Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37
Tear Open the Heavens
First of all, Happy New Year! Liturgically speaking, of course.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent, and as such the beginning of a new liturgical year for the church. Beginning with this season, the church follows a cycle of anticipation and preparation, culminating in the celebration of the Nativity in the brief season of Christmas (it really does last twelve days, just like the song says). That culminates in the event given the name Epiphany, marking in most reckonings the visitation of the Magi, or Wise Men, or the Three Kings, whichever you remember best. After a period of what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” Ash Wednesday surprises us with the initiation of the season of Lent, another preparatory season with a focus on the events leading to Christ’s final days on earth and the Crucifixion. Easter announces the Resurrection of Christ, and the season that follows (seven Sundays in all) leads to Pentecost, marking the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Ideally, this pattern leads us on a yearly basis through the life cycle of the church, so to speak; a season of anticipation followed by the celebration of the birth of Christ, a season for teaching and learning Christ’s life and teaching, commemoration of Christ’s death and life again, and the so-called “birthday of the church” at Pentecost. Ideally, that is.
In practice, certain occasions or seasons tend to get overlooked, actively pushed aside, or misunderstood. Depending on where you look, Advent is all three.
This may partly be because Advent has a double meaning. It does mark the approach of the Nativity, the first coming of Christ in the form of the child Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmas (or often weeks before) with pageants and music and decorations and nativity scenes and all manner of festivity. However, Advent also serves the more here-and-now purpose of encouraging reflection upon Christ’s return, that great day a-coming when we will no longer live in separation from our Lord, but will “see him as he is” in Paul’s words and will be gathered together for eternity.
For some, this is what might be called an off-ramp. It conjures up images of those hell-fire preachers with their codes for reading the Bible for clues to the date of the “Rapture” or some other contrived remaking of Christ’s return. We Presbyterians – for whom the phrase “decently and in order” was invented – tend to be suspicious or maybe fearful of such out-of-control theological gamesmanship and to want to keep our distance from it, which is fair enough.
Still, there is something disruptive about Advent, if we take it seriously, that we as a church, and perhaps especially we as Presbyterians, need.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament offers something of the proper – that is, radically upsetting and even destructive – frame of mind for marking a genuine celebration of Advent. Just look at that phrase that opens the chapter: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”. That is an image we just don’t associate with Christmas. Yet it is practically the essence of observing Advent: identifying and claiming the intense, even painful desire for return, to be among us humans once again, even if it sounds a little destructive. We know ourselves to be cut off, and we want to be reunited with our Lord, whatever it takes.
As the chapter continues, we see that it sounds a lot more like a psalm than the usual business of a prophet, chewing out the people for their sins. In this case the prophet becomes the voice or the mouthpiece of the people, putting into words their desire for God and even their petition for God to return to them, even if that requires “tearing open the heavens.”
Impressive, but not "tear open the heavens" impressive.
As is often the case with psalms, there is at least a three-part structure to this psalm-like unit of the prophet’s writing. In this case, the first part of the “psalm” is a plea, a cry out from the people for God to…well, to “be God,” to do the dramatic, earth-shaking, attention-getting things that the people remember from their memory and their sacred story. They cry out for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to come in such a way “as when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil.” They’re looking for a dramatic intervention, in other words, for God to go all Old Testament on the world and shake things up, to get their foes trembling and the earth to shaking.
It takes a little while to understand why a people would want to invoke such a thing. What could they possibly be thinking? Why in the world would you cry out for earthquakes and the heavens tearing open? Why would they be crying out for the kind of divine action that overwhelms and leaves no room for human will – brushwood has no choice about burning when fire is set to it, nor water about boiling when it is heated. Why have the people given up?
It helps to know just who the prophet’s audience is in this case, whose words are being evoked here. The author of Isaiah, or at least this last part of it, is widely understood to be preaching among the people of Israel who have returned from Babylonian exile. They have returned to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem isn’t what they remember. It’s in ruins. It’s unlivable. It’s unsafe and a sitting duck before Israel’s enemies. The people are scared, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know what to do.
