Advent Reflection: Pain seeking understanding

by Sharon Marr

Sharon acknowledged that she was mostly delivering a reflection first given by the late Rev Chris Ison in 2017. Here is her slightly modified version.

(Based on Isaiah 64:1-9)

Chris begins … Rabbi Hugo Gryn tells the story of a synagogue in a small village in Poland, at Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement. There is a man there, the tailor, who is apparently having the most dreadful argument — shaking his fists and muttering and everybody is disturbed by it but nobody likes to interrupt the service. But when it ends, the rabbi goes to the man and says, ‘My friend, what on earth was going on there?’

‘Ah!’ says the tailor, ‘I got into a terrible argument with God. I said to Him, Look, I know I am not perfect. There have been times when I sat down and had my meal without saying the blessing or the grace. And there have been days when I have hurried through my prayers. And to confess it, I have occasionally charged people for double thread when I only used single, and sometimes I have kept a bit of cloth back to make clothes for my own children. So I’m not claiming any special privileges. But you, God! You take babies away from their mothers. Young men die on the field of battle. People are cut down before their time through illness. How can you let this happen? So let me make a bargain with you. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll forgive you.’

The tailor says to the rabbi, ‘Did I do wrong?’ And the rabbi answers the tailor, ‘My friend, you had such a strong case — why did you let God off so easily?’

This story illustrates for me one of the most striking aspects of Jewish prayer and worship: the willingness to engage with God in argument, complaint, and even blame.

This is something that goes right back to Isaiah 64.  I don’t know if you noticed in v5, ‘because you hid yourself we transgressed’ and later in v7, ‘There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us’  [You are as much to blame as we are!]

It is even more explicit in an earlier verse (63:17), ‘Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?’

All of this has a raw honesty about it … but it is a rawness that is rooted in deep relationship – unlike the sort of false piety that often passes for Christian worship.  The latter often reminds me of a couple who say, ‘We have never had a cross word all our married life’, … leaving you wondering what sort of relationship they have had?

In dealing with pain I suggest that raw honesty is needed, it is no use glossing it over and pretending it doesn’t hurt.  And we have it in this passage from Isaiah.

The Jews have suffered a calamity.  Their country has been conquered, the Temple – God’s home – has been destroyed, and for nearly 60 years they have been exiled in Babylon.  But now, following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, the Persian king, they are freed to return home.

But unlike earlier predictions this return has not been as glorious as expected.  Conditions are harsh, there is economic oppression and a resurgence of pagan rituals.  Where has God gone?  Why is he hiding and not looking after his people?  Sure, they may have transgressed, but he is not doing anything to help them.

I suggest that, whilst there is a difference in time and circumstance … and possibly in degree … the pain and the anger are not far different from those we experience.  Why does some loved friend or relation die of cancer, why did all those people die in the Christchurch earthquake, at why does a 2 year old child die of a vicious assault?  And Chris would have added … Why is Covid 19 roaming the world?

Why do we have to wait for God to act?  Why is he hiding?

Well, waiting? Waiting for God to act is what Advent is about, but what we start to see from this passage is that waiting is not a passive activity, it is a painful longing, an opportunity to engage with God with raw honesty like the tailor in the story … and like Isaiah.  It is when we start to do this that we start to come to some understanding; God is not there for us to manipulate or contain or control, but, as Isaiah realises, it is for us to recognise our need to be moulded by God.  Like the potter:

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.‘ (vs 8 and 9)

Isn’t that a marvellous plea.  We are God’s handiwork, shaped by loving hands.  Would God dispose of us any more than a potter would destroy their prized creation?

So we wait, and God seems hidden, but the hiddenness of God is not like that of Clark Kent waiting to transform himself into Superman … it is a form of divine judgement that ultimately serves a divine mercy.  It is the opportunity – the space we have – to recognise that … maybe God seems hidden because … we are looking in the wrong place.  We are looking for the God ‘who would tear open the heavens’, but we need to learn that this God will not come to us now in mighty acts of power; instead he comes to us unrecognised … in utter powerlessness, as a baby, in a manger, in Bethlehem ……………………………..

Then Sharon concludes with an Advent poem from Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

You can smell when it’s going to rain.
You know when a kid is hiding a surprise.
You have ways of knowing.
Awaken your wakefulness.

Watch for how the World,
TV, noise, ads, expectations,
want to put you to sleep.
Even religion will do it.
Distrust the world’s cynicism.

Stay alert to the little cracks
where the Divine slips in.
Where do you see love?
Where do you sense the hunger,
the emptiness … God alone will fill?

Stay awake with holy curiosity,
with hope — not knowing the outcome,
but staying alert, trusting
God is at work —
confident … not-yet-ness,
waiting …watching ……openness.

Sharon concludes: The head of the household is coming.   God is not hidden … we are just looking in the wrong place … open our eyes, Lord.   Amen

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