s092o99 Somerton Park 28/11/99 Advent 1
"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." Isaiah 64:1
I wonder if the injunction to "Keep Awake" makes a cardinal virtue of insomnia :-) I wonder if those who do keep awake in obedience to this command will not miss the celebrations in the kingdom, preferring to have a decent sleep for the first time!
There are two seemingly distinct central themes of Advent, the "end times" and "preparing the way". The cataclysmic events described in Mark chapter 13, where the sun, the moon and the stars, which so determine our mortal existence, will be done away with - we might well dread the resultant catastrophe. I have only to think of the poor people of Turkey - how could they but not despair when faced with not just one earthquake but a series of them? We continue our prayers for those affected. They must be traumatised beyond belief.
I suppose with us coming to the end of 1999, I should concentrate particularly this year on the theme of the "end times" - though with the recent referendum voting down the proposal to become a republic without the Queen, I suppose the world as we know it will not end on January the first 2000 (when the republic in Australia was to begin) - as some monarchists seemed to suggest - and life will indeed continue as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. :-)
Millennium or not, millennium bug or not, the transition from December the thirty first to January the first 2000 (only 33 days to go!) will be an event of some proportions - though I hardly think that God is concerned one way or another - "A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night." (Ps 90:4).
Isaiah looks forward with anticipation rather than dread to these cataclysmic events. He prays that these events will take place. Despite the fact that Isaiah makes it plain that he sees iniquity all around, yet still he looks forward to the actions of God who might well be "exceedingly angry", remembering "iniquity forever". Yet the clue to Isaiah's thinking is contained in these words: "Because you hid yourself we transgressed ..." (v 5) and "You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity." (v7). In Isaiah's view God is, at least partially, responsible for the sin in the world, because of the distance God has put between heaven and earth! When that gap is bridged, humanity will cease to sin.
While there are some words in the scriptures I do my best not to see, perhaps these could be taken notice of. How often do we think that we are solely responsible for the things we do wrong. It goes without saying that God can't be blamed for our mistakes - and yet this is what Isaiah is saying.
And this has it's implications in how we look at others when they do the wrong thing. How often do we assume that others blithely "followed too much the devises and desires of (their) own hearts ..." (Morning and Evening Prayer confession APBA p4). How often do we assume that they are solely responsible for their mistakes, we assume they need to repent before being acceptable ... However Isaiah's words mean that God is at least partially responsible! Can we perceive the germ of good news here - for ourselves and as well for others?
Perhaps some might question the likelihood that Isaiah actually meant this, that he proclaimed God as unjust - indeed two commentators I read seemed blithely to assume it is meant the other way around - that God's distance is a result of our sinful nature ...
I draw your attention to those well known words from Isaiah (40.2): "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins." It is in fact unjust of God to punish anyone more than they deserve. And the theme is not unique to Isaiah. The implication in St Paul's words "The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it ..." is the same. (Romans 8:20).
So I believe that there is a link between these cataclysmic events and preparation, they are not as distinct as might be immediately thought. For the cataclysmic events are God's preparing the way. We no longer look outside of ourselves and outside of humanity "towards heaven" to see the actions of God. The heavens have been torn open, God has come down. If we look towards heaven for the actions of God, we are looking in quite the wrong direction and indeed denying the good news. Jesus makes it quite clear to those he spoke to, those many years ago: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." (Mark 13:30). Do we, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wisely nod our heads and suppose Jesus was mistaken? We do well to look into our own house - for perhaps it may be us who have blinked at the wrong time and failed to see what might be surprisingly obvious if we but look - God is with us already - come at a time when we least expected it - now.
It is the same reason that we are told the heavens opened at the baptism of Jesus - that the Spirit descended on him "like a dove". And again at the death of Jesus, the "curtain of the Temple" was torn in two. There is no longer any heavenly or earthly barrier to anyone. No longer do we have a spiritual ladder to climb. The good news is Emmanuel, God is with us. If we climb spiritual ladders we will find no-one at the top.
For the good news is that God has done the preparation, the valleys have been filled in, the hills laid low, the highway has been straightened, stones cleared away so that God will not stub the divine toe along the way. It is God's path, and God has made the journey already.
The good news is that there is no longer a barrier between humanity and God. So we find God in our own house, or not at all. In amongst the people with whom we live and work and play, and within ourselves also. This is the cataclysm that has already occurred.
And if this is the case in our house, it can be no different in anyone else's house.
How do we live our lives in the light of this reality?
We can no longer look at any other person and regard them as a sinner. As we look and see God at work in the lives of other people, we enable and empower them to cease to need to climb over others on a mythical ladder to God. The perception of Isaiah that God is responsible for sinful humanity through the separation we perceive can no longer be sustained - there is no separation.
For followers of Jesus - the cataclysmic event has taken place already and that event is the cross and resurrection. This is the newly defining event that shows us that God is with us, that God is not "exceedingly angry" - that God does not remember our "iniquity forever".
For followers of Jesus - the cataclysmic event of the Cross and resurrection impels us to desist from sleep, hardly, of course, to be taken literally, but to be alert to see God in you and in me, in our neighbour and ourselves.
Nor should I get too fussed with references in the book of the Revelation regarding 1000 years (6 times in chapter 20:2-7). My reading of this book, though I confess it has not been one I have exhaustively studied, seems to make lots of references to the "lamb" (29 throughout the book). It seems more likely to me that it is a mediation on the certainty of the victory of Christ won on the Cross, more than a time-line for the end of creation.
There are two aspects about looking at Revelation as a time line for the end which worry me. The first is that by doing so we end up using fear as a primary evangelistic tool which I find quite alien to the good news and the ministry that Jesus exercised. The second aspect is that again it looks outside of ourselves and our creation for divine intervention, distracting us to where we will already find God, within us and others.
I began with the text "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." This has either happened, and we are bidden to live our lives in the light of this changed (even if not obviously changed) circumstance; or it hasn't happened and we are no better off for the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If nothing else, the latter thesis is hardly a resounding statement of belief in Emmanuel - God is with us. What will we be celebrating this Christmass?
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