With reference to Mark 13:24-37 Isaiah 64: 1-9
`O God, tear open the heavens and come down, make the mountains quake and rivers boil, make the nations sit up and take notice.’ So is the cry of the rag tag bunch of exiles who have come home to Jerusalem 50 years after been lead into slavery in Babylon. But what have they come home to – a city destroyed, their temple – nothing but a pile of rubble.
Some 520 years or so later, in some backwater town, in a little country on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, a child is born one night in some animal shelter. No one takes note, except his anxious parents, and the story tells that some unlikely visitors, shepherds from the surrounding hills, come to take a peek at the wee one.
The mountains did not tremble, and the adversaries of God only stretched and yawned.
And yet, did not God answer their plea? Did God not tear open the heavens, and dwell among us? “How silently, how silently the wond’rous gift is given” say the words of that beautiful old Christmas carol. Somehow, because of that inconsequential birth approximately 2000 years ago, we live in hope beyond reason.
That hope is woven into the gospel reading for today. It doesn’t sound very hopeful in the telling; more like the stuff nightmares are made of. Let’s back up a bit. Chapter 13 of Mark begins with a disciple commenting to Jesus about the beauty of the Temple. And Jesus saying the time will come, when not one stone is left on the other. Many will come and claim to be the Christ, but don’t get swayed by their version of salvation.
Today, the claim of salvation might sound like ‘Make America Great Again’, or – Give me all your money and I will see that you safely cross the sea to a land of freedom and hope. So many promises, so full of deceit.
When Mark’s gospel was written, Jerusalem was under siege. Jews and Christians were being persecuted by the Romans, and the temple was destroyed yet again, in 70 AD. “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from heaven…” Is that the sound of God tearing open the sky? Or is it the sound of humanity’s brutality?
Maybe, when our lives seem fairly secure, these images seem most frightening. But when we are already in hell, then bring it on – Tear the heavens open… I’m sure this was the cry of Jewish people in concentration camps in World War 2.
It is the present cry of Palestinian parents who see their children intimidated, blindfolded and taken to prison in the middle of the night for allegedly throwing stones at a 30 foot cement wall…
It is the cry of the refugees caught in Libya – held in horrid conditions, beaten daily and sold as slaves.
It is the cry of women and children sold into the sex-trade in Thailand and other south-Asian tourist locations.
It is the cry of women, children and men fleeing for their lives, leaving their homeland, being persecuted by ISIS, Boko Haram, and other extremist, militant groups.
It is the cry of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Sufi Muslims, slaughtered in Egypt in the middle of a prayer service this past Friday.
In our own Okanagan – Shuswap district it is the cry of families and friends of 5 women who have gone missing in the past couple years; the body of one discovered a few weeks ago, near Salmon Arm. Tear open the heavens, Holy One, come down and walk with your people.
Within the passage are the words that Christ will return before this generation passes away. In every generation since there have been those who interpret this very literally and think they know more than God, and have calculated the end of the world with pin point accuracy. Interestingly, these date-fixers seem to have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment.
In contrast to these, Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed on the disciples who live through turmoil. Watch, keep awake, he urges, stay vigilant. Watch for what exactly?
Good question. Watch for an insight? Watch for an opportunity? Watch for God to act in the unexpected person or situation? Where’s it happening? And if not, what are you going to do to make it happen? Both Jesus and Buddha say to their followers “Stay awake. Be mindful, see things as they are.
I love the story about an eclipse that happened in colonial New England during which state legislators panicked, assuming it was the end of the world, as the mid-day sky darkened. Then one of them spoke. “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”
I should choose to be found doing my duty. Sometimes it’s hard to know what that is – but I think it includes being vigilant – not closing our hearts and minds, our ears and eyes to the suffering around us. It is to ask “Where is God in this?” If I can’t discern God there, how can I bring what I know of God to the situation?
Let’s go back to Isaiah for a moment. Do you remember what is said at the end of all that `tear open the heaven’s and come down’ stuff? `God, you are the potter, we are the clay.’ There is a sense, even in the cry for divine rescue, we understand we have a part to play in bringing about that salvation, that restoration. We are the vessels.
Janice MacLean, whom I just heard of this week, offers an Advent/Christmas calendar and the thought for the first day of Advent says, “We do not wait alone. The One who is coming is here now, and always arriving anew.”
So let us not be immobilized by fear, but tear the veil that separates us from the pain and beauty of the world, of the human family, of the suffering earth. Let us lean into prayer and open to the power of the Holy Spirit, who is here now, and always arriving anew. Amen.