-interest.[2]  When you factor in the still unjustified and un-repented war in Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and wars and threats of war elsewhere it’s easy to see how we need to pray for divine intervention. 

So the prayer from Isaiah’s prophecy fits our situation.  If only God would come down and set things right.  Wouldn’t it be nice if God would intervene and bring divine righteousness and justice to bear on our painful realities?  O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,  so that the mountains would quake at your presence—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! 

Rather than look to God for insight into our predicament and deliverance from it, many people seem out of touch with God’s presence, passion for our welfare, and purposeful power to deliver us from the evil we brought on ourselves and God’s world.  One wonders what must happen to cause us to pray for God to intervene. However, the prophet leaves no doubt about what we need to do. 

We must admit that we need divine help.  The prophet prays for a people who’ve become so out of touch with their spiritual existence they don’t look to God for help.  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. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you…  No matter who else may disregard the need and effectiveness of prayer, prophetic-minded people know better.  We aren’t afraid or ashamed to pray to God for help, even if no one else seems willing to call on God or own up to believing that God can help. 

We must acknowledge our predicament as a function of divine judgment.  Prophetic people don’t kid themselves about how the human situation came to this sad plight.  Our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you … Much of the distress in our lives results from what the Bible calls iniquity, unrighteousness, or sin.  In too many instances we have violated the divine commandment to love God and each other. 

  • We have elevated self-love above love for God and others. 
  • We have committed ourselves to self-indulgence when God’s love calls for self-sacrificial generosity. 
  • We have been consumed by addiction to self-worship and self-sufficiency. 

We can’t blame God for any of that.  We’ve chosen, decided, and elected to define our living by the absence of equity, a calculated refusal to be generous to those who are in need, by willful violence, by profit-making and profit-taking regardless of the pain we produce in ourselves and others, and by materialistic greed. 

But the pain and distress we are experiencing is also part of God’s judgment.  You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  God respects our moral freedom even when we exercise it in ungodly ways.  But if we don’t respect God’s sovereignty over all things (including human freedom), we aren’t likely to understand or respect God’s judgment when we abuse and misuse that freedom.  Divine judgment on sinfulness permits us to suffer from the evil we produce.

  • God entrusted the creation into the care of humans, but we’ve chosen to abuse that trust.  Scientists have long warned that human disrespect for nature and other life in creation is responsible for the growth of intense and destructive weather systems.  When will we admit that God has delivered us into the hand of our iniquity?
  • God calls us to love our neighbors, including our enemies.  Our insistence on using violence to resolve differences has produced unnecessary grief and pain, countless wasteful wars, and untold instability.  We seem addicted to violence judging from the proliferation of war games being sold year round, including during the Advent season when we sing about peace.  When will we admit that God has delivered us into the hand of our iniquity?
  • God calls on us to be merciful toward the vulnerable, but we seem determined to find new ways to marginalize and demonize vulnerable people—including people who are weak, elderly, impoverished, immigrants, and people of a different sexual orientation, racial and ethnic background, or religious belief.  So, we are witnessing tremendous misunderstanding, distrust, and hardship based on our unloving spirit toward people who are vulnerable.  Has God delivered us into the hand of our iniquity?

We must recognize that divine judgment on our sinfulness includes allowing us to reap what we’ve sown. 

We must trust God’s providence and grace.  Again, let’s look at the example left by the prophet.  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

The prayer of prophetic people at Advent and other times affirms that we all belong to God.  God is our common Creator.  God is our common Deliverer.  God is our common Hope and Strength.  We all belong to God. 

  • Immigrants and native born people belong to God. 
  • People of every sexual orientation and family situation belong to God. 
  • People of every language, ethnicity, nationality, and religious creed belong to God. 
  • People of every station in life, from the most destitute to the most luxurious, belong to God. 
  • All people, no matter how sin-stained we are, belong to God.

Beyond that, God’s purpose for us is better and greater than our sinful predicament.  Despite our sinful predicament, God, like an expert potter, desires to make something useful from us.  God desires for us to be agents of divine glory, truth, joy, peace, love, justice, and hope.  God wants to empower us to be instruments of healing in a strife-torn world.  God looks beyond our iniquity and sees a redemptive usefulness in us. 

At Advent, we don’t skirt the harsh realities of our sinful time.  Instead, we affirm that God loves the world so much that God sent Jesus into our predicament to show us the way out.  God doesn’t merely judge our sinfulness; God has chosen to redeem humanity and the creation.  In Jesus, God proves that the work of deliverance, reconciliation, and redemption is not a stand-off process. 

  • God has sent divine light into a dark world.
  • God has sent divine healing into a hurting world.
  • God has sent divine love into a hateful world.
  • God has sent self-sacrificial generosity into a self-indulgent and greedy world.
  • God has sent divine truth into a world hooked on lies.
  • And God has sent divine hope into a world overwhelmed by despair.

Jesus Christ has called us to be agents of the kingdom of God in the world.  So, we pray with confidence, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven …” We see the predicament.  But we look beyond the predicament to the Person and Power who is able to keep us from falling, and present us as holy agents of divine joy and glory to God.

Our predicament is not too much for God.  Our sin is not too great for God to forgive.  Our prospects are not too bleak for God’s power to overcome. We are the clay.[3]  It appears that we’re ruined and useless.  But God is the potter. 

  • God, not the Super Committee, is the potter.
  • God, not the bankers, employers, President, Prime Ministers, or other powers, is the potter.

God can still make something useful from us.  The issue is whether we will prayerfully surrender ourselves to be re-made, redeemed, renewed, and reconciled for God’s holy purposes.

So we pray, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!  We pray, Come Lord Jesus! Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.   This is the prayer and purpose for prophetic people—at Advent and all other seasons.  And because God has revealed divine grace and truth for us in Jesus Christ, this is our confidence despite every predicament!  Amen.

[1] In this sense homelessness has taken on a new meaning.  The homeless now include former homeowners who were enticed into taking “home equity” and other mortgages before the U.S. housing market imploded in 2008.  Now their homes are worth less than the debt they owe.  The recession resulted in job layoffs and other cutbacks in employment that left homeowners unable to pay their mortgages.  Lenders have been foreclosing on the loans, thereby forcing the owners into homelessness.

[2] Witness the failure of the much hailed “Super Committee” designated by leaders of the U.S. Congress after Congress failed to enact legislation to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in 2010. 

[3] Remember that clay Is dirt that can be worked, re-worked, crumbled, softened, hardened, crushed, molded, shaped, reshaped—redeemed!  Our predicament Is not too much for the Potter!