O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
We tend to think of Advent as the season we prepare for the coming of Jesus, born at Bethlehem. But this week that is not obvious at all with the apocalyptic language in Isaiah and Mark 13 with its warning to stay alert. But maybe that is because we, myself included, usually fail to hear encouragement and hope in this apocalyptic talk of tearing open the heavens and darkening the sun. Where this style of writing is used in the scriptures it is used to bring hope to people who are feeling overwhelmed. Usually they are feeling overwhelmed because of famine or an oppressive world power has conquered them. They need a glimpse of hope, a feeling that God ha snot turned his back on them.
So, hope and encouragement are the theme for today. Here in Australia it is much easier to have a sense of hope this Christmas as our borders reopen and most families will be able to spend time together. Perhaps in a way we already sense God’s presence in the dialogue between scientists, health practitioners and Government. We see God’s hand in the preparedness of Austrians to do what we were asked to do with social distancing etc. I suspect most of us are not crying out to God with the same sense of urgency that Isaiah felt or that many people around the world feel. We are not praying “tear open the heavens and come down, please.
Look at the USA with their rising death toll and their petulant President, look at Syria and Yemen still at war with a pandemic raging. There must people with nothing more to do but pray, please God, please God, let us see you and know your presence and your love. They need encouragement and hope.
I have been using phrases like “sensing God’s presence”, “seeing God’s hand”, and the prayer to “see God and to know God’s presence”, because this is the meaning of apocalyptic language. It is revealing God’s presence and love even when it seems chaos reigns and we feel overwhelmed by famine, or disease, or oppressive world powers. But it is also the clue to help us really appreciate Christmas. At Christmas we will celebrate Emanuel, God is with us. Finally, we see, we get it, God is in our midst. But for the moment we face the reality of the world crises of pandemic, environmental disasters and mad world leaders at war to hold onto power.
Where should we look to see these signs of God’s presence that this strange apocalyptic language is offering. Isaiah wants God to tear open the heavens and Jesus speaks of the sun turning dark and the moon not giving its light. When we look at Mark’s Gospel more generally we hear of the heavens being torn apart in the story of the Baptism. We hear of the curtain in the Temple being torn in two. These are moments for Mark when revelation of God’s presence happens. In the Baptism we hear the heavens are torn open and we see God’s beloved son. Mark chapter 1:10-11. The other place in Mark’s Gospel where God is revealed is in the Crucifixion. Mark 15