“Tear Open the Heavens”
November 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Lloyd Dobler on Diane Court’s front lawn with a boombox above his head. Katniss Everdeen volunteering as tribute when Prim’s name is called at the Disctrict 12 reaping. The town of Bedford Falls gathering around George Bailey and his family to help him on Christmas Eve. Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers of Paris to safety. Harry Burns running across New York City on New Year’s Eve to recite his declaration of love to Sally Albright. Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa for protection. An astronaut going on an impossible journey through galaxies for the love of his family.
When it comes to movies, we all love a grand gesture, the chance for wrongs to be made right, for good to overcome evil, for love to win. Some of these scenes even evoke a visceral reaction, no matter how many times we’ve seen them, like the way my aunt always cries at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and depending on my mood I can pretty choked up over that final scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” I know what’s going to happen, I have confidence that my DVD wouldn’t have somehow added in a new ending, but still in the re-watching I get caught up in the story, in the “will they, won’t they” of it all, and so I feel a tangible sense of relief and joy when it works out just the way I was hoping.
In our scripture today the prophet Isaiah is calling out for a grand gesture from God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah says. Isaiah has journeyed back from Babylon with the exiled Israelites and comes to find Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. “Where are you, God?” the people ask. “Surely you have hidden your face from us. O that you would break forth in justice and righteousness so that the mountains would quake, the nations would tremble, and the evildoers would get what they deserve. O that you would make yourself known to us. O that you would rescue us from ourselves.”
The Israelites know God’s presence best through the grand gestures of their history. Their family stories include plagues as persuasion for their deliverance, the parting of the Red Sea to stop their enemies, and food falling from heaven when they’re in the wilderness. They know that God is capable of greatness beyond all measure, and so that is the type of presence they request, the grand gesture that will make things right again. They want God’s presence to be manifest among them, to shake up their enemies, and to form their claylike-selves into the people they are meant to be. They are looking for something monumental to happen.
Biblical commentator, Scott Bader-Saye writes, “God’s refusal to replicate a Red Sea-type deliverance does not mean that God has abandoned Israel (or the church). Our hope does not rely on God’s acting today in the same ways God acted in the ancient stories, but it does rely on God’s being the same God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – a God who hears our cries, a God who does not abandon us, a God who will finally redeem all that is lost in a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17). The tradition of biblical lament does not invoke the past as nostalgia, nor does it dismiss the present in despair; rather, it draws on the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope for the future.”
Hope is the way forward out of the wilderness of those times when God seems absent. Hope in the God who has been, is now, and forever will be the potter of our claylike existence, molding us into our full-capacity selves. The Israelites in our passage defer to this potter, this creator God who holds all things in God’s hands, but are not quite sure how God will work it all out.
And since this passage in our lectionary does fall on the very first Sunday of Advent, we all have an idea where things are headed, right? We sit here as people who have seen this story play out year after year. We know that sweet baby Jesus is going to glide into our world to come and save the day!
But wait a minute, that’s not exactly what the Israelites were looking for. They wanted the mountains to quake and their enemies to tremble. They want the immediate and grand gesture, not a divine rain check for deliverance in the distant future. They want God’s divinity to be present among them unencumbered. Instead, divinity comes in the form of humanity. Jesus comes as both fully divine and fully human.
Luther Northwestern Professor, Diane Jacobson writes, “The call is not to come as a child, as ‘God with us,’ but to come in power, in theophanic splendor…[they] call on the Lord to come as mountains quake, fires burn, and nations tremble. Here is a God so terrible that a mere glimpse of his visage might cause death. Such is the God for whom we wait.”
They’re waiting for God’s might, God’s power, even in the expectation of God’s wrath. The Israelites accuse God of being hidden from them, but might it be that God is just not revealed in the ways they’re expecting? You don’t expect the mighty creator of everything to take the form of small baby. You don’t expect the all powerful to be vulnerable and sleeping in a manger.
When we’re expecting God’s grandeur, we can become blind to God’s incarnation. It was no small gesture for God to become embodied, to take on humanity. It is indeed an act of the heavens being torn open that allows God to break into human history. But it is not the grandness that the Israelites were used to: this small baby born in a small town in a disconnected world, who comes not as a demonstration of God’s might, but of God’s love. Who comes not to control God’s people, but to teach how to be in right relationship; what care for neighbor looks like; and how to live a faithful life, not just to avoid judgment, but to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
God comes into our world embodied, so we might be instructed in how God is to work through our own embodiment towards the bringing about of God’s kingdom. The ways that God might be present in and among us.
Alongside the list I gave of those memorable grand gestures in the movies we likely have our own lists of actions in our own lives or of those we love that are not grand as much as they are incarnational actions of love made present.
A father reaching down instinctually to hold his daughter’s hand as they cross the street. A teacher offering a listening ear to a student who’s struggling at home.Someone shoveling the walk of an elderly neighbor after a particularly harsh snowfall. A mother tucking in her son after he falls asleep with book in hand. A wife driving to see her husband in nursing care every afternoon, day after day.
These gestures are not the grand things of the movies, but they are the very real ways that we are incarnate in one another’s lives, and that we allow God to be incarnate in us. May God indeed tear open the heavens, once again, and come incarnate into our Advent waiting. Amen.
 Paraphrase by Rev. Vicki Kemper: http://www.firstchurchamherst.org/sermons/past_srmns_08_11_30.html#one