“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”
So opens the word of God on this Advent season, this new year of the church’s life. It opens with a cry from the human heart God-ward, a cry that could only be heard by deity, only answered – if it is to be answered – by the one who is the Source and the Hope of all that is, the one who is both our origin and our place of arrival.
To that One, in the 64th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, returned home from exile, facing hopes for a renewed nation, a re-built Temple, and a reinvigorated economy that were fading fast in the face of factions who could only revile one another, the voice of God’s people through the prophet speaks. They say, “You are our only hope. In times past you did astounding deeds. Our fathers and mothers have told us. Do astounding deeds now. We are sinners, living in a sinful land. No one calls out to you from this place, but today we must. We are the clay, and you Father are our potter. We are the work of your hand. Now, re-shape us, re-create us, whatever it takes. Make us and our land new.”
This call is repeated by the psalmist today. “The only bread we have is tears. Bowls of tears are our only drink. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine on us; only in that light can we be saved!”
What kind of beginning to Advent is this? The world around us, long before the Thanksgiving turkey had been stuffed and placed in the oven, has been stringing the lights; cuing Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Burl Ives from the great beyond; calling us to rejoice and to sing and to hang the mistletoe, and above all, to shop with abandon. But here in this place dedicated to the Grace that flows from the Divine One, the season opens with a cry of devastated hearts to God, a final desperate cry rising up to say: Save us! Save us from complacency. Save us from despondency. Save us from living blithely along the surface of life. Save us from the worst of ourselves and save us for the best of ourselves. Save us for love. Save us for service. Save us for joy. Only you, Lord God, can do it. Tear open the heavens and come down! Let the mountains around us shake as you come. Do something unexpected and new.
Not long ago I was getting new license plates for my car. New York plates. I chose plates that help support cancer research, and I was given the chance to choose the letters and numbers that will be on the plates. As you might imagine, tried and true possibility after tried and true possibility were all taken. Finally I decided to fall back on my family heritage and I chose a word in Gaelic. The word is Anois, a n o i s. It means ‘now.’ My thought at the time was that the word reflects a spirituality that invites us to remain ever in the present moment, attentive to what is happening here and now; more importantly attentive to what God is doing in this precise passing moment.
Anois. I think this may be the word for me this year as Advent begins. Forget what may be happening next week, or three weeks from now, or on Christmas Day. Never mind that I know, and that I will celebrate again, the amazing gift of God come among us as one of us in the Incarnation. That comes later. But now. What is God doing now?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr to the faith in the last century, preached a sermon on “the coming of Jesus into our midst.” His words, spoken many years ago, can call us today to the now of this moment, the anois of this opening Advent season.
Bonhoeffer said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought of God coming among us so calmly. . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God,” our modern-day prophet says, “is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
The Israel for whom Isaiah spoke lived in a time of societal upheaval, of the collective inability to put things right; a time of economic near-ruin and political near- paralysis. The Israel to whom Jesus speaks in apocalyptic terms in the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel lived in a time and place in which they were not their own. Greater powers dictated much of their lives, and there appeared to be little they could do about it. The major forces were forces beyond the control of the ordinary people; the disparity between the powerful and the powerless was beyond reckoning; the distance between the experience of life of the wealthy and that of the impoverished was almost immeasurable.
So these were times not unlike our own. In their respective ‘nows’, these ancient Israels chose to call on God as their hope. They chose to know themselves, and to be known to the greater world, as people of God. They chose to be awake and aware of the presence and the action of God among them, even if that action seemed to be almost unnoticeable, unseeable, at the time. They chose to make known publicly their vulnerability. In word and action they said, “We are alone. We feel powerless. We don’t know how to move from our present place to something better. We need help. We need God. We need God not only to open up possibility for us. We need God to tear the top off the world, to break through the heavens, to do things that have never been done before, to change everything. And we dare, weak as we are, to ask for all that.”
In our time, in our Advent, in our now, are we able, are we willing, to be as honest and as vulnerable as they were in their times? As we do buy the tree and hang the wreaths and hum the familiar Yuletide tunes, as we write the cards and plan the next holiday meal and the travel it will take to reach that table over the next few weeks, can we allow at least this space, this sacred space where we come together to keep Advent, to pray Advent, to be a place where our vulnerability and need can be revealed? Can we make this a table around which we are not afraid to admit that we hunger, and that only this bread can begin to fill us? Can we trust one another to be men and women who dare to live in this present moment, this now, this anois, as our children always do, and there to be people open to God, and to God’s plan to ‘draw near and lay claim to us’?
I dare say we can. If we can, we will find more in this present moment than we otherwise would ever know. More of the greatness of God, and of the great potential we are as God’s people.
The poet Luci Shaw puts the challenge in words so well in her poem, “…for who can endure the day of his coming?”
“Sterile skeptics, yet we may be broken
to his slow, silent birth, his beginning
new in us. His big-ness may still burst
our self-containment to tell us,
without angels’ mouths, Fear not.
God knows we need to hear it, now,
when he may shatter with his most shocking
coming, this proud cracked place,
and more if, for longer waiting,
he does not.”