"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…"
I don’t doubt that the Israelites meant what they said, that they really wanted God to tear open those heavens and come down – they were in the heart of the crisis, after all.1 The Babylonians had come, with all of their armies. Wanting to subdue Israel, but not have to occupy it, they simply took away anyone who was in charge of anything. Leaders, priests, intellectuals and artists, those with the power to shape the people’s thinking. And then, in the decade following, came the destruction. And with the temple burned and their faith shaken, their way of life crumbling, they wondered if God had abandoned them. And so they prayed this powerful communal lament found here in Isaiah 63 and 64.
And its power comes in the prophet’s honest desperation. He first points us back to the Exodus. Back then, they said, YOU, God, came down among us. The mountains quaked, the nations trembled. You have saved us before, they cried. COME down here and do it again. These are words that we must have in the heart of the crisis. As a relationship fell apart, when a diagnosis came out of the blue, when you were sitting by the bedside of someone you dearly loved when they died. Maybe it was on a trip to a part of the world filled with suffering, like that trash dump in Managua Katherine spoke about a few weeks ago. Maybe it was in one of those nursing homes – not a fancy retirement community, but one of those Medicaid places that smell of urine and talcum powder. Maybe it was at a shelter, where you set out pads on the floor as people stumbled in from the cold. When these words came in a gut-level honest prayer: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," O God. "When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence." Come down here. Do something about all of this pain.
In the world’s broken places these words ring with powerful truth. But I have struggled a lot this week about what this text has to say to folks like us. Yes, there are those moments when we need God so desperately, when we pray this fervent prayer. But for folks like us, most of the time life isn’t all that bad. We are all a little too harried, a little too distracted. There are always things we could improve, but we largely benefit from the ways things are. I had a couple of moments over Thanksgiving – and I pray you did, too – as the cousins played, as family gathered around a bountiful table, as I woke up to beautiful mornings like this one. I wasn’t sure that I was interested in God tearing open the heavens and coming down. Things seemed pretty good.
All of which has challenged me to think more deeply about my faith, about our faith. Are we really interested in God coming down and changing things? The late Mike Yaconelli, in his book called Dangerous Wonder, writes:
The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, drugs, racism, insert your issue here. The critical issue today is dullness. Dullness is the absence of the light of our souls. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life-changing, it is life enhancing."2
My friend from my preaching group, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, adds, "I wonder sometimes if we have become too self-sufficient. What scripture describes as a longing for God has become…an interest. God doesn’t save our life. God…enriches it."3 All of which are causes for confession, which the prophet knows must come. We need God precisely because of our weakness, because of our selfishness, because of the distractions we let dictate to us how we will live this season. We must not forget the ways we, in our harried distractions, in the tending to our to-do lists, in the relative stability of most of our lives, continue to follow other gods…instead of rooting ourselves in things that matter we fade, Isaiah says, blown about like a leaf. We worry about ourselves and our people, and step back from the never-ending call to compassionate and generous living, not just for us but for ALL people, in all places, where God’s grace shines through and where people cry out for God to come down here, because they can’t take the pain another minute.
So I would like to invite us this Advent on a journey to recover some of that astonishment, some of the power and weight of Isaiah’s words, of his call for God to do something down here. Isaiah calls out to God to BE God; he reminds God that there are still faithful people down here who are trying. He digs in with honest confession, full of vulnerability, full of the stuff we carry around with us that we allow to control us. And then this text becomes relational, intimate. "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." No matter what, O God, we belong to you.
In the final night of our book study last Monday we spent some time talking about Housing for New Hope’s PATH teams. There was a story highlighting their work on the front page of the N&O week before last.4 These teams roam Durham and Orange counties almost daily, performing a kind of free-range casework, checking in with homeless people they know and trying to connect with the ones they don’t. They do their best to build trust, helping with basic health assessments, advice, and transportation. All the while they’re watching and listening for any opening, any hint that someone might finally be ready to sleep indoors, to come in, to allow them and their agency partners to help them put their lives together. The article followed them into an encampment in the woods, a shopping center, off of Ninth Street. And they keep showing up, when they get cursed at, when folks are willing to talk a little more. Bit by bit, name by name, meal by meal, and you see, you feel those heavens open up, God’s persistent love, embodied by those teams, maybe embodied by us, calling to them that things can be different. Calling to US, as bound as we are to our lives and our assumptions and our stuff, that things could be different.
And so my prayer for us this Advent is not that you remember the reason for the season, or get a glimpse of God in the midst of the hustle and the bustle. Those things are far too small. My prayer for you this Advent, and for us, is that we might experience God tearing open those heavens and coming down, challenging us, claiming us in God’s deep love. And that God’s extraordinary presence might inspire you to do something a bit ridiculous this Advent, to heal an old wound, to take the time to listen to someone who is lonely, to give an extravagant gift to someone who really, really needs it. That you, this season, might experience something holy. That we might call on God to change things, and that we might mean it.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. From William Brown’s reflections on this text in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), Exegetical Perspective, p 3. "Composed sometime between the Babylonian conquest of 568, but before the rebuilding of the temple in 515, this lament reflects Israel’s complete disorientation in the wake of the devastating exile."
2. Mike Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith, as quoted in the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s paper on the text for the 2011 gathering of The Well, Austin, TX.
3. From Dana.