by Pastor Sarah Stadler
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
An apt prayer from the prophet Isaiah for this first Sunday of Advent. For Advent is a season of emptiness. Emptiness because the One for whom we wait—Jesus—is not yet here. Emptiness because the presence of God may not be readily apparent in our world. Emptiness in our Advent practice of meditation, silence instead of incessant Christmas music. For me, the emptiness of Advent is a relief. And really, here at church in this space, Sunday mornings, is the only space where I know the emptiness of Advent. Well, here and at home. Everywhere else, I am greeted by lights, trees, Rudolf, Santa, chesnuts roasting on an open fire. Every store, many streets, radio stations paying homage to the Christmas season. In this cacophony of Christmas everywhere else, I welcome the emptiness of Advent. Yes, here at church, we succumb to the pressure of our culture by putting up trees, hanging lights, having a Christmas program, a Christmas party, a Christmas concert during Advent. But we also light the Advent wreath, remember the long wait of the ancient peoples for God to come, and feel in our bones the emptiness of a world that yearns for God.
This morning’s reading from Isaiah captures the heart of God’s ancient people who waited and wondered how and when God would come among them. Why did the ancient people so yearn for God’s presence? Isaiah’s prophecy provides a hint for the line that begins O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Continues: so that the mountains would quake at your presence…and then, to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! Three thousand years ago, the nation of Israel possessed little power. The history of this people is a history of oppression and slavery and insignificance. At certain moments, such as the people’s move into Jericho under Joshua’s leadership and during the time of King David, Israel defeated their enemies and proved God’s wisdom and might—and by extension, their own wisdom and might. However, when we comb through both the prophets and the psalms, we hear prayers like that of Isaiah 64, that the nations—meaning nations other than Israel, enemy nations—might tremble at God’s presence. They bolstered their own doubts, it seems, by praying for God’s undeniable presence, God’s unquestionable strength.
The ancient people of faith had their own story, their own reasons for yearning after God’s presence. What are ours? Why is it that we might cry out to God: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down? Why do we yearn for God in the empty spaces of our lives? Why do you seek God’s presence?
- Because you want to know answers to your difficult questions?
- Because you want to feel connected to something larger than yourself?
- Because you suspect knowing God might bring you peace?
- Because you’re curious about the nature of the universe?
- Because you fear that not seeking God would bring condemnation?
- Because you desire a relationship with God?
- Because you sense that God is the source of all love and justice and joy?
- Because you see a world broken by sin and injustice and can’t figure out how to respond except to seek God’s guidance?
- Why do you yearn for God’s presence?
This is an Advent question. We know God will, in fact, tear open the heavens and come down, but for right now, it is enough for us to wonder: why do we yearn for God’s presence?
Advent is a question without an answer, a space without something to immediately fill it, a present moment that does not, for the moment, need the future. In the emptiness of Advent, we find space for God to tear open the heavens and come down. It is the emptiness of Advent that awakens us to the gift of Christmas. So here we are now, empty, open, waiting.
Thanks be to God! Amen.