Sermon Rewind: Tear the Heavens

(Note: I preached this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent in 2014)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Raise your hand if you had a mother (or father) who woke you up at 4 a.m. to go to the highest hill in town to get a good view of Haley’s Comet? Or a lunar eclipse?

Well I did. My mother is a little bashful about it now, but she was really eager for us to get a look at rare astronomical events. It left me with a lifelong fascination with the night sky, constellations, planets, and everything else that travels through our dim view above. Enough so that when we had the deep lunar eclipse earlier this year, I rustled Soren out of bed momentarily at 3 a.m. so he wouldn’t miss it.

We humans have a deep and strange connection to the sky. The thing about the heavens, for ancient people, is that it was predictable. It was unchanging. Long before the time of Jesus, the movement of stars and planets season by season was charted. This was in contrast to life on earth. No one could predict an earthquake, or a flood, or a drought. No one could say when an illness would strike or when some calamity might befall any person or community. Up there it’s order—“cosmos” means order. Down here it’s a mix of order and chaos. Up there things are reliable. Down here, stuff breaks down. Up there, things don’t change. Down here, everything passes away and nothing abides. “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,” the psalm writer says, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them? The children of mortals that you care for them?”

This is pretty deeply written into our religion, isn’t it? Look at how many of our hymns speak about the universe this way. We will profess it in the Nicene Creed today: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” We know different now. We know that stars are born and get old and die just like people and animals, and we know that there is tremendous chaos and destruction happening in a sky that once looked pristine. But not in the days of the Bible.

So we need to have that in mind when we hear Isaiah plead with God to “Tear the heavens and come down.” A more conventional way to plead with God would have been to say bring us from down here, where life is chaos, to up there, where life is order. Bring us from this world of death into your heavenly light.

But that’s not what Isaiah pleads for. Isaiah the prophet, looking at his people who have suffered destruction and exile from their homeland, hoping for restoration pleads that God would rip open the veil that separates us from him, down here from up there, and come down. God tear those heavens! God push those stars out of the way! God break through the boundary and come down here where life is messy and people sin and the nation fails and falls; come down and help us! We have sinned, the prophet says, we have failed you but don’t abandon us. Come to our help. Come to the clay you have molded. Shake up your solid creation before you let us melt away into nothing.

Jesus echoes this plea in his own speech to his disciples about what to expect before the end. There will be tribulation and suffering, Jesus says, and there will be chaos in God’s orderly heavens. That will be a sign, Jesus says, that the end is coming.

I spent more time than usual in the last week hearing first and second-hand about people, families, for whom it feels as though the heavens have fallen. I talked to someone who lost their spouse suddenly, leaving the survivor and their children not only convulsed with grief but facing a severe financial crisis. I heard about a man who helped prosecutors put a major drug dealer in prison, but who because he has no visa will probably be deported and murdered by the associates of the man he helped our country to imprison. I heard about people waiting—waiting as Jesus and the prophets urge us to wait—for justice and not getting it. I heard about family and friends mourning a twelve-year-old who was shot and killed by police in Cleveland while holding a toy gun. To me, that would be the end of the world. Not just the loss, which is unimaginable, but the anger, and the cold knowledge that there would likely be no accountability for it.

And to be honest, my reaction to these things is to try to be a fixer. It’s what the church usually does. Let’s see if we can get your children into our preschool with some subsidy while their survivor benefits get straightened out with social security. Let’s see if we can tell this guy’s story and bring some attention to his deadly-dangerous situation and maybe give him some time. Maybe there’s some way I can advocate for the victims of unpunished violence. And this is important, and it’s good in its way. But if I’m honest with myself, I know that this habit is a way to distance myself from this chaos. It’s a way to live without the need for hope. Because if you’re fixing the world one little heartbreak, one little terror at a time, you don’t need to worry about the big picture. God can stay up there in his heaven, minding the stars and the moon, and we’ll stay here making things better where we can. And if this is not an ideal situation, it is at least one we know how to live with.

But the message today, and the message of our new season of Advent, is that God has planted a much greater hope in our hearts. Behind the blue paraments and the special music and lighting the candle and the nativity sets and everything is this furious, undeterred, unappeasable hope. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Do not rescue us from this world. Save this world. Do not help us to get by amidst all this brokenness, but come and mend all this brokenness. Yes we have sinned, we have forgotten you O God, our righteous works are like dirty rags before you but even so, come to our help!

That’s the blessing and the challenge of this time of year: to hope for something greater. To hope for the healing of wounds we never thought could heal. To hope for the righting of injustices we think we’ll never see righted. To hope for a release from suffering that we think is inevitable, whether it’s for ourselves or others. To hope that we can see this solid world, and its great unblinking heaven, sliced open like a veil, and God coming through it with great mercy for all. Amen.

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