Monthly Archives: November, 2011
"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.
O Advent, O Emmanuel. . .the beginning of a new church year, the season of preparation, light, and hope. . .
Traditionally, Advent is a time of expectation, a season filled with longing and hope that the darkness of our world may soon be replaced with the resplendent light of God among us. Much more than simply a countdown to Christmas Day, Advent serves as a reminder both of the original waiting for the birth of the Messiah and our waiting for Christ’s return in glory. Directing our thoughts to the first coming of Jesus as Savior, born in human form, as well as to His second coming as judge and ruler of all, Advent has celebratory as well as solemn elements. For many throughout history, Advent was (and still is) considered a penitential season much like Lent, complete with fasting. And, as in Lent, the liturgical color is purple (in some traditions, blue is used instead).
Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God. Isaiah 40: 1
Isaiah’s beautiful text is one of the most familiar expressions of the Advent season. How we all long for comfort, particularly in this perplexing world! This morning, we hear two versions of this rather famous Advent tune, which has an interesting history and is claimed by two Protestant denominations. Who would fight about ownership of a hymn tune? Well, as it happens, Lutherans and Presbyterians would. They know a good tune when they see one! In our hymnal, the tune name for Hymn 3 (Comfort, Comfort You My People) is Psalm 42. That’s because it comes from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, where it was paired with Psalm 42 (As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for You, O God. . .). To our hymnal committee’s credit, the original rhythmic configuration of the tune, which has delightful dancelike characteristics, was kept intact. The tune quickly found its way to Germany, where it became associated with several texts, including the funeral hymn Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele (Be joyful, O my soul). To this day German Lutherans know the tune as Freu dich sehr, and it is found by that designation in many organ and choral settings from the Baroque. One of today’s preludes is a set of lovely variations on the tune by Johann Pachelbel (remember him from last week’s postlude?). John Ferguson, organist/composer and professor of music at St. Olaf College, designed a wonderful choral setting of this famous tune, complete with instrumental interludes (ritornelli) that sound as if they came straight out of the Renaissance. Thanks to Kathy Hancock, we even have a piccolo joining the organ in these rhythmically lively passages. Our choir always enjoys singing this delightful anthem. Listen for the way the Pachelbel and Ferguson settings of the tune bring it to life in entirely different ways.
We are absolutely thrilled to have our own gifted trumpeter Jim Ketch playing for us on this first Sunday of Advent. Jim’s presence reminds me how very fortunate we are to have willing volunteers like Jim graciously sharing their enormous talents with us year after year. Thank you, Jim! Many years ago, thanks to Sue McCaughan (who found the resources), Westminster began celebrating the four Sundays of Advent by focusing on particular instruments to mark each Sunday. This gave us a musical coordinating point as well as very effective visual symbolism for the lighting of the Advent wreath, a favorite activity of both children and adults. The first candle, which we light today, is adorned with a small wooden trumpet ornament, and is known as the Herald Candle. Throughout history, due to their unique attention-getting sound, trumpets have heralded the arrival of royalty and have signaled that something important is about to take place. How fitting that–as we begin our Advent journey–the trumpet should herald the coming of our King, soon to be born in a manger, an infant meek and mild, yet King of all. Jim’s prelude is a wonderful suite by Gordon Young (1919-1998), a well known American organist/composer whose works are standard parts of the church repertoire. In the Contempora Suite, Young takes traditional dance movements as they might have appeared in keyboard suites from the Baroque (Bach’s French and English suites are perfect examples) and transforms them using contemporary musical language, including some jazz-infused harmonies.
Who can imagine the start of Advent without the singing of its most iconic hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel)? The longing expressed in this beautiful melody tugs at the heart. This hymn has a colorful history: in the 9th century (or earlier), a series of seven Advent antiphons were sung at Vespers the week prior to Christmas. Each antiphon began with "O" followed by a biblical title for the Messiah, for example, O Emmanuel (O God with us). Around the 12th century, an unknown poet chose five of the "O" antiphons, rearranged them, added a refrain, and produced this hymn. At 8:30 worship, the offertory piece is a haunting arrangement by Flor Peeters (1903-1986), a prolific Flemish composer, organist, and teacher.
Advent worship services at Westminster are different from "worship as usual" in a number of ways. During the entire season, we sing a different Gloria Patri and a different Doxology. This morning, we are adding yet another distinctive feature for the season: a sung Prayer for Illumination. The first verse of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (perhaps the epitome of a haunting hymn) serves to focus our attention on the eternal mystery surrounding Christ’s birth and all this means for our lives as we hear God’s Word.
Because the start of Advent always coincides with Thanksgiving weekend, our worship emphasis needs to be on both celebrations. So we end today’s services with the singing of one of our most beloved hymns: Now Thank We All Our God. Sturdy and uplifting, this hymn has an incredible history. Written by Martin Rinkart around 1636 near the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the text was designed as a grace to be sung before meals at his own family table. Rinkart (1586-1649) ministered to the village of Eilenburg, Saxony, for 32 years. Around 1637, disease ravished the community and Rinkart buried 4000 of the 8000 people who died (it is difficult to imagine the magnitude of horror as well as the depth of faith exhibited here). The beautiful tune, Nun danket Alle Gott, was written by Johann Crüger in 1648 and was linked with Rinkart’s text early on. The harmonization in our hymnal is adapted from Felix Mendelssohn’s famous Lobgesang (1840), where this hymn serves as a focal point of praise and thanksgiving. To complete our service, the organ postlude is an arrangement of Bach’s famous setting of Now Thank We All Our God as it appears in his Cantata 79 (Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild–God our Lord is Son and Shield). Cantata 79 dates from 1725 & is one of two Bach composed for the Reformation festival.