Anglican Church of Canada
Advent 1 December 3rd, 2017
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . O that you might touch the mountains, so that they quake, and begin to melt and churn like water coming to a boil”
So begins our Advent Scripture, with the words of the prophet – one of the most intense verses in the Bible. We have heard a lot of apocalyptic language in our Sunday readings lately, language that speaks of God’s coming in power to set things right in the world. What today’s reading reminds us is that this language is not so much a prediction of exactly how things will unfold, as an expression of deep human longing.
That is why these words speak so powerfully to me – because I understand the longing, the passionate longing that God might come and set things right in the world. When I think too long and hard about, say, the plight of first nations women and girls, facing poverty and racism and violence on reserve and off, of the over one thousand of them murdered in our supposedly safe, decent country – then sometimes I get tired of thinking about inquiries and strategies and I just want to scream “Enough! Come down, o God, and make it stop.” When I think – as my faith commands me to think – of the Rohinga people, or any of the millions of people in this world brutalized and driven from their homes; when I think of the ongoing destruction of the ancient forests in the Amazon; and especially when I think of the powers that be in this world, in Washington or Moscow or Pyongyang, completely in the hands of thugs and clowns and greedy conmen – then I long for God to use the nuclear option, to blow away injustice and cruelty and self-interest, and bring that promised kingdom.
These verses form the text of a German Advent hymn, that comes to my mind every time I hear them: “O Heiland reiss den Himmel auf”. That hymn has an interesting background. It was written by a Jesuit priest by the name of Friedrich Spee, who lived during the Thirty Years War, when his homeland was devastated by the marauding armies of that interminable, cruel civil war. Friedrich Spee served as a chaplain and confessor to women who had been accused of witchcraft, and were subject to the brutalities of torture by the Inquisition. One can only imagine the terror and trauma that he heard in his pastoral work with these women. That experience moved him to write an influential book against the witch trials, one of the first books to condemn the use of torture. But it also inspired him to write this hymn, and to take for inspiration these words we heard this morning. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” He too, clearly, had had enough of the cruelty of a world ruled by thugs.
The prophet must have been in a similar state of mind. We are hearing the words of an anonymous prophet who ended up with the undignified name of Third Isaiah, because his words are recorded at the end of the book of Isaiah, even though he lived two centuries later than the historical Isaiah. These chapters of the book of Isaiah were written at the time of the return from the Babylonian exile. It was supposed to be a time of restoration and triumph – after 70 years of longing they are finally permitted to return home. But the reality was harsher. They returned to a devastated homeland, the holy city still mostly in ruins, the land settled by other, hostile people, the task of rebuilding the city walls and the Temple overwhelming. Hopelessness and despair were in the air.
The prophet responded as a faithful Jew would respond: by reciting the wonderful deeds of God in the past. In the previous chapter, he recounts the story of the Exodus, how God came with power to redeem his people from slavery and lead them to the promised land. That is what the faith teaches us – in countless psalms we hear the same patient hope that the God who acted in the past will act again to redeem them.
Except that now that patient hope has reached the end of its tether. It has brought the prophet to the desperate cry; we need more than stories of the past, we need to see God’s power today. There is a crisis of faith in these words. The heavens, which used to declare the glory of God, now simply hide him from view: the very sky is empty, a curtain that would need to be ripped open to show us the God who is hidden. The mountains used to speak of God’s faithfulness; but now they are dumb, empty rocks that imprison us, that need to be melted like wax if we are to see God. The prophet finds himself in a world suddenly empty of God, and longs for a concrete sign, a deed of power as of old, to strengthen his faith.
How often has that cry gone up – Lord, I want to believe, but it is all so overwhelming, I need a sign. It has been the story of the Jewish people in the last century: how could God, who redeemed his people from Egypt, remain silent as his people were sent to the gas chambers? It is the cry of the lonely and broken prisoner in every age: Friedrich Spee’s terrified women, unjustly accused, brutalized, helpless before the cruel fanaticism of their powerful accusers.
It is, no doubt, a cry many of us have known in our own hearts, as we have had to face the unthinkable: the loss of someone we loved, or the black depths of depression, or the cruel and immovable cancer diagnosis. Lord, I have trusted you, and now I need you; now I need more than stories and hope, now I need your powerful presence to rip a hole in the walls of this reality that is hemming me in on every side, to give me a way out. And the answer, so often, is silence.
This is a dark place, a place we never want to find ourselves. The dark night of the soul, the mystics called it, the times when our need and longing and despair run right up against the silence of God. It is a place we would never go to willingly. And yet here we are. This is the place at which we are to begin our Advent journey. Scripture takes us to this place, because this is the starting point of the road that will lead us to Bethlehem. If we are to really meet that child in the manger, then this is the way we are to approach him. Because this is what he came for, for people like those disappointed and hopeless exiles, returned to a devastated city; for people like those brutalized women, pouring out their fear and pain to Friedrich Spee; for the refugees and the terrorized, for the murdered women and their heartbroken families; for people like us when we are at the end of our rope and overwhelmed.
These are the prayers for which that child we celebrate was the answer. He did not come to set us free from all that breaks our hearts; though he healed and performed miracles, his path led not to overthrowing the powers that be, but to the cross. There is a darkness in his coming, a sense in which our prayers remain unanswered. But there is also a light shining in the darkness, an unspeakable comfort and hope in what he showed us: the purity of love in the heart of God.
So let us begin our Advent journey by making this prayer our own. Let us open our hearts to the need of this world, that we might join in this cry in all its intensity and passion: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Come, Lord Jesus.