A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 29 November 2020 by the Revd Sally Hitchiner.

Reading for this address: Isaiah 64

On Friday the new St Martins Congregation film club watched a depiction of A Christmas Carol. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. It is perhaps Charles Dickens’ most well known novel. We love it so much because of how well the central character is depicted and perhaps because he honours those who meet Christmas with a profound “Baa Humbug”.

Even for those who love Christmas – it may be harder to make idilic this year. 2020 has not been fair to many and the comforts and cheer we normally use to get our extended family through this time of year are in short supply. How are we going to celebrate Christmas in 2020?

What struck me about Scrooge was that his problem wasn’t so much that he hadn’t understood Christmas, but that he hadn’t understood Advent. He had nowhere to go with his anger and frustration.

If you hate Christmas, if you find yourself as bitter as Scrooge this year, then I have an early present for you. Advent.

Advent is the four weeks of preparation for the big day. I have a hunch that if we can do Advent right then Christmas, even Christmas in 2020, will take care of itself.

In Advent we are invited to sweep clean our lives to prepare for the arrival of Jesus. It’s a time to get back to the basics of the christian life with certain practices – I’m sure you can guess them, praying, reading the Bible, attending church, giving to charity, all good things to do. But I would like to suggest an unusual slant on this this year.

I would like to suggest we discover the skill, perhaps we could even call it the Spiritual Gift, of complaining, complaining to God.

The religious word for complaining in this way is Lament – a cry of need or regret. Lament is rarely neat measured, eloquent like a politician tweeting that they are ‘saddened’ by the actions of an opponent. I’m talking about angry, messy complaining to God…

I’d like us to put the vent into Advent.

Maybe this is exactly the present you want today. But even if you’re not in that place I’d invite you to store this away as one day you might need it too. The other thing is that lament invites us to solidarity with others. Sometimes I read Psalms that cry of being hemmed in on every side and it does nothing for me. But then I think of Christians in Syria or of a friend who has just had a relapse of cancer or of another friend who is overwhelmed caring for family and I realise I can pray it for them.

Today we’re looking at a particularly messy form of lament… angry lament.

Many of us have seen unhealthy expressions of anger or we don’t know where we can go with our anger that will not be destructive so we suppress it and try not to be angry people. But what we find in our Old Testament reading is an example of anger (quite a lot of anger) in the right place; in expression to God. Perhaps you would like to bring it up in the link to the Order of Service in the comments section.

The author of this passage has enough reason to be angry.

Partly through his people getting too big for their boots and being irritating to their neighbours, partly through the cruelty of the retaliation and partly through bad luck, their land had been ransacked leaving them in poverty, in raid after raid their people had been carried off as slaves and their capital city (including the Temple where they met with God) had been desecrated and raised to the ground. Now the survivors in dribs and drabs were starting to return to see what was left of the rubble of what was once their lives.

The lament starts with God

“Oh that you would have torn the heavens and come down!”

This is a protest (the Hebrew suggest it’s in the past tense) – Where was God when it all went wrong?… God seems to have been up in his heavens having a lovely time relaxing while we’ve been down here with it all falling apart. Doesn’t God care? Maybe the curtain between heaven and earth was too much of an effort to break through?

This anger with God isn’t uncommon when people have been through a tragedy. There seems to be an unspoken contract we have that God should ensure that we have a happy life.

It’s not uncommon for members of the general public to make excuses of why they feel awkward around priests. “Sorry Padre, God and I aren’t really on speaking terms at the moment”

What is less common is someone taking the time to tell God how they angry they are. Perhaps it’s our upbringing that teaches us that the morally good thing to do is to contain anger, to swallow it rather than to talk about it.

To be fair, there aren’t many people who can cope with this level of anger and disappointment being hurled at them. But God isn’t like other people. What we find here is that God has room to hear about it. In fact there’s a lot of it in the Bible. The word “Hear” or “Listen up God” appears more than 70 times in the book of Psalms alone.

In some psalms of lament and especially in the book of Job this is all there is. Bad things have happened to someone and it’s not their fault. But in this case, having hurled accusation at God, the writer realises he and his people haven’t held up their side of the unwritten contract either.

Perhaps we struggle to pray like this because to let that level of anger out we have to find some fairly ugly language.

