Rending the Heavens (Advent 1)
Rending the Heavens
November 29, 2020 (Advent 1)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
“You know pastor,” the voice on the other end of the phone says, “I think its going to happen any day now. All the signs are there. We’ve reached the end. Jesus is coming soon.”
As I listen my mind goes back about twenty years. It was the eve of the second gulf war. I’d moved back to Massachusetts and decided to go visit my old Sunday School teacher Miriam Susan. Miriam was an amazing woman of God, an actual living, breathing prophetess. We were in her living room. She was sitting in her wheelchair. I was on the couch. “I can feel it in my bones,” she’s telling me a smile crossing her face. “Everything is aligning. The end is coming. That glorious day will soon be here.”
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” the prophet Isaiah prays to God. Or, as the old King James puts it, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.” To rend – an old word meaning to tear suddenly, to tear violently. To just rip open a hole in the time space continuum and intervene in a world gone mad, to intervene in a world trapped by sin, to intervene in a world trapped in pain.
Oh if only God would directly intervene in times like these. If only we could be taken out of the world before it destroys us. If only God would fix our world before we destroy ourselves. My friend Miriam’s prophecy was also a prayer. A prayer for a world seemingly on the brink of World War III. A prayer for her own body, slowly degrading from one of those muscle and bone destroying diseases where each day brings death a little closer but doesn’t kill you. If only it could all end. Before the pain gets any worse. Before the sin gets any worse. Before our world gets any worse.
Wars and rumors of wars, Jesus says as he looks longingly across the valley at the Temple, which the Romans would destroy within his disciple’s lifetimes. Wars and rumors of wars. Nation rising against nation. Kingdom against kingdom. Earthquakes. Famines. Persecutions. Families divided. Desolating sacrilege. These are the signs the day is coming. The cue for the rending of the heavens. The cue for the inbreaking of a God determined to collect his people from the four winds, from all the places they’d been scattered.
When? The disciples ask. I tell you, Jesus replies, this generation will not pass away.
Wars, famine, earthquakes, family strife, persecution, decollating sacrilege. It perfectly describes 70 AD when, in response to a Jewish rebellion, the Romans attacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, killed all the priests and in the process scattered the young Christian community to the ends of the earth. A definitive event shaping the future of the Christian church.
It perfectly describes 167 BC when the Greeks sacrificed pigs in the temple, leading to a Jewish revolt pitting child against parent, sibling against sibling. A definitive event shaping Jewish culture and theology of Jesus’ day.
It perfectly described 580 BC when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and scattered the Israelites from Babylon to Egypt. The definitive event behind Isaiah and so many of the great prophets.
It perfectly describes today, this week, this year. Fires in the West. Coronavirus. The Israelis assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist. So many hurricanes they ran out of names. Family strife over the election, civil strife over masks, over racial injustice. It perfectly describes almost any day, in almost any year, somewhere on the globe. It describes us. How we live. How we relate. How we struggle.
Isaiah comes close to blaming our bleak state upon the divine self. In the old days, Isaiah tells God, you were visible, present, and we prospered. Then you hid yourself, and we sinned. You left us to our miserable selves, to the hell of our own making.
We feel abandoned as we try to live through the craziness. As we try to homeschool kids while working from home while being quarantined. As we count the days until a vaccine we hope will save us. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,” we pray. Come Lord. Consider us. We are your people. “But about that day,” Jesus tells his disciples, still gazing lovingly across the valley at the soon to be destroyed temple, “no one knows.” The great moment of rending will come. I firmly believe that. Christ will once again rip open the time space continuum, overwhelming all creation with the divine healing presence. At times I yearn with every ounce of my being for that day.
Yet as I watch for God to rend the heavens I notice Christ subtly parting the folds of the universe and making divine presence known. That’s how he did it so long ago. No quaking mountains. Just a baby, one among millions, born to a mother. I feel the subtle parting in my own quarantine, as we substituted a chicken for the turkey, Zoomed with family and made the pie in a skillet so it would be smaller. In the call of a friend at just the right moment. In the healing love keeping us connected despite imperfections and conflict. In still burning hope, in enduring joy. In the miracle of continued existence – despite war and famine, despite earthquakes and family conflict, despite persecutions and desolating sacrilege.
In a God who remains our father, who remembers us, the clay, who still – despite the continued witness of a broken humanity - parts the heavens and breaks into our lives, into our community, into our nation. We pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” Time and time again, he comes.