That opening line from the reading today really grabs you doesn’t it? “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” I think it grabs us because we have all prayed something like it before. Where are you, God? How long, O Lord, must I suffer? Maybe it was because of a bad diagnosis, unimaginable suffering or loss, a broken relationship or a failed career, but at some point, most of us have felt the gut-wrenching reality of that opening line.
The Hebrew scriptures do a deep dive into these messy parts of the human experience. The book of Isaiah is no exception. Biblical scholars tell us that the book of Isaiah is really an edited volume that contains three distinct parts. Chapters 1-39 deal with the time before the nation of Israel is sent into exile in Babylon. It is filled with warnings that if the Hebrew people do not change their ways, then there will be consequences. Chapters 40-55 deal with the period of the exile but are filled with promises of a return of the Hebrew people to their homeland. Finally, chapters 56-66 deal with practical concerns within the newly returned community.Obviously, everything in their return is not going smoothly. All one has to do to see this is read the books of Nehemiah and Ezra to see that the return home might not be all that it is cracked up to be. The people who are returning have never lived in the land promised to their ancestors. Many years and generations have passed since the exile. They return as strangers to this land. For many of them, even their customs and traditions have been forgotten. What they thought would bring fulfillment and joy instead feels hollow and foreign.
In the midst of this struggle they fall back on the ancient tradition of lament. Lament is not quite complaining, but neither does it wallpaper over the fractures and scratches of life. Lament is raw in its honesty. It is a collective and public airing of grief, disappointment and anxiety. The Hebrew scriptures tend not to shy away from giving voice to the not-so-nice aspects of life. The psalms and prophets are full of lamenting. But again, it is not just complaining. It is a form of prayer. Walter Brueggemann says that lament is ‘a prayer meant to mobilize God’. Lament,then, is a bullhorn – a desperate attempt to get God’s attention, but also a type therapy, a cleansing of the spiritual palate.Lament is the gateway to hope. We cannot enter the land of hope without first walking the path of lament.
So when this reading from Isaiah starts with “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”, we know that we are dealing with lament. What we’re seeing here is a people who are overwhelmed with the sense that things are not going according to plan. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. We’re in the promised land but nothing is like we thought it would be. We still struggle. There is no ‘happily ever after’. At the heart of this lament, and all lament, are questions: Where is God? Where is God when it hurts? Where is God in the face of injustice? Where is God when things don’t work out the way God promised?
These newly-returned exiles are looking back, expectantly longing for God to do the same things that God always does.They remember the stories of creation, the stories of liberation from slavery, the stories of great military victories. They expect the God of their ancestors to show up and do some name taking and smiting, some divine butt-kicking. But if we’re honest, who can fault them for that?
Still, in the middle of this lament, their hope is still rooted in the covenant fidelity, the covenant-keeping God. Their hope is not just wishful thinking. They have a history – a story – to draw on. The one constant, then, in all of the Hebrew scriptures is that God is faithful and keeps God’s covenant promises. They are God’s people and God has made a promise to them to never forsake or forget them. They wish that he would hurry up about it already.
If lament is the gateway to hope, then where is the turn here?The linchpin that is missing here comes later in chapters 65-66.It is in these two chapters that Isaiah cast a vision of hope in the words of Yahweh that God is doing a new thing, making all things new. These chapters contain some of the most beautiful language about the renewal of the heavens and the earth, of salvation. The Israelites are looking back, looking for God the way their ancestors reported experiencing God, while God is telling them something new and unexpected is coming. What they feel as the absence or hiddenness of God, is really justmisplaced expectations. God is always up to something. We often are just looking in the wrong place.
As we approach this Advent season, hope seems in short supply. We are still ravaged by Covid-19, economic uncertainty, racial tensions and climate crisis. But I think that this Advent hope cannot really begin until we make room for lament – to give voice to the grief, disappointment and anxiety we carry as a church and as a society. We cannot shy away from the truth that things will likely never be the same for us. Covid has changed everything, and in many ways there is no going back. The same is true for the church. Challenges that we knew before Covid have been magnified and sped up. There is an increasing sense that what we know and experience as church is simply not sustainable. But before we rush to what comes next we do need to make space for lament for what we have lost and are losing. To fully embrace the new thing that God is doing in our midst, we have to give voice to what we now feel slipping away. At the same time, though, we must remember that our hope is rooted in the covenant faithfulness of God. Even though this God can often seem absent or hidden, and we might cry out with the writer of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”, this same God is still faithful, present and active, though in new places and in new ways.
This Advent, in the midst of all the uncertainty and, dare I say, hopelessness brought on by Covid-19, I cannot shake the feeling that rather than us waiting for God to show up and save us, we should instead think of God waiting for us to get our act together. Perhaps we need to see that God is waiting, lovingly and patiently, cajoling us to work together, to be light, to love. God has given us what we need – he has given us Jesus – to show us how God has always intended for us to live together. Jesus is always calling us to not only read the signs of the times, but to see him, active and alive in the world. Advent is a season of seeing, of seeing the breaking in of hope, peace, joy and love into the world and a season of us participating in that breaking in. Advent reminds us that Jesus is not only coming, but is always coming; always showing up where we least expect him; always calling us down unfamiliar paths and into risky, unknown ventures. As the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, Christ plays in 10,000 places for those who have eyes to see him, and faith to follow where he plays. That is where our hope lies this Advent season, in this age of Covid; that in Christ God is making all things new and we get to participate. Amen.