Now the writer is talking about himself and his people, the language stays angry… he’s almost spitting out the words.

“We’re no better… no better than tameh” – unclean people (like lepers who were kept out of society and certainly the religious spaces),

“all our good deeds are like beged iddim” – used sanitary towels.

This has gone way past polite prayers or the sort of language you’d normally hear in public worship.

When people are angry they use language that they wouldn’t use at other times… they grasp for a vessel robust enough to hold their emotion. And God in God’s eternal capacity, has space for this.

The writer continues, “We all are shrivelled up like a leaf and the wind of our sins sweeps us away.”

It’s incredibly powerful poetry.

Those people who we excluded? We are no better than them.

Even when we have the appearance of ‘righteous acts’ they’re rancid if you look too closely at our motives.

There’s so little strength of character left that we are blown this way or that, we are blown far from what’s important to us, because of a stupid, stubborn commitment to carrying on in practices that were destructive until all that is left that isn’t this destruction is shrivelled and small.

“No one calls upon your name or strives to lay hold of you” – we can’t be bothered with our faith anymore

And because of this God is alienated from us – God’s face is hidden.

When people are angry with God we interpret God’s silence or inaction as anger with us.

God hasn’t upheld his side of the contract to give us a good life. But we haven’t upheld our side of the contract either.

And then something surprising happens.

There is a shift in language from the language of contract to the language of covenant. The language of family…

“Yet you, Lord, are our Father.

We are the clay, you are the potter;

we are all the work of your hand.”

Contracts can be broken but family, family is a lot more permanent. Whatever they have done, you can’t deny someone is your child. You can’t change your mind about who made a clay pot because it has cracked in the kiln. The writer finally lands on hope, hope that God is still in their lives, based not on what’s going on around them, but on the fact that God made them in the first place.

One of the practices I try to hold when people come for a pastoral conversation with me, particularly when they are angry is I ask. “Is there anything else you’d like to say? Would you like to meet again to explore this more?”

It’s rare that they have said everything but once they have had the space to be really honest, once all the anger has been let out, a peace falls – at least a peace with God and themselves even if there is some work to do to bring justice to others.

And we see that here. A different kind of prayer.

“Oh look on us, for we are your people.”

Finally, like a toddler running out of steam, the writer sees the person who has been listening all along.

“Yet you Lord are our Father. We are they clay, you are the Potter. We are the work of your hands.”

We can’t get our money back if life isn’t as good as it should be because we didn’t invest the money in the first place. God created us. God formed us into what we are. We would have no form without God.

However, we can’t jump to this point of covenant. In fact throughout the centuries Christians have been encouraged to invest time in the time of lament.

Advent is a time when we are actively encouraged to pray prayers that acknowledge that God is not as close as we would like. God is not as close as we need right now.

The world is broken.

And if we are honest, much in our own lives is a mess.

What is your way to pray these things with honesty in Advent 2020?

Maybe you are so mad you could spit, if so you have a friend in the author of this passage, and you have an example that God honours those prayers enough to keep them in his book so that we, 2600 years later, can read them.

Maybe you’re not in that place of desperation, but this passage tells us to find a way of prayer that is honest for us this year.

Advent is an invitation to spend that time being honest with God.

What we find is not just God the Potter and Father – God our Creator.

What we find, at the end of Advent is a God who also joins us in the clay.

God is formed in cells and blood and tissues in a woman’s body.

As we cry up to heaven “Oh that you would have torn the heavens and come down” we find that God is at our side shouting all the louder “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And that God, having been with us from above and from below has now met us from both sides as Father and as Brother. There is nowhere we can go away from the reach of God’s love.

In Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, he is teaching us to be honest with God or to be in solidarity with those for whom prayer cannot be neat. And we are praying with hope because God has promised to return. To be with us forever without separation. To put right all that is wrong. To make us into a people who each in our own ways look like Jesus and bring life and health to the world.

So this Advent we have an invitation to bring our whole selves to God and know that we will be met.

We have an invitation to discover the vent in Advent.

But there is one more vent to speak of.

Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ baptism and talk about the heavens opening but in Mark’s gospel reaches for the language of Isaiah 64. Perhaps this is God’s answer to the whole of humanity, held in the body of Jesus.

“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”