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1st Weekend of Advent (B/RCL) Dec. 2 & 3: "Why Didn't You Tear Open the Heavens??"

First Weekend of Advent (B/RCL): “Why Didn’t You Tear Open the Heavens??”

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

December 2-3, 2017

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            We’ve all heard the advice: “Be careful what you ask for!”  “Be careful what you pray for!”  Jesus’ last words in the Bible come in the second to last verse of the Book of Revelation:

“Surely I am coming soon.” (Rev. 21:20)

The response is, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  “Maranatha!”

            But are we really ready for Him to come?  The author Madeleine L’Engle has said that we’ll have a lot to answer for.  How are we going to explain insane asylums and refugee camps and homeless people sleeping on cardboard mats strategically placed over subway grates?  How are we going to talk our way out of desperate mothers in the Third World giving their children clay to eat, just so there is something to fill their stomachs?  How will we account for all our luxuries in a world where so many don’t have basic needs like clean water, food and shelter, no less physical safety, education, health care?

            The latest parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is about the master of a house who has gone away on a long journey.  He leaves his slaves in charge.  When he arrives home there will be an accounting of what they’ve accomplished while he’s been away.  They aren’t supposed to just bide their time, sleep in and clock watch during their waking hours, right?  If parents go away for a 3 week cruise and leave young adults or older teens in charge of the house, there are expectations of what the kids will (and won’t!) do while they’re gone, right?  Like what? 

·         Take care of the pets.

·         Take in the mail.

·         Take out the garbage.

·         Water the plants.

·         Do their laundry.

·         Maybe even vacuum and dust, clean the bathroom, at least as the last thing before the parents arrive home!

In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions us:

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

(Mark 13:33)

            Sometimes Confirmation kids visit other houses of worship to learn more about their own faith by comparing it with others’.  Pastors and adult guides hold their breaths a little during those visits to other sanctuaries, hoping and praying the kids won’t ask anything “untoward.” There’s a story of one Confirmation class that visited a local Jewish temple and enjoyed a tour and lesson by the rabbi.  When it was time for questions, one of the kids raised his hand and the pastor tensed up just a little.  The young person asked, “Is it true that you are still waiting for the Messiah?”  The rabbi answered, “No.”  (And the pastor thought, “Hmmmm…..”)  Then the rabbi continued: “We’re not waiting.  We’re preparing.”  Simply waiting for a baby to come is marking days off on a calendar and passively sitting there feeling like an overstuffed turkey.  Preparing for a baby to come is decorating the nursery, addressing birth announcements, investigating the location and time of Lamaze meetings.  Waiting can be very passive.  Preparing is always active.

            In my Pastor’s Pen in the upcoming Holiday Lamplighter I mention a Jewish term for social action: tikkun olam.   It means outreach to the needy, faith active in love and mercy; it literally means repairing the world.

            To me, one of the most powerful, deep-reaching verses in all of the Old Testament, the line from Hebrew Scripture that most grabs me by the throat and speaks to my heart, is the first verse from today’s lesson from Isaiah:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….

(Isaiah 64:1a)

Rip open the sky and reach down to save, O Lord!  Rend the heavens like the high priest tore his garment during Jesus’ trial, like the curtain cordoning off the Holy of Holies tore from top to bottom when our Lord cried out His last on Calvary. 

This part of Isaiah was written in a difficult time….  The people had returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon.  All through that exile they had dreamed of a joyful homecoming when all wrongs would be made right.  But when they got back home, everything was not fine….  The Temple had been destroyed and the city was reduced to rubble.  And they longed for their God to make them whole again:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….

            I think many of us have cried out, too, in our agony, our unspeakable pain, our total lack of understanding of the suffering we’ve personally experienced or witnessed in others’ lives.   The first time I remember really hearing that verse from Isaiah, the first time I prayed in those words, was after my sister Sharon died in her early thirties, leaving behind her husband and 2 pre-school children.  I shouted out in the echoing chamber of my emptied heart:

Why didn’t You tear open the heavens and come down…?

That question was as much accusation as prayer.  Maybe you’ve been in a situation, too, where you pleaded, then wept, then questioned and even accused.

“Where were You??  Why didn’t You do anything??”

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….

This year, many years later, I’m in a different place, and I’m imagining our Lord saying, “I did come down!  In the form of My Son.  And before He ascended He delegated the work of healing to you.  So where are you?  Why aren’t you doing anything?”

            We know many folks who are doing something.  Some of them are still worshiping with us and others have gone out into the world to serve.  One of them is Alicia Dodds, Linda & Dennis’ daughter.  Alicia is one of our young adults who recently received her doctorate in neuropsychology.  She was confirmed here at Holy Trinity, as was her brother Sean. 

In high school Alicia asked if there were one of our senior citizens she could visit.  We paired her up with Ethel Brunkhardt, a tiny woman with a huge heart.  Ethel had no grandchildren and her only child lived out of state.  What a thrill to have a young person pop in for a cup of tea, with a Valentine, or Christmas cookies! In college Alicia headed up the “Big Brother/Big Sister” campus organization that teamed up students with local children with special needs.  After college she joined the Peace Corps and served abused and neglected children on the Caribbean island of Dominica, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria.  A month after the storm only the capital city had phone service.  Many of the friends and neighbors Alicia knew lost their homes to mudslides or flooding or wind damage. In post-hurricane photos the streets are filled with destroyed buildings that look like matchsticks.

Alicia and her husband Vaibhav are expecting their first baby next month.  They recently sent out this note to family and friends:

In lieu of having a baby shower, we request that our loved ones consider donating to Hurricane Maria relief rather than spending that money on baby items.  We are fortunate to have many hand-me-downs coming our way, and know there are so many people in greater need.  Even $5.00 goes a long way in the developing world. 

We understand that there are many demands on everyone’s resources including a number of other natural disasters over the past few months, and we appreciate your consideration!

Thank you so much,

Alicia and Vaibhav

            Doesn’t that generosity of heart and depth of compassion make your heart skip a beat? God has indeed torn open the heavens and come down, sending His Son, whose Spirit sends us forth, marked by His cross, to repair the world, allowing the Kingdom to come through us as He wills, until His return.  Alicia & Vaibhav have found a unique opening to do just that.

            I’ll close with an Advent prayer in a book of reflections called The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner:

Lord Jesus Christ,

Help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and hunger in the dark for the light of you.  Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing God has wrought in this world was ever possible.

            Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not even the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death.  Amen1

                        1Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (HarperSanFrancisco, 1969), p. 125.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham