O that you would tear open the heavens and come down: a Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on November 30th, 2014, is based on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Please be seated.

It was a mess! It wasn’t supposed to be this way and they could never have imagined that this is how it would work out. Forty years ago their temple had been destroyed, the walls of their city thrown down, and conquered by the armies of Babylon, the people of Israel were taken into exile. For forty years they sojourned in that foreign place; struggling to maintain their national and state identity, trying to stay together as a people, to remember who they were and whose they were. It wasn’t easy. The temptations of a major empire and major cities were many, and many of the people fell away from the traditions and practices of their heritage, their tradition, and their past.

But Babylon had been conquered by King Cyrus of Persia and now Cyrus had signed a decree to allow the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem. This was to be a moment of restoration, of homecoming, of great joy. They would return to the land that God had promised them. They would return to the place where their Temple had stood, the place where God came to be amongst God’s people, and the world would be right again. But that’s not what happened.

The people who returned to Jerusalem, to Israel, found that in their absence the few people who had been left behind had moved into their homes.   And even worse, foreigners from other nations had moved in and brought their foreign practices with them: their idols, their gods, their faith. And so when these people who had been in exile for forty years returned to Jerusalem they found themselves embroiled in conflict. They began to fight with one another. They began to fight with the Israelites who had stayed behind in Jerusalem. They were fighting with the people who had moved in from the outside. They were fighting over power, over land rights, over possessions, over status and rank in the community. And they were fighting over ways to worship, to continue their traditions, and to continue to be the people that God had called them to be. This was not how it was supposed to be.

In the season of Advent we talk a lot about waiting. If you read the crossroads that was mailed out this last week both Mother Dorota and I talked about waiting and how difficult it is. We talked about waiting in line. We talked about waiting for downloads to come over slow Wi-Fi connections. We talked about waiting… Waiting… We’re waiting to sing Christmas carols. We’re waiting to decorate the church. No one likes to wait.

I think all of those examples tend to trivialize the kind of waiting that we are actually called to in this season of the year. We are called to wait the way that the people of Israel were waiting when Isaiah wrote the passage that we read this morning.

Having returned from Babylon, finding themselves fighting with one another, fighting with other people, Isaiah raises his eyes to heaven and issues this lament,

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

so that the mountains would quake at your presence–

as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil—

Isaiah 24:1

The people were at the end. They knew that their own resources would not save them. They knew that there was nothing more that they could do to salvage what was left of their identity and their nation and their faith. And so they turn their eyes to God and they say, “Please. Break into the world. Help us. Change this awful mess because our hearts are broken and there’s nothing more that we know to do.”

I think that’s a place where we can find ourselves waiting. The people of Israel say in Isaiah’s passage  “You’ve done it before God…”

“When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”

Isaiah 64:3

You did it then. Do it now! Step in. Intervene. Change the world so that we can live in peace…

You don’t have to look very far, you don’t have to wait very long to hear things that will put us in that same place. Turn on the news while you’re making dinner, have NPR be the first thing you hear in the morning when your alarm clock goes off, and it will well up inside. You may even say it out loud if the kids aren’t around. “Oh my God! How can this be? How can we still be fighting over these same issues? How can it be that we haven’t resolved this? How can it be that we’re still fighting with one another over rank, and authority, and possessions, and wealth, and race, and you just name the list.

We stand there and we tremble and we say “Oh my God! Please! Please…” That’s where the people of Israel are. I think we can be right there with them. The things that we’ve seen coming out of Ferguson Missouri this last week have raised this lament in my heart over and over again. But to be truly there with the people of Israel we have to take this next step. Because after Isaiah pleads for God to come down and intervene, and points out that they have a long and enduring relationship, and God has done this in the past, and you should just come on down and do it again… he turns to some serious matters:

“But you were angry, and we sinned;

because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

Isaiah 64:5b-6a

It’s important to recognize that Isaiah is not inviting God to come down and intervene and smite Isaiah’s enemies. Isaiah is not asking God to come down and fix them, not asking God to come and change all of those people out there so that we can live in peace. Isaiah says “we.” We have sinned. All of us! We are all participating in this system, in this way of being, in this mentality. And the mess that we are in in this moment is our fault. So Isaiah is asking God to come down, and intervene, and change all of us.

After this confession in Isaiah’s lament he says:

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:8

So the transformation, the intervention that Isaiah is calling for becomes even more clear. He is asking God to continue to mold us like wet clay, to shape us. To shape our hearts so that we wake up and recognize what we are doing, how we are participating in the systems that oppress people, that hurt people, and that land us all in this terrible conflict and mess. That when we finally do recognize it on NPR or the news we are called to this moment of lament. “Oh God, if only you would tear open the heavens and come down. It’s critical, critical that we acknowledge that in that moment we are asking God to change us, to come down and intervene.

