Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; 1Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
With inward pain my heartstrings sound, my soul dissolves away; dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round, dear sovereign whirl the seasons round, and bring, and bring the promised day, and bring the promised day. Amen.
Imagine how carefully I want to walk this morning given that the cry that we hear in the prophet Isaiah is a plea that God make the divine presence known in as vivid and overt a way as possible in and through natural disasters. Rend the heavens and come down begs the prophet. In a rough paraphrase here, the prophet really does ask God to strut the divine stuff and show us through every conceivable natural phenomenon that God is there and listening to us. God is beseeched even to bring on an earthquake in a way that is a bit like the quote from famous, early movie-maker Cecile B. De Mille who once said about his biblical movies, “start with an earthquake, then build to a climax.” So I want to say that whoever was possibly praying like this back in August, talk to me first the next time you are feeling needy about overt signs of God’s presence.
On the other hand the discomfort with God’s silence must have been very difficult. It is nearly unimaginable how crushing the homecoming must have been for the exiles who managed to make their way to Jerusalem from ancient Persia. These were the people to whom the word from the prophet Isaiah was first addressed. Their storied temple lay in ruins. Their worship life was God knows what. Troubled enough that much of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are spent addressing the sorry state of disrepair of both temple and liturgy. They thought their time of having been judged by God was done. Yet what lay before them was not restoration, but a mess. It was not an easy moment to ponder fresh possibilities. Small wonder that the cry went up to God fix it and be loud and clear about it. The people of ancient Israel were tired of being unheard.
There is no escaping that what the prophet perceives as the silence of God carries with it a kind of judgment of us and of the world. I have been known to pray precisely for the sort of clear sign Isaiah seems to desire. Although maybe not of biblical proportions, I have certainly been on the lookout for some sort of discernable indication of a clear yes or no about any number of momentous decisions in my life. I am probably not alone in that prayer. A great deal of the story of our relationship with God has no small share of signs and wonders. The trouble is that we readily get into a pattern of thinking that this is the only way God speaks to us that matters and forget that even mighty acts require appropriate and responsible interpretation. Yet we remain a people who seem to prefer even God’s wrath and might over a fairly subtle relationship in which God is either silent or speaks in ways that require a great deal of attentive and active listening on our part.
What we see looking back in the prophet Isaiah is that God was present even amid the perceived silence. There was a yearning to be present on God’s part. This silence disclosed that how God would act would be different from past practice. What was shifting here was that God chose to be near humankind in the one who was pushed out of the life of his contemporaries to a terrible death on the cross. What God chose to disclose in clear ways in Jesus was a love that was non-coercive, and many times quiet, a love that embodied suffering service. In Jesus the silence of God was ended. God heard the prophet and chose to show God’s own self in a pattern of creating and redeeming work by giving us hope incarnate in Jesus. Let me say a word about hope because we confuse it with optimism all the time. Hope is not about always being on the sunny side of life. As one writer so eloquently said it, “hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized, and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” Hope is what compels us to offer thanks even when there is little for which to be thankful.
To what do we listen actively to hear God who is speaking a word of hope, either loudly or softly, and most assuredly speaking to us to mend our broken hearts and the heart of the world? Let me not so much rend the heavens as rip a couple of examples from the headlines. I think God was speaking and Rosa Parks was listening when On December 1, 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a person of another race. For every good example there seem to be as many if not more where listening is a problem. I think God was speaking when a number of people stood in a computer store in Bethesda, Maryland, and heard in the shop next door repeated calls for help and the sounds of a brutal beating. No one went to investigate. No one called 911. Next door a young woman was murdered and her co-worker was convicted of that murder. Two young lives utterly ruined forever because no one was listening. Two movements from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one called the Tea Party and another called Occupy, each seeking to be heard, and when you sift through the crazies, the anarchists, and the fools looking for their 15 minutes of fame, are those of us in the middle, let alone the 1 percent listening to the cries of the genuinely desperate for economic justice? In State College, Pennsylvania, the lives of the powerful and the victims of reported sexual abuse lie in ruins because choices were made to listen to the cheering voice of a winning football team over the accounts of inappropriate behavior and boundaries transgressed. In all of these instances I believe God is speaking, and too often we make the choice to respond in silence. As writer Margaret Hebbelthwaite observed we are always in the tension between the “sadness of the world we live in and the bliss of the world we would like to live in”. Living in that tension is an immense challenge. This Advent season’s call is to listen actively, and that begins the pilgrimage through the chaos of one world to the justice and mercy of the world that God loves and desires.
Today what we hear from every lesson, prophet, apostle, and Jesus is that we are asleep to what matters most in this life. In the prophet’s estimation we need an earthquake to wake up and listen and take seriously that God is present. I would like to believe and to hope that it won’t take quite that much. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard to listen. Truth telling and teaching don’t come to us naturally even in the church, and we are particularly allergic to apocalyptic messages because we take them as tidings of hate and condemnation rather than hearing a holy word about what it means to greet Jesus who comes to shape us into the people and communities we are meant to be. Wake up and listen by neither hankering after a past nor hurrying toward an invisible future. Wake up and listen, life is precious and unpredictable and all seasons, especially this one are too short, don’t cover your ears by complaining and partying and spending all this time shopping. Wake up and listen, forgive when your impulse is for revenge, confess your sinfulness when you feel most innocent. Wake up and listen, give thanks under all circumstances. Wake up and listen, not by scanning the heavens, or reading horoscopes, or gleaning obscure texts, but by looking at the full face of human misery and knowing that there is something to be done to address it now, today. Wake up and listen for in the words Come Lord Jesus, Come, we have already been equipped with the grace and power of Christ to live not as community of the ninety-nine and the one, but as one just and loving people in the power of the God who listens and sends us to be one in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to God. Amen.