Preached by Rebecca Ellenson at the Blue Church on December 3, 2017
“Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and come down!” Those may not be our exact words but we pray this prayer countless times, don’t we? This year there have been countless reasons to cry out like that—hurricanes, earthquakes, massive wildfires, insane political developments around the world, ongoing wars, and now a critical famine in Yemen with UNICEF reporting that every 10 seconds a child dies of hunger. And then there are the personal reasons for such a lament. Alone in our rooms we turn our faces to the ceiling or outdoors to the stars in the night sky we cry, “Show yourself to me, God. Show me who you are and who I am and what I am to do.”
We pray Isaiah’s prayer, that anguished Old Testament outburst that rose from a desperate people, having exhausted all possible human alternatives, having given up on quiet, polite, respectfully restrained prayers. “Rip open the heavens and come down!” People who have lost hope in conventional change want God and they want God, Now!
Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of a people who long for God, yet cannot see or hear God, people for whom God seems far away. Do you know that feeling? Have your prayers ever felt like you were talking to yourself? Have you ever felt that God was absent?
When we read the scriptures it can seem like God spoke clearly and audibly in days of old. We get the mistaken impression that the people in the Bible always had God at their fingertips. Isaiah did have a spectacular vision at the beginning of his ministry. One day, while praying in the temple, it was as if the sky opened and he looked right up into heaven and saw God sitting upon a throne, surrounded by smoke and angels.
But that vision was a long time before today’s reading. Here, in our reading for today, Isaiah is an old man, returned to his city from exile, returned to a city in ruin, a temple in ruin, their lives in ruin. Do you suppose that his cry for God to rip open the heavens comes while he is remembering his long past vision and longing for such clear sight again?
One of the gifts of texts like this one, laments they´re called, is to remind us that we are in good company when we feel those anguished feelings. It’s an expected, and normal part of a life of faith. When we acknowledge our fears and anger and questions it demonstrates that we are in relationship with God. A lament is perfectly respectable response at times, no matter how much we were taught as children that if we can’t say anything nice we’re not supposed to say anything at all. Scriptures like this one invite us to express our thoughts and feelings honestly to God. God can take it!
Something in us wishes God were always present– visible, clear as day, right beside us. But let’s be honest that is not really our experience. That’s not really how this living God of ours works. Clear brilliant visions or unmistakable voices from above may occasionally occur, but I believe God speaks most often through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows too. Sometimes the whispers are very soft. Sometimes the shadows are very dark.
There’s something else in us, though, that wishes God would stay hidden from our sight. There are times when we are happy enough to have the heavens remain intact. Consider Isaiah again. He has just called for God to rip open the heavens, to come with power like fire to show others what divine power is capable of. Then the idea shifts from a call for God to appear to an awestruck recognition of God’s power: “No one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God but you, who works for those who wait for God.”
The presence of God brings with it awesome power. Power that causes trembling. We might imagine that Isaiah’s next thought after the plea to “rip open the heavens and come down” is “Omigosh, what have I asked for?” This God who causes mountains to tremble can be met with fear. We can hear some of that fear in Isaiah’s words, the prophet says: “but you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”
We connect those two things just like Isaiah did, don’t we, our sin and God´s anger, the hiddenness of God and our transgressions? Our fear of God’s power can paint a picture of God that comes right out of our inability to understand our circumstances. We can even attempt to pin our sin and inability to see God on God. We can fear God’s almighty power. At times we can’t quite make ourselves believe that God, who is so tremendous, is also good. God seems hidden and we hesitate to surrender ourselves to God. We are reluctant to be directed by this Mighty One who did awesome deeds of old, but seems hidden in our time. We cling to our sense of control.
But to lament is a powerful process. If we stay hang in there, acknowledging God’s power it can expose our sin and rebellion. Honesty before God brings can trigger an honesty with ourselves. Take a look at what happened to Isaiah. Listen to the language. He says,
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Isaiah faces his true self, his depth of fear and anger, and then he begins to see God and himself even more clearly. I think what happens is: we begin to recognize our fear for what it is, our projection, then we able to see God. After all, when we seek to see God it is not as if God was previously gone and then re-appears. No, it is rather that we are given eyes to see the God who has been there all along.
Look what happens for the prophet. He sees clearly and says,
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.
Isaiah got his answer. We do too. He could finally see that God was close as a father not far off in the distant heavens. God answers our call, too.
God has ripped open the heavens. That is what this season of Advent is all about. God With Us, Immanuel, in Christ shows us the very heart of God, shows us God’s trustworthy character. Such astonishing power in anyone else’s hands would truly be fearful. But, we come to see that the power is in God’s hand: God, who is better than the best and most loving parent ever known, the God whose love we know in Christ.
The passage from Isaiah makes one more shift. We’ve had the plea for God to come down, the awareness of God’s unexpected power, the accompanying awareness of our own sinfulness, and the ability to see God truly. Finally comes the readiness to accept God’s leading,
We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand…we are all your people.
Submission and surrender do not come easily to many of us, perhaps with good reason. Others in power can use our submission against us to exploit or abuse or oppress us. But we are not in their hands. We are in the hands of our loving God whose will is good.
As I said earlier God’s presence is rarely unmistakable or obvious. Oh, now and then the will and leading of God can be blindingly clear, but more often God’s voice is a whisper and God shows up in the shadows. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe it is so that when we do hear, when we say yes and open our hearts to God, when we say, mold me and make me according to your will, like a potter fashions clay, that we do so in a free, un-coerced yes.
In order to hear the voice of God, to experience the presence of Christ we need, first of all, to prepare ourselves to hear and see. Once again, as we move into Advent we are invited to wait, to open up, to get ready. Perhaps it is as if we are walking around with headphones on, loud music blaring directly into our ears from an I-pod. If we are to see the fragile light that dawns among us in Christ, we might need to sit a while in the darkness. If we are to hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent. This week you might ask yourself, what could you do, or what could you stop doing that would make you better able to see God’s subtle entry among us?
O that you would rip open the heavens and come down. It is our Advent prayer, borrowed from Isaiah, a prayer that leads to repentance, to sight, and to placing ourselves, willingly in the hand of God.