What are you longing for? | Sermon from 11/26/17

Based on Isaiah 64:1-9

All I wanted for Christmas was a power wheels car.

It’s all I’d wanted for my birthday before that. And the Christmas before that. Growing up on a college campus, I had free reign of a tremendous amount of land. I thought I was big stuff when I would ride my bike to the student center to check our post office box. The next step for me was to ride a power wheels to the student center to check the mail, visit my dad’s office, and look so cool in front of the college students.

I could just see myself cruising down the sidewalks of Berry College’s campus, riding my power wheels, blowing the horn for students to get out of my way, driving home with the mail in its little trunk, delivering it to my mom. I had a spot picked out to store it, a way to charge it. I had it all figured out.

All I wanted for Christmas was a power wheels. I longed for a power wheels.

I got socks, pajamas, and some toys.

I never got the power wheels.

I longed for a power wheels. What are you longing for?

[Pause]

Living among the rubble and ruins of their former capital, the people longed for restoration. They longed to return to the glories they had once known under kings, the splendor of their worship in their temple, the status they’d held among the world powers.

King Darius of the Persian Empire had released the Jews from their captivity in Babylon. Isaiah, in our scripture this morning, finds them recently returned to Jerusalem, their once splendid capital, looking around at the rubble and ruins left from the destruction wrought by the Babylonians about sixty years earlier.

While this is better than captivity, the people’s longings are unfulfilled. They long for political independence, they long to see their capital splendid again, they long for restoration of the lives they had known before the Babylonian destruction.

Out of their longing, the people cry out to God, confessing their sins and lamenting their condition. They ask God for help, they ask God for restoration. They commit to God, saying in verse 8 that they are clay and God is the potter. It’s the ancient equivalent of saying to God, “do what you want with us. We simply want to be faithful to you.” They beg God’s forgiveness following verse 8, ending our scripture for this morning with that simple plea: please don’t be angry with us forever. Remember, we are your people.

They long to be restored. What are you longing for?

[Pause]

On the outskirts of town, the least of these make their way to a small cave. They’ve been miraculously directed there, and while excitement fills the air, they’re not quite sure what they’ll find.

The shepherds are headed toward what we usually call the manger, but what was probably a cave in the mountains on the outskirts of Bethlehem, that small, unremarkable, town we heard about in our advent candle reading this morning.

They have heard that a savior is born! The angel told them that. Then a whole host of angels appeared and sang glory to God in the highest! They have witnessed a spectacular show like none of us have ever seen! And so they make their way to Mary and Joseph, celebrating with them.

They know a savior is born, bringing fulfillment to five hundred years of longing!

For five hundred years, the remnant who returned from Babylon, the people speaking to God in our text from Isaiah this morning, have longed for restoration of the monarchy, the realizing of political independence. They’re awaiting God to send a king! They’re awaiting deliverance from Roman rule. They’re awaiting the fulfillment of all their years of longing and all their years of good behavior. They’re awaiting a savior!

And in the manger cold and dark, their savior is born!

But what kind of savior? Is this the savior they’ve been waiting for, they longed for?

We know the answer is yes, but the religious and civil leaders, by and large, don’t recognize who Jesus is. The lowliest of people, like the shepherds, get it, but the pharisees, the sadducees, King Herod, Pontius Pilate; they all miss it. Their longings are fulfilled, but they’ve completely missed it, they don’t see what God is doing in their midst, they have no idea that in the city of David, their longings are fulfilled.

How in the world could they miss this? They’ve been longing for a savior and the savior has arrived! But they miss it.

In Isaiah, at the beginning of their return, they’re ready to let God do whatever God wants with them. They cede their power into the master’s hands, saying that God is the potter and they are they clay. They tell God to mold them into whatever God desires, to take their longings and shape them into whatever God deems necessary.

God took their longings and shaped them into the Messiah. But the religious authorities missed it.

By the time of Jesus’s birth, the priests and religious officials had decided that God’s plan of salvation was the restoration of the monarchy. One day, they believed, God would do this. They had it all worked out in their minds: what it would look like when it happened, how it would happen, what the Messiah would mean, how the Messiah would arrive.

They’d spent so long dreaming about their salvation, about the fulfillment of their longings, about their deliverance, that they had blinded themselves to see what God was doing. They had seized control over the outcome.

They had removed themselves as clay from the potter’s hands, shaping their longings into pottery of their own making. In doing so, they blinded themselves to the great work unfolding in their midst. They had no idea that in the manger, cold and dark, the savior is born! They had no idea that their longings were fulfilled.

What are you longing for?

[Pause]

We all long for things. We long for the winter to be cold enough to kill the gnats. We long for particular gifts we hope will be under the tree. We long for a vacation. We long for a new car.

And then we long for more consequential things. We long for our families to be healthy and whole. We long for the restoration of our own health. We long for families broken by various evils to be reunited and at peace. We long for our finances to right themselves. We long for our children and grandchildren to grow up to be happy and healthy adults who contribute positively to the world. We long for leaders we can believe in.

As we long, the question before us is the same as it was for the people of Isaiah’s time: are we the clay, or are we the potter?

If we’re the potter, we’ve decided the outcome of our longings. We’re the ones in charge of figuring out how to bring that longing to reality. In the small things, we’ve decided what kind of new car to purchase or when we’ll take a vacation. In the big things, we’re in control of our children’s upbringing, we’re rightsizing our finances, we’re reuniting our families, we’re healing relationships. We have no need for God in any of our longings because we’re firmly in charge; we’re the potter.

