Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B –First Sunday of Advent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 3, 2017
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” I read those words, my heart leapt, and I thought, “yes!” Rip open the heavens! For everyone experiencing hurt and pain, grief and sickness, rip open the heavens! For all who are hungry and thirsty, shivering and forgotten, rip open the heavens and come down, O Lord! In all those places where greed and corruption allow injustice, hatred, and violence to flourish, rip open the heavens and come down!
That, my friends, is a prayer. It’s the prayer of people greatly disappointed with their situation. The words of Isaiah capture the feeling of the Israelites who had returned to Judah after the exile only to find that all had not been made right like they were hoping. Everything was not as they had expected. And so, they cry out, lamenting to God, desiring more than anything for another encounter with God, just like their ancestors had experienced at Mt. Sinai. But they also know they have sinned by turning away from God to worship idols and by ignoring God’s commands. And so the plead for mercy: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Yes, God, we know we’ve messed up, but please, remember that you have called us and claimed us as your children. Shape us to be the people we’re supposed to be! I don’t know about you, but I’ve prayed that prayer!
It’s a prayer of lament, humility, hope, expectation, and of trust in the promises of a faithful and loving God. Anne Lamott says we really have three basic prayers: help, thanks, and wow. In some ways, this captures all of them. But I think it’s really a prayer we all know deep within our hearts. We have all experienced disappointment. In fact, the holidays are often rife with it. We idealize the Christmas season – the presents we will give and receive, the gatherings we will attend and host, and even the services where we will worship. We want that wonderful Christmas feeling. You know the one – it’s all warm and cozy, with candles and carols, and the family is gathered and everyone is getting along pleasantly. The Danes even have a word for it: Julehygge. Ok, I just really wanted to say that since I learned it from a Danish friend! Now it’s a lovely goal, but the problem is that we build the holidays up in our minds, idealizing and maybe even idolizing them, and two things happen.
First, we are often disappointed and we wonder what happened to that marvelous Christmas that was supposed to be. Second, we miss God in the middle of it. We miss that God did indeed show up, but we couldn’t encounter God because we had our eyes locked on something else instead. We see that the world around us does not match our expectations. We see loved ones sick, suffering, and dying during the “most wonderful time of the year” and it feels like a cruel joke. We experience heightened anxiety over all the hustle and bustle, and then also depression because of our dashed expectations and our tendency to compare ourselves to others. And so with confused and aching hearts we find ourselves praying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
We pray that prayer and we should pray that prayer. We watch and we wait for that day when all things will be made right, when every tear will be wiped away, and all things made new. That is a huge part of Advent. But we are reminded in Mark of something remarkable. God answers. God does rip open the heavens and come down. In Jesus, God takes on human flesh and enters into human life. In Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan the heavens are “torn apart” and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. And the curtain of the magnificent Temple, decorated with images of the heavens, the barrier between sacred and profane, is “torn in two, from top to bottom” when he breathes his last on the cross.
We know this story well enough, but we still find ourselves in this uncomfortable time of waiting. We know Christ has come and will come at Christmas, but we also cry out for his second coming. We cry out that he would come into our lives now! We want to experience him and his presence. We want all wrongs to be made right. All injustices corrected. Peace and comfort instead of disappointment, violence and uncertainty. And so we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus! Stir up your power and come!”
But we don’t know what it will look like when Christ comes again in power and glory. We don’t know when it will happen or what that event will be like. And so we are told to “beware” and to “keep alert” and “awake.” Because the thing is that Jesus could appear in our lives at any moment. The disciples are hearing this only a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion and, for Mark, Jesus’ words shed light on what will happen to the disciples’ beloved master in the next few days. Jesus will pray with sleepy disciples in the evening, will be betrayed and taken to trial in the middle of the night, Peter will deny him at cockcrow, and with the new day, he will be crucified at 9 in the morning. The word “apocalypse” means revelation and this section of Mark is called the “little apocalypse” because it reveals something about Jesus. Mark wants us to know that Jesus’ death and resurrection will change everything. That this is not just about keeping alert for Jesus in the future, but seeing how he’s present here and now. As Mark says, when we keep alert and see the signs, we will know “he is near.”
What would it look like to live alert and active, awaiting Christ with hope and joy, knowing that he might appear in your life at any moment? This makes me think about one of the apps I have on my phone. It’s called “Reimagining the Examen” and it’s based on the 500 year old practice of recounting the events of a day to reflect and pay attention to where God was present throughout the day. This particular app has different questions to use as prompts and one that I’ve found helpful is, “Am I ready to die today?” The questions it poses include: “If I knew that I would die within the next twenty-four hours, what would I want to do with my last day in order to be ready?” and “What would it take for me to do or say the things that would prepare me for death?” It really makes you think about what is truly important. About whom you would want to spend time with and what you would want to say and do. About what you’d let go of and how your perspectives might shift.
The call the keep alert and awake for Christ in our lives calls us to make the most of the precious time we’ve been given. It gives us the sense of urgency and purpose so many of us are seeking, but it also gives us a new way of living. It grants us life infused with the joy and expectancy of Advent. It gives us the gift of life that is always looking and hoping for the next place God might rip through the heavens and come down to meet us where we are. That’s exciting and beautiful!
We pray with the ancient Israelites and, indeed, all people when we cry out for God to tear open the heavens and come down. We await that day when all will be made new with eager longing. Yet even in this season of waiting, hope, and expectancy, we remember and give thanks that God has already torn the veil and come to be with us. To meet us in all those moments of confusion, hurt, chaos, and pain, and to bring forgiveness, redemption, hope, and joy. To cut through the false expectations and help us focus on what is truly important. To shape and form us, like clay in the potter’s hand, into people who look for and await Jesus in our every day lives – not just at Advent. So “tear open the heavens and come down. Meet us where we are and help us to be on the watch for your presence every day of our lives. Amen.”