In time, the prophet-psalmist gets around to admitting the harder truth. The condition of the people is largely their own doing. Oh, they try to pass the buck. They even try to blame God for “hiding” from them (v. 5). Even that cannot stand, though, as the people are eventually forced to admit that it is their own iniquity that has brought about their circumstances. No matter how much they might want to blame God for hiding, they have to admit the truth of an old saying: “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved.” Finally, the prophet and people have to resort to pleading with God to remember that “we are all your people” (v. 9), no matter how badly they’ve fouled things up.
The psalm for the day (that is, the selection from the actual book of Psalms) actually covers similar territory as the passage from Isaiah. A call for God to come leads to a lament at the seeming distance of God, and finally a plea for restoration. Psalm 80 is so much more polite than the Isaiah passage, though, so much more tame and suitable for singing in worship. The raw desperation of Isaiah’s pseudo-psalm is particularly evocative, even to us moderns on the edge of another Advent season.
The reading from Mark’s gospel gives a fairly vivid picture of what happens when God really does intervene in dramatic fashion. Even this, though, doesn’t quite capture the desperation and violence of Isaiah’s language. There is another passage in Mark, though, that echoes Isaiah rather strongly. In chapter 1 of the gospel Mark offers a very brief account of the baptism of Jesus. As Mark describes the event,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11)
“The heavens torn apart.” Sounds familiar, yes? It is no small thing, no sweetly picturesque picture. It is violent, upsetting whatever stands in its way, disrupting and revolutionizing and refusing altogether to be decent and in order.
It is worth our time as Advent begins again to spend a little time with the likes of Isaiah, as well as perhaps the psalmists. The people to whom the prophets preached or ranted or sang had plenty of experience with waiting and anticipating. They didn’t always do it well, mind you, as today’s reading suggests, but they knew what it was to live in anticipation, to know that life as they knew it was not life as it was meant to be. Likewise, we don’t live in paradise. We don’t live in perfect union with God or perfect fellowship with Christ or in perfect unity in the Spirit. We might just be able to learn something from these people and their failings and their yearnings.
Thirty years ago the Methodist pastor and author Will Willimon wrote a commentary on this Isaiah passage, one which was situated in a time when American society was possessed of a rather different attitude than we might see around us today. Remember “Morning in America”? All optimism and sunny smiles and no, there’s nothing wrong with America? And then, once the presidential election was over, … oops, we actually do have a deficit, and taxes are going to go up, and maybe things are not quite so perfect as we promised. OK, maybe it wasn’t that different of a time, but we do live in a society in which the rich get richer and the poor die trying, when society goes crazy on Black Friday at Walmart harrying employees who rely on food stamps and welfare to survive on a Walmart salary, when our legal system twists itself into knots to say it’s o.k. to shoot an unarmed youth as long as he’s black.
Okay, maybe we can understand why Isaiah’s people might be looking for dramatic divine intervention, for God to tear open the heavens and come down. But when we call on God to come down, we need to know what we’re invoking.
The heavens tearing open. The mountains shaking. Fire set to the brushwood engulfing it in flame, setting the water aboil. Our lives disrupted, our routines disrupted irreparably, our paths rerouted in ways we can’t imagine. Families set against one another, brother against brother, child against parent. Our comfortable accommodations to the world exposed as the cheap socially distorted Christianity that they are. Left with no escape from a God who wants and even expects us to give everything we have, not just the convenient parts.
The world does its best to drown out this call, and is pretty successful when you get right down to it. There isn’t a lot of disruption in your average Nativity scene. It’s very cute. It’s sweet. It’s quite tame, unless the proprietors of the live Nativity are using a real baby who decides to get squawly and start crying its lungs out.
But we need the distraction. We need the child to start screaming. We need to hear the cries of the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the rejected. We need to hear the groanings of our own hearts, burdened and brought down by our own iniquity, our utter inability to set things right on our own. As fearful and frightening as we (rightly) might consider it to be, we know we are lost and without hope unless God tears open the heavens and comes down.
C.S. Lewis reminds us that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
If we’re honest, we know the despair.
Are we really ready for the joy?
Are we ready for Advent?
Be careful what you ask for.
For Advent in all its disruptive power, Thanks be to God.
Hymns: "Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People" (PH 3), "Savior of the Nations, Come" (14), "Prepare the Way (13)