Living in the Paradox
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.
Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:6–9).
Advent invites us to know who we really are. The humility of the human condition is captured beautifully by Isaiah: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags …” It can’t be more plain than that; we are nothing as we stand before God, and we are powerless to do anything to improve our standing or to save ourselves. Our best efforts (our own righteous acts) are nothing but filth before the One who is holy. But Isaiah does not leave us utterly hopeless; he calls upon the Lord, our Father, begging for mercy, for another chance. We are God’s creation. Just as a potter can rework and reuse his clay when an object created is not suited for its purpose, so can God reshape us, reform us, and redeem us, for we are the work of his hand.
There is an ancient bit of rabbinic wisdom that captures the paradox we find in Isaiah, it goes like this:
A man should always wear a garment with two pockets. In one pocket, there should be a note which reads, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other pocket, there should another note which reads, “For me, the world was made.”
We live within this paradox. We ARE but dust and ashes. Our lives on earth are a mere flicker in the onward sweep of history. We are nothing—even the most important of us (as defined by the world) is here for a mere moment and leaves little behind once our lives are over.
But we are much more; for each of us, the world was made! Our lives are not random; we are not here at this time and in these circumstances by chance. We are creatures of a loving God who has revealed himself to us as our Father. The psalmist writes:
You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well (Psalm 139 13–14).
Our humanity was made to bear his image and likeness. Yes, we are but dust and ashes, but each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, from the moment of our conception the Father is at work knitting us together to be his child, his beloved, his image.
Father, we stand before you as dust and ashes, we are nothing before your majesty. Yet you have given us the right to be your adopted children through our faith in your Son, Jesus. Deepen our faith in him and allow us to express that faith in both words and actions as we wait for his return.
Take two index cards and write notes to yourself. On one write: “I am but dust and ashes.” And on the other write: “For me the world was made.” Carry them with you, one in your left pocket and the other in your right, as reminders of both the humility and the profound wonder of your existence, an existence that is a gift from God.
Watching and Waiting For the Lion of Judah: Advent Day by Day
Rev. Richard Hasselbach