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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
Holy Trinity, Newington
Advent I, Year B
December 3, 2017
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
This line in German (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf) is the name of a chorale tune, set by Johannes Brahms as a gorgeous motet, and it’s tempting to just play that piece of music and sit down again. But that would be cheating.
The image of God tearing open the heavens is one that may cause fear or joy, depending on how you hear it. For some, it may be like the clouds parting at the end of a storm, when light shines down and we know that we are safe, the danger is over. For others, it may be a terrifying moment when all our protections are stripped away and we find ourselves judged and found wanting.
The writer of Isaiah himself seems to move from one perspective to the other over the course of today’s reading. At the beginning, he is begging God to come down, to make the mountains quake at God’s presence. He wants to witness mighty deeds like those of old, so that all the nations will know that Israel’s God is the true God.
By the end of the passage, though, he seems to have reversed course, or at least to be having doubts; his mind has come to rest on the frailty and sin of humanity, and his petition to God has turned from “come down and show yourself!” to “Do not be exceedingly angry, and do not remember iniquity forever.” He has been struck by the yawning gap between God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of all the people.
In fact, the readings this morning are full of gaps, beginning with that same opening phrase: what is God tearing open the heavens, if not the creation of a gap in our usual reality, a literal hole in the sky, a rending of the fabric of the cosmos to allow God’s presence to be known? When the prophet says to God, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect”, he is drawing attention to the gap between our expectations and what God is capable of. And when he laments, “you have hidden your face from us,” he is acknowledging the distance, the gap, created between God and humanity by our sin – a chasm that he begs God to bridge by tearing that gap in the heavens, even as he wonders whether he would be able to stand the consequences.
The theme emerges in many of the same ways in the Gospel reading from Mark. This passage is the conclusion to an extensive speech in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which took place in 70 AD. The community for which Mark wrote his Gospel was struggling profoundly with this reality, which had blown a huge hole – a yawning gap – in their understanding of what it meant for them to be God’s people. It was a rupture in the very fabric of history, after which nothing would ever be the same again.
And Jesus’ response to this cataclysm, as narrated in Mark’s Gospel, is not terribly reassuring. He doesn’t tell his listeners that everything will be all right, that God will fix it all and make it better than before. He tells them, in fact, that the opening of this gap is merely the prelude to the opening of even bigger and scarier gaps, between their present reality and the coming reign of God: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And since nobody but God knows when it’s coming, the only way to know what’s happening is to be vigilant, to keep awake.
Advent is a time of gaps. It is a time when we are living in at least four time frames simultaneously: the prophets, longing for the coming of the Messiah; Jesus, predicting the coming reign of God; our present reality; and the unknown future. The gaps between those times are big enough to fall into. Jesus’ words, and the words of the prophets, and our own words here and now in worship, are like signals being sent from mountaintop to mountaintop, across the deep gorges and chasms below. Much can get lost in translation.
Advent reveals the yawning gaps in our own lives. There are so many places where we see emptiness, rending, separation. The gaps between the hopes and plans of our younger selves, and our lives as they are now. The gaps left in our hearts and at our holiday tables by those whom we have lost, or from whom we are estranged. The gaps between the relentless, gaudy, fake cheer of the commercial holiday season, and the words and deeds of Jesus, the God who came among us in poverty and humility. The gaps between rich and poor, between the genders and the races, between the proud and the humble: the gaps between how we feel the world should be, and how it actually is.
What do we do with these gaps? How, to borrow a phrase from the disembodied voice on the London Tube, do we “mind the gaps” in Advent?
Our scriptures for today, at the same time that they are revealing the gaps, also point the way toward navigating them. And the first thing to do is to acknowledge that they are there: not trying to jump over them too quickly, sitting with them in full knowledge that they are probably painful and distressing. Jesus doesn’t try to downplay or paper over the gaps. He is very frank about the changes that are coming and the suffering that will result. Isaiah, likewise, is open about his emotional conflicts, both welcoming and dreading God’s advent on earth.
Jesus encourages us to keep awake. When you’re talking about gaps, this is wise advice. It’s hard to avoid the pitfalls if you’re not alert (as anyone who has tripped getting off of a train can attest). But there’s a deeper meaning to this call to keep awake, as well. It means that even when we feel overwhelmed, like the gaps are spreading and swallowing us up, like there can be no hope of things ever being different, we are still encouraged to keep our eyes open, to look around us, to find signs that God is at work in the world, despite the seeming hopelessness of everything and the temptation to cry aloud (with the prophet) for it all just to be torn down.
Isaiah’s response is, I think, still more interesting. It is from this passage that we get the famous image of God as the potter and ourselves as the clay; as the prophet laments the increasing gap between God’s righteousness and the people’s iniquity, and how it has caused God’s face to be hidden from them, he reminds himself that nevertheless, they are the work of God’s hands, the clay being shaped by God on the potter’s wheel of life.
Not only is this a deeply hopeful message – that God’s sure hands are shaping us, and will continue to do so, even when we mess up and it seems like everything is going wrong – it also speaks to the image of the gap. Because if the pot is finished, if it’s been fired, and something happens to strain it to the breaking point, then – well, it breaks. You’ve got a cracked, useless piece of pottery – another gap.
But if the clay is still on the wheel being shaped, there’s still hope. Unfired clay is malleable. It can change. If a gap needs to be bridged, perhaps a piece can be stretched out and across that gap, and bring the two sides back together.
Perhaps this is an invitation not to rush Advent too much, not to hurry to be finished, but rather to stay with the clay even as it is ugly and unformed and (let's face is) kind of slimy and unappealing. There is much to be said for remaining unfinished, ready to be shaped into whatever form God needs us to be.
This image of the clay should not be simplified too much. The gaps of Advent are too real, and too messy, to be easily bridged. Much of what God is calling us to do in this season is simply to be, to be present, to be aware, to acknowledge what is, and not run from it in panic, but simply look for where God is acting.
But when we find God acting, we find hope. We find the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather the elect, we find Paul assuring the Corinthians of God’s strengthening them to be blameless, we find Isaiah reminding us (and God!) of God’s past righteous deeds and offering the lovely and rich image of the potter.
The gaps are still there, and Advent tells the truth of them. May we, with God’s help, mind the gaps this Advent, and still find hope.Amen.