Isaiah goes on to say

Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,

and do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:9

In the Psalm that we read this morning there is a refrain that repeats three times.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Psalm 80:3

“Restore us.” The people of Israel were looking for restoration. Returning to Jerusalem, returning to their sacred city, and to the land that had been promised to them, wanting to be restored. What they came to recognize was that restoration would depend on God’s transforming love, and grace, and power changing them as well.

“Restoration.” Listen to the confession of sin that we will be using for the season of Advent

God of all mercy,

we confess that we have sinned against you,

opposing your will in our lives.

We have denied your goodness in each other,

in ourselves, and in the world that you have created.

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,

the evil we have done,

and the evil done on our behalf.

Forgive, restore, and strengthen us

In this season of Advent we speak to God in a voice filled with longing, with pathos, with desire. You’ve done it before. We’ve seen your work in the world. We’ve read of your wondrous deeds and acts… so powerful and transformative it was as if the mountains shook. Oh God, come now. Do it again transform me. Transform the people in my life. Continue to mold the clay from which you made me so that I might walk in your path and the world might be transformed by the love that I am then able to share. We wait in Advent for God to come.

Read the passage from Isaiah again. Read it when you get home this afternoon. It’s important to note that in that longing and in that desire there is also a sense of confidence. You’ve done this before. We have this long history together. You are our father. We are intimately connected one to another. There is no separating us. And we are all your children.

We have faith in the things for which we hope. We have faith in the God who has loved us and whom we know continues to love us.

In this season as we struggle to stay awake, to see the world as it truly is, we wait for God tear open the heavens and come down.


The Waiting is the Hardest Part

“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part”

                                    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

                                     The Waiting lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Where is God calling us? What will we do? Where will we go next? Who will we be…? There are times when these questions lie fallow, dormant, drowned out by other questions, issues, and concerns. The work of daily life, serving in the small things, can be enough.   Sometimes we are so focused on what is right in front of us that we don’t have the energy, time, or inclination to raise our eyes towards the distant horizon. But there are times, in our own lives, in the lives of communities, when we step back from the ordinary, when our attention is drawn towards that horizon, when we lift our heads, when what once seemed far away and distant begins to come into focus and seems tantalizingly near… Those moments fill us with anticipation; with excitement and energy, calling us to take those final steps and arrive in the moment where what had once been just a possibility finally becomes the new reality. So why is it that those moments of expectation, of anticipation, latent with such promise, are also the moments that seem to drag on forever?

We don’t like to wait. That is probably wired into us, one of the many evolutionary adaptations that keep us moving forward, growing, evolving to better manage a constantly changing context and environment. But we have also been trained to be impatient. Is your connection too slow? Does your phone take more than a few seconds to download that life changing captioned photo from Facebook?   Don’t have the time to select the food that you will eat? Send us your order and we will select all the locally grown fresh “slow” food you need and deliver it to you! Suffering from a lack of vision? We can make your new glasses in under an hour… So why wait? You don’t have time for that! There is no time to be on the road. You deserve to have arrived long ago…

Why wait? We have been talking about this for so long… It seems like forever… Can’t we just make some decisions, take the last few steps, move this process along, announce that we are crossing the finish line and be done with it? We are ready to move on.

The rush to completion, to fulfillment, to gratification can feel powerful; we are moving, active, in charge… But when all that we can see is the end, we are in great danger of missing the delights that await us on the way.

There are traditions that would tell us that nothing matters but the end, that the path we travel to achieve that goal is irrelevant, a distraction, a distortion of the truth that we seek. Ours is a tradition that looks to the future, that leans into the goal, while at the same time recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the path that we walk as formative, beautiful, and as an expression of our hope and faith in the prize that awaits all of us just beyond the horizon. So while our culture would teach us that we have to keep moving as fast as we can, that we need to get there faster, find it right away, and do everything we can to shorten the process, the journey, our tradition teaches us, trains us to be patient, to savor the way that will lead us to the arrival for which we hope in faith. Advent is the time of year when we practice that waiting.

In one of my favorite carols we sing, “The world in solemn stillness waits to hear the angels sing” (It came upon a midnight clear H 89). Waiting in solemn stillness, in expectation, in wonder at the joy that we know is coming… Longing to hear the angels when they sing. We wait with bated breath afraid that any movement might drown out the first notes of that heavenly melody, somehow knowing that our waiting will only heighten our joy when that first chord sounds.

In this season we will gather in a church where the busyness of electric lights will be moderated by the slow, warm light of candles.   We will pause a little longer to savor the words we are hearing. Our singing will reflect a different rhythm and pace of life. We will practice waiting, sheltered from the noise and pace of a culture that seems bent on arriving early. Perhaps in this practice we will find the courage, the patience, and the wisdom to allow God’s call to us to unfold in God’s own time, each card laid before us in turn, taking it on faith, taking it to the heart, even though waiting is the hardest part.