But if we’re the clay, we’re asking God to develop the final outcome, to be the satisfaction of our longings, to be our savior. We’re telling God that what we long for most is him.

Clay is not simply passive. It sometimes cooperates, sometimes fights against the potter’s hands; it goes in its own direction; it requires careful attention by the potter as she shapes and molds it. It’s that process, that sometimes cooperating sometimes fighting, that give and take with the potter’s hands, that molds our longings into God’s desired outcome, which is always better than the outcome we could construct on our own.

What God will shape our longings into isn’t for us to know. God has a grander plan in mind for those longings that we could imagine, a grander plan for our children, our health, our very lives, just as God’s plan in Christ was far grander than the religious and secular authorities could ever have imagined!

When we are the potter, we miss the great work God is doing in our lives. This is how the religious authorities missed Jesus. They were the potter, they were in control, they had decided how all their longings would be fulfilled. When we choose to be the Clay, when we cede control to God and allow God to shape our longings, we find Jesus. That is how we will make sure we find Jesus afresh and anew this Advent season. We must learn to long, we must choose to be Clay and not the Potter.

What are you longing for? Or perhaps better put, do you trust the potter with your longings? Are you the potter, or are you the clay?

[Pause]

I longed for justice and restoration.

I spent last Thanksgiving depressed and angry. We had moved up to Cartersville for me to work as the chaplain of Reinhardt University. After only four months on the job, I knew that it could not last. The president had defamed me publicly, restricted my duties, and sought my removal. This came because I had refused her request to engage in activity I thought unethical and, for that, my job was threatened and with it, my livelihood and the stability of my family.

I spent last Thanksgiving thinking of how I could seize control over the future for my career and my family. I thought of how I could get revenge, of how I could right the injustice done, of how I could expose the ethical dilemmas. I had great plans, big plans.

But I never went through with them. Friends, family, and mentors in my life reminded me of what the people in Isaiah’s text knew: only God can fulfill our longings. Only God could bring about the justice and restoration I longed for.

Today, after this year’s Thanksgiving, I can say that God has fulfilled my longings for restoration. Moving here and becoming your pastor was a part of that restoration and I can testify to the power of God’s redemptive hand in my life and in the lives of my family.

But I haven’t yet seen my longing for justice fulfilled. Many times in the past year, I have been tempted to act out for justice on my own, but I have held back. It is clear to me that justice can only come from God’s hand, and I have yet to feel convicted that any of my schemes are of God.

And so I wait, sometimes with patience, sometimes with frustration. Longing for something isn’t easy, and I still walk that journey as I long for justice to come. And justice may never come to that particular situation, but God is moving for justice; that’s the hope we know this Advent season. God is never done moving for justice. We may have trouble seeing it, we may think God absent at moments, we may see humans fail who should be moving for justice, but God is there, in the background, moving for justice.

For God is the potter, shaping the clay of our circumstances into the cup of salvation, from which will come justice. We simply must learn patience, must learn to wait, must learn to long.

That was the chief lesson for me as I went through the season of Advent last year still depressed and angry. As I sat in church, bringing my sorrow and righteous indignation with me, I found God speaking gently into my life: learn to long.

When we long for something, we give God the clay of our longing to shape into whatever God desires. We cede the outcome to God, trusting that God will bring that longing to fulfillment, even if we have no idea how. When we learn to long, we learn to say, with full confidence, that all we need is Jesus.

Giving up that control is incredibly difficult, but after my experience last year, I testify before you today that it’s worth the wait. What God can do goes far beyond our expectations. What God has done in my life in this past year is far beyond anything I could have accomplished on my own. I wrestled against God, I threw myself around on the potter’s wheel, fighting against the potter’s hands. But in that give and take, I found the potter’s hands calming me, asking me to trust, calling on me to give up control over the outcome to my longings.

God called on me to learn to long. And that’s the call on our lives this morning. We must learn to long.

This is the season of Advent. It’s a time where we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. It’s a season designed to make us wait, to remind us that we must learn to long, so that we may know in our hearts that all we need is Jesus.

Today, we have the opportunity to learn to long. I have for us a simple exercise that can help. While we make lists of presents to give people, lists of parties to attend, lists of things to do to prepare our homes for company, make one more list: make a list of the things you’re longing for. They can be significant or insignifiant, silly or from the depths of your soul; the potter cares about all your longings.

After you make your list, take them to God in prayer, telling God “I am the clay, you are my potter; I am the work of your hand. Shape me, mold me, as you will.” Cede the outcome to God, and watch God’s fulfillment unfold, in expected and unexpected ways.

Make such a list, as a reminder that we can trust God with our lists, with our longings, and wait for their fulfillment in patience, because we’re God’s people.

That’s the confidence the people declare at the end of our scripture. “Now consider, we are your people,” they say.

So we can say, with confidence, that we’re all God’s children. That makes everything, including our longings, right.

Don’t miss Jesus this Advent season. Don’t miss the work God is doing in your life. Submit yourself as clay, ceding yourself to God the potter to discover that all you need is Jesus.

What are you longing for? Be clay, learn to long, trusting the Potter with your longings.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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