Sermons from St Faith's

Tearing open the heavens
Fr Mark Waters, Advent Sunday 2008

Sometimes it seems that the words of the scriptures, the words that we have inherited from our faith tradition, are simply too big for us. I think it is true this morning. From Isaiah:

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

This is the universal cry of the oppressed.
We hear the people of God saying such words throughout the scriptures.
It is the desperate shout of people who are at the limit of what they can endure.
People who have nowhere else to turn
and have no other option but to shout into the darkness.
We hear this most often, and most loudly, in the psalms,
as Israel’s poets railed against God in loud lamentation.

Isaiah was talking to a people who had returned from exile.
They would have looked much like the long lines of ragged people from the Democratic Republic of Congo we have seen on our television screens recently.
The people of Israel must have trudged back to Jerusalem in much the same way.
Trying to find a home.
Carrying their few possessions with them.
Fearful of being attacked. Not knowing what the next day would bring,
or how they would find food and shelter

And what did they find when they got there? When they got back home?
They found ruins. They found devastation.
Much like the wreckage from bombing that we witness in Palestine or Iraq today.
The people of Israel came back to find their homes and their temple reduced to dust.
The promise they had nurtured of a glorious return completely shattered.
So, just like any group of people at the end of our own resources, they cry out to God.

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

Come to us, O God. Rescue us. Maranatha – we will be saying again and again during Advent – Maranatha – an Aramaic word - Come, Lord, come.

In Advent we are particularly aware of the powers of darkness. We see these powers in the story of the returning exiles in today’s passage from Isaiah. For them the powers of darkness were experienced very immediately in their suffering. And in the world’s poor today those same powers of darkness are evident in hunger, disease, military occupation, intercine violence, and a downward spiral of debt.  But it is that sort of darkness in which we wish the light of Christ to come. That is the message of Advent.

But how on earth do we say those words today, in this culture, in this time that we live, in a way that has any sort of meaning? Most of us are so protected from such events, and it is easy for us to avoid real knowledge of them. And sometimes it seems that the nearest we get to imagining the powers of darkness is that our houses will depreciate in value, or that our pensions will be smaller than we thought, or that we will have to forgo a foreign holiday.

But the way forward is not for the church – as it often seems to do in Advent - to set itself up as the killjoy which condemns materialism. The way forward is to see that we have much to learn from the poor – that is what Jesus taught us again and again in the gospels.

The stories in the scriptures about struggling communities all those centuries ago are not there just to tell us how awful is the lot of some people, nor to make us feel sorry for them, nor to make us feel guilty. The stories are there because they tell us about how a faithful community waited for God in the emptiness and in the darkness without losing sight of being human, and without falling into despair. They waited with hope, they waited with purpose, they waited with active preparation for change. Despite their howls of anguish, this is not a community that has given up. This is not a community that has lost sight of its divine purpose as God’s chosen people.

The faithful poor we read about in the scriptures, and those we see in our world today, give the lie to all our activism in the more comfortable prosperous society in which you and I live. Their patient waiting for the Lord puts all of our plans, and strategies, and church growth initiatives and busyness into perspective.

The faithful poor teach us that Advent is a time to recognise that underneath all of our grand schemes there is – for most of us - a huge void, an aching emptiness which we try to fill with endless activity. They show us that Advent is the time for us to enter the darkness of waiting, and in so doing to discover that it is not a threat.

As the consumer race towards Christmas picks up speed we see all too clearly that we have replaced longing for God, the emptiness of waiting, with a sort of insatiable wanting. The sad truth of that is that the consumer goods do nothing in the end to satisfy our sense of need. Only when we know our own emptiness and need and spiritual poverty will we be ready for the promise that Advent holds. And this understanding is shown to us in what we as Christians take to be God’s answer to human anguish, God’s answer to our prayers – the birth of a baby, the birth of a new human being! This is an extraordinary response by God to the suffering of his people, an unbelievable, derisable response as far as most people are concerned. A scandal!

Like many religious traditions the Jewish faith, of which Jesus was a part, expected help from God in the appearance of a champion, a superman, a powerful military leader who would put right all of the wrongs done to the suffering community by victory in battle. And this is still the human answer to many of the world’s problems – the emergence of a military leader – whether it is George Bush or Tony Blair or Osama Bin Laden.

God’s answer is different. We see the answer emerging slowly in our scriptures. First of all in the book of the prophet Isaiah when we hear about the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who will suffer for his people. And of course for us as Christians it finds its fullest expression in the pages of the NT – a virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and his name will be Emmanual – God is with us. God is here.

This is the answer to all who shout to God in the darkness, the small light of hope in fragile human life – like your life and my life – through which we discover the fullness of the promise that God holds out for our lives and our world.

So perhaps the words of the scriptures need not be too big for us if we develop a faithful imagination. If we can do the hard prayer work of learning how to see the world through the eyes of others – those who have a different culture to us, those who live far away, those who look different to us, those with a different history and faith. And particularly the anawim, the poor, the little people who always hold a special place in the heart of God.

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

The tremendous words, these huge scriptural words, that we will say and hear during Advent are about a world that is waiting for God. If we are going to get anywhere near what those words mean for us and for the world this Advent we will need to do some work, some heart work and some prayer work. So I have 3 suggestions for some spiritual practices for us for the next four weeks:

First, allow yourself to be taught about your need and your spiritual poverty by the poor of the world. When you get home today, or when you get your daily paper tomorrow, look through it and find a story of God’s little ones, a story of the world’s poor that touches you, cut it out and put it in your pocket. And take that story everywhere you go. Re-read it occasionally, maybe follow it up a bit on the internet to find out more about it, and make that story part of your story.

Second, take some time each week to wait in the darkness to get in touch with your own need and emptiness. It doesn’t matter how long you take, what matters is that you take some time – 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes whatever you can manage – and just wait. Calm yourself, let your busy mind relax, and simply wait and discover God in that waiting.

Third, when you get near to Christmas – perhaps the week before - help yourself to understand a little bit about how much you are loved by God, and how precious you are in his sight, by buying yourself a small gift. Some flowers, some perfume, a miniature of whisky – some small token to remind you that you too are one of God’s children.

Maria Boulding puts the Advent message like this:

The gift of God is for the poor, the needy, the empty. It is for those who know their need, and hunger and thirst for him. It is for those who do not even suspect the depth of tenderness with which they are loved, yet are potentially open. God is most known as God when he gives to the undeserving, when he fills the hungry with good things, lifts the downtrodden, transforms hopeless situations and brings life out of death. His gift is most typically not the crowning of our achievements, but wealth for the bankrupt and power at the service of the weak. When human resources are missing but people are open to God, then is the moment of faith.

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