The Clay Cries Out: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9 can be found here.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Or, we might say, Jesus, take the wheel!

This is the beginning of Advent for us! Advent—the time we are accustomed to thinking of as a sweet time, like the last weeks of preparing for the arrival of a baby. A time of nesting, of preparations for the one we have been longing for… Decorating. Twisting a perfect silken ribbon into a beautiful bow.

Except, this longing tears at our lungs like smoke from a fire.

This longing finds us sobbing at midnight, and retching at dawn.

This longing pushes us to demand the presence of an all-powerful God to fix it, fix it all, fix it now.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Do we mean it? Do we really want God to tear open the heavens and appear in the glory that made Moses avert his eyes, that caused the Israelites to beg not to be subjected to the tintinnabulation of that awful, awe-inspiring voice like a thousand waterfalls and a million stars exploding? The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in an Advent sermon,

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.[i]

Are we sure we want God to tear open the heavens and come down? Do we really mean it?

Isaiah meant it. The people for whom and to whom Isaiah spoke, meant it.

They had nothing left to lose, you see. And as terrifying as the day of the Lord would be for them—for any sane person who starts to get a glimmer of what the presence of the Lord might truly mean—they had already seen greater horrors than they could ever have imagined.

The occupation of their holy city. The ransacking, defiling, and destruction of their holy place, the Temple. The killing or carrying away into exile all their leadership, from kings to priests to scribes to military commanders. The carrying away of nearly all the people into exile. Then, returning to what was supposed to be home, but didn’t feel like home any more. The ongoing struggle to understand their own culpability in what had happened to them.

And that question we try not to ask, but can’t help ourselves: Where. Was. God? How could God let this happen?

When you have nothing left to lose, that emptiness sometimes becomes the hinge of the door that opens to your new life. And for Isaiah, and the people he spoke for, and the people he ministered to, this was the pivotal moment.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Advent begins for us, not in perfect peaceful waiting by the fireside. Instead, it begins as a people on the edge, a people unsure, terrified maybe, of what is coming. And it begins with us as people ready for God to do it. To tear back the veil between what is, and what God’s preferred and planned future for us will be.

When we reach the limits of our own abilities, that is sometimes the moment when we can finally understand what it is to be human.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter.

I can tell you with complete certainty that I have never in my life had an interest in being clay.

I had a bunch of conversations with Sue Troy this fall about this very Sunday, and they all centered on the notion that perhaps she could bring her potter’s wheel here and throw a pot while I preached? Alas, no. Apparently, potter’s wheels are incredibly heavy—asking Sue to bring it was something akin to asking someone to carry in a baptismal font.  But our conversations gave me at least two insights: 1. The work of a potter is more complicated than I know. And 2. A potter, when they’ve decided that a vessel isn’t what they wanted it to be, takes decisive action. They don’t explain to the vessel what’s about to happen. They don’t say, “Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.” They don’t try to tweak the shape by small increments.

The vessel is smashed. Pushed and pulled until it is, once again, a lump. Just clay. But now it is something the potter can, once again, work with.

It sounds absolutely terrifying.

But Bonhoeffer’s sermon takes a turn here. He notes,

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God… comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy.[ii]

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter.

This is a statement of complete confidence and complete humility, both at the same time.

Humility, because we are clay. We are clay crying out for God to intervene. And we know that that intervention may take the form of changing not just our situation, but us, too. This is the conventional wisdom about prayer, by the way: that our prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. Prayer, too, is an act of humility.

But this is also a statement of confidence, because this particular potter, is also our creator. Our father, our mother, the one who gave us birth, who formed us in our mother’s womb. Doesn’t a mother remember her nursing child? Doesn’t a father run to welcome the prodigal home? Tear open the heavens, God, because we’ve got nothing left to lose except our own misguided notions that we can hold it all together, fix it all ourselves, and bind up our own wounds.

Wouldn’t it be a relief to let God be our hope, instead of our own devices and desires?

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter.

Other things that happen when we get to the end of our rope: In addition to turning to God, we turn to some of God’s most miraculous creations: one another. I was looking up a book by Brené Brown[iii] on the Amazon website the other day, and I scrolled down the page to read the reviews. The first one was not a book review at all. It was a confession. Among other things, the author had written: “I decided five years ago that I was done with fitting in, and that I'd rather be lonely and alone, than to continue immersing myself in a world I found caustic.” The author—I have no idea whether it was a woman or a man—described their withdrawal from the world in heartbreaking terms. Everywhere they looked they saw anger, unkindness, casual cruelty. They had decided to stand alone, and had done so—for five years.

And instead of feeling better, they found themselves in a world of pain—except now, there was no one to share the pain with, and no one to help them find out if there was another way.

Isolating ourselves is easier than ever. That place, Amazon, that used to be a bookseller? You can get your groceries from them now. You can get your electronic devices, and your entertainment, and medical equipment and running shoes— or bedroom slippers. It is entirely possible today to live as if we are completely alone in the world and just avoid the pain of human interaction.

But then, we would be subject to the pain of deep isolation. And we would be forgetting that God puts us in community every chance that God gets. God places us in families, for good or for ill, and lets us learn the lessons of love—one way or another. God places us in schools—or maybe home-schooling groups—and gives us opportunities to find friends, or not. God leads us into churches (or synagogues or mosques or party headquarters or community choruses). God places us in community, because that is our very best chance of meeting God, and being transformed by that meeting.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

For we are at the end of our ropes.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter…

We can be clay, and cry out for God’s terrifying and loving presence and salvation. We can be clay, and let God fashion us into something beautiful. We can be clay, and allow God to make us—together—into a hope-filled people, a community of caring. We can be clay, for God is our potter. We couldn’t be in better hands.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Coming of Jesus Into Our Midst,” found at the Bonhoeffer Blog,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017).