Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Oh, that you would hear the cries of your people, the Israelites, as they return to Jerusalem after the exile, still under the grip of foreign oppression, finding everything so much harder than they expected.
Oh, that you would hear the cries of your people, the Jews, as they suffer under the weight of Roman oppression, as they struggle to hold onto hope that you have not abandoned them after 400 years of silence since the last prophet spoke!
Oh, that you would hear the cries of your faithful people now, around the world, as we bear the weight and suffering of global and personal crises and agonies, and we don’t know what to do, Lord, we are lost – and we know that we are so often just as much a part of the problem as the solution.
You’ve done it before – you came down so dramatically in Exodus, and you led your children from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. You came down and you made the mountains shake on Sinai when you delivered the law and when you rescued your wayward children from their idolatry.
You came down, here, to Earth.
Lord, we know that you’re the only one who can make a difference. We know that no matter how much we try, we can’t fix our own messes, we can’t put the world back together again, we can’t even put our own lives back together. There is no one else to turn to, no other god beside you.
Please come down.
A lament. We are given a lament this morning, on this first Sunday of Advent – a lament from the prophet Isaiah, who is watching his people begin to return to Jerusalem after the exile, and they are finding nothing the same as they left it, and they are still struggling under the regime of a foreign power. We hear Isaiah cry out on behalf of his people, longing for God’s help and deliverance. And we hear him struggle with the knowledge that the Israelites don’t know how to pray anymore, they don’t know how to push past their own sinfulness, they don’t know how to connect with God. And so Isaiah pleads, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Remember, instead, we are all your people.” You are our Father.
Please come down.
It’s a moving text to have at the beginning of Advent, especially paired with our apocalyptic reading from the Gospel of Mark. And I think it situates us well as we begin to prepare our hearts for the coming of our Lord: it opens to us a place of longing, of frank confession of our sin, and of our need. Advent is a beautiful time of preparation, which is too often skipped over or ignored. It is a gift to us, these weeks before Christmas when we are given the opportunity to confront the awareness that not all is well with the world. Advent invites us to really feel – to feel the longing and the hope and the desire and perhaps even the doubt and fear – the doubt that Jesus will come back, the secret fear that all the waiting is in vain, that this is all there is.
We crave security, and a settled happiness that lasts. Advent, like Lent, is given to us as a time to dare to acknowledge that, to feel the true depth of longing for a world in which all is well, and happiness is not fleeting. Because we know that here on earth, we can never be completely satisfied.
As I was working on this sermon in a coffee shop one morning, a man who was sitting beside me asked me what I was working on. When I told him I was working on a sermon about longing in the world and where we can find hope, he looked completely surprised and said, “I think everything is just great!” I had just seen him both miss his bus and spill his entire coffee, so I had to work to suppress some skepticism, but he went on to explain that he had just immigrated from South Africa the day before, and was expecting his wife and three-year-old son to join him in January, and that he had a great job and things were really looking up for him.
And yet if I pressed him, I think he would have admitted that he has known hard times, and knows that hard times would come again.
We never stop looking or hoping for ‘that thing’ that will fill us – whether it’s a spouse, or children, or the perfect job, or a house in the country – or maybe the next drink, or jackpot, or hit of cocaine. The longing for happiness is planted so deeply within us that there is no denying it. Yet we know, whether it’s instinctively or intellectually or experientially, that these things don’t fill us. Not permanently. We bear too many scars of painful memories and sorrow not to know.
The Christian author C. S. Lewis writes this in his book The Problem of Pain,
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting out with friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
This is an awareness that our culture tries desperately to suppress and forget, through rampant consumerism, misusing sex and alcohol, video games or pornography, or whatever other means of escape we can find.
So Advent is a gift to us: a gift to break free from the lie that we can find our true joy and fulfillment in temporary things on earth. But Advent is also a call to ready our hearts for the coming of the One who can fulfill our longing – longing that was put deep within each of us not to torture us, but to give us faith that this world is not all there is, and to spur us on to keep searching for God.
At the beginning of our passage from Isaiah, the prophet’s call is for God to come down and smite the Israelites’ enemies. But as the lament goes on, as Isaiah goes deeper and looks to the root of his desires and his need, he realises that it isn’t his enemies or what he doesn’t have that stands in the way of the path to joy – it’s himself. It’s his own sinfulness that is separating him from God, the wellspring of life and the very source of joy itself. Isaiah’s lament turns personal, and he includes himself as he says, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” He has recognised himself and the Israelites as a people who don’t just need rescuing from their enemies, but from themselves. They have forgotten how to connect with God.
There’s a lovely little story told about an author named G. K. Chesterton, in which The Times newspaper once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?”
Chesterton responded very simply,
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Chesterton was wise enough, and humble enough, to admit a hard truth, the very same truth Isaiah reaches in our passage. We need rescuing.
This all may sound like a really bad news sermon to start off our journey into Advent – we cannot find permanent happiness in the world, and what’s more, that we need rescuing from ourselves… but in reality, it’s the best news we could have, because we have a Rescuer, and we can know the ultimate source of joy.
We know what Isaiah could only dimly see – that, so many years after he cried out in deep lament, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down” – we know that God did exactly that, in a way that no one could have expected or predicted, as a tiny, helpless baby. Each year we recall again the heavens breaking open with angels singing astonishing glorias to frightened shepherds, and each year we stare down in wonder with Mary and Joseph at this new little child. Each Advent we await again the coming of the One who made the mountains shake as he destroyed the barrier of sin and death that stood between us and God.
God did tear open the heavens and come down. And he will come again.
In Advent we simultaneously wait in two times – we wait to celebrate the coming of this child who came down to bring us into intimate communion with God – and we allow ourselves to feel yet again, the longing for a time when, as the writer of Mark says, “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, when the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, and we will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
As we enter into this season, let’s give ourselves the permission to really feel. To feel the longing. To feel the hurt in the world, and the awareness that not all is right. To feel the hunger that is planted so deeply within us, and to feel sorrow at our sin that has separated us from the one who can fill that hunger. And to feel again the hope and the joy and the wonder at the idea that God HAS come down, and will come again.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
As we close, please pray with me this beautiful prayer of longing from Saint Augustine.
O Thou full of compassion, I commit and commend myself unto Thee,
in whom I am, and live, and know.
Be Thou the Goal of my pilgrimage, and my Rest by the way.
Let my soul take refuge from the crowding turmoil of worldly thoughts
beneath the shadow of Thy wings;
let my heart, this sea of restless waves, find peace in Thee, O God.