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

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As Christians, we believe that God did tear open the heavens and come down in Jesus Christ, a human being.  God’s coming in Jesus was not to make mountains quake or stars fall, but to turn the hearts of all people towards God.

Advent 1, Year A: November 27, 2011
Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor. 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

Grace to you and peace from the One who beckons us to keep awake, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

I have been thinking a lot about babies lately.  It’s hard not to, being as I have had 3 little girls come into my life in a significant way in the last 2 months.  The first is Elizabeth Anna, born on September 22 this fall.  Elizabeth is my niece and soon to be goddaughter, as I travel to Salt Lake City next weekend for her baptism.  I met her for the first time 3 days ago at Thanksgiving.

The second is Trudi Mae, born two and a ½ weeks ago to dear friends of mine.  I met her for the first time yesterday.  I marveled already at who she is as I listened to her mom (my friend) tell the agonizing story of her grueling 40 hour labor that ended in an emergency c-section. 

The third is Hannah Wanyce Nesheim, Shera and Tim’s daughter, who I have yet to meet until after worship today.  Even though I haven’t met her yet, I already love her, as I know you do too.  We love her already because we have been anticipating her arrival for nine months now and journeyed with Tim and Shera through their pregnancy.  We have been expecting Hannah, and now she is here, and we get the privilege of watching her grow up in this world with us.

I am so in love with these three little girls I can hardly stand it.  I have so much hope for them, and am excited to watch them grow and live.  It is an incredible wonder, how we as human beings, are formed and born into this world.  This alone should be enough to take our breath away, perhaps like stars falling from the heavens??

While I have many hopes for these little ones, I tremble sometimes at the thought of the world they are born into.  For those of us who have lived a few years, we know that although the world holds great beauty, it also contains war, poverty, disease, abuse, addiction, violence, and all kinds of suffering.  I want so badly to protect and shield them from these things, but just as I am not immune or protected from suffering, I know they are not either.  They will experience the great vastness of all that life has to offer.  What a complex and amazing world we live in…a world that Jesus says will ultimately pass away.

Our Gospel reading today from Mark 13 is often referred to as the “little apocalypse.”  Jesus doesn’t say much about his coming to earth again for the second time, but here he says a little bit.  He mostly emphasizes that it will indeed happen and we are to watch and have confidence in his arrival.  These words in Mark were originally said to people who were no strangers to suffering.  They were ruled by people who were much stronger than them and the life and world they knew was being destroyed by the Romans who occupied their land.  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (13.31),” was meant to bring comfort and courage to the people who were suffering.

There have been many times, perhaps all times throughout history, in which people have thought or claimed to be living in the “end times.”  People have calculated exact days when the end of the world will be.  Those days have come and gone and here we still are.  One thing Jesus makes absolutely clear is “about that day or hour no one knows,” not even him.

So why does this text and the promised return of Jesus raise so much anxiety when it was originally meant to bring comfort and courage to people?  For one, the world we live in is really the only thing we know or even can know.  It is a scary thing to think about having all we know come to an end.  For another thing, we are deeply afraid of suffering.  Somehow we equate the coming again of Jesus with incredible suffering. 

I find this interesting in a world in which people suffer so much already.  For those who are so deeply hurting, it is then I find there is an even more earnest and louder cry to God that echoes Isaiah 64 verse 1:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

Why would people of faith throughout history ask for God to come if they thought it would bring upon them more suffering?  It is the Biblical witness that continually longs for and asks for God’s presence to come and be with and among the people.  Rarely is it their desire to leave the world that they know, suffering and all, but a plea and cry for God to come.

As Christians, we believe that God did tear open the heavens and come down in Jesus Christ, a human being.  God’s coming in Jesus was not to make mountains quake or stars fall, but to turn the hearts of all people towards God.  John 3:17 says, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some of you may or may not have heard of Advent.  Advent is the season of the church year we are in right now.  We celebrate the season of Advent for four weeks as we look to the celebration of God coming into the world through Jesus.  In the season of Advent, we remember that God has already come to earth as a baby in Jesus Christ, and that we continue to watch and hope for his coming again.  Jesus tells us to be alert and awake.  This is a story I heard from another pastor:

A young girl asked her Sunday school teacher, "What's a lert?"
"A what?" the teacher asked.
"A lert?" she said again.
"Why do you want to know?" asked the bewildered teacher.
"Because the pastor said that we should 'be alert,' so I want to know what a lert is, so I can be one?"                                                   (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/)

Jesus emphasis for us to be alert and awake can be and is confusing, but it doesn’t mean to literally stay up day and night.  It means to wake up and spend your time and energy on things that really matter.  Wake up to heal relationships that are broken.  Wake up to reading Scripture, the word of God that will never pass away, and let it sink into your heart, your mind, and your bones.  Wake up and see the realities of suffering.  Be awake and aware of how precious your life is and the world God has made.  Don’t worry about when the end will come, but anticipate it.

James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) argues: "All the signs that have been given add up to one conclusion: the End cannot be prepared for. That is because the End is ultimately not a 'then' but a mysteriously present now. The sole preparation for the End is watchfulness and faithfulness in the present" (p. 406).

We are to spend the season of Advent attentive to the presence of God already among us, trusting God in a world that will pass away.  The Gospel of Mark, which we will be reading from a lot throughout the next year, continually asks the question:  “How can we be a disciple in this trying time?”  We do not get to escape suffering in life.  Our hope is that God comes down to be with us in it and gives us courage to live through it. 

The Holidays are really great for some and very difficult for others.  They can be a reminder of strapped finances, of family you cannot be with (or are forced to be with!), of being away from home for those of you here at YCC, of painful reminders that your loved one(s) is/are no longer alive, of seasonal depression, and of rampant consumerism.  In all of these things we cry out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

I keep trying to understand God’s coming to earth in a vulnerable baby, who grew and suffered, yet lived all life had to offer.  As I held Elizabeth and Trudi (and soon Hannah) and have marveled at the gift and miracle of life these last few days as we enter into the season of Advent together, I have realized we are not called to spend our time trying to figure it out or even understand, but to trust.  You and I are to trust in God’s word of promise that will never pass away.  A Word that says to you, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1).”  Jesus is the one who comes again and again and again to be God with us, Emanuel.  Jesus has been the one baby who has awakened our souls and the world to God’s redeeming love, and one day he will most certainly come again.  Thanks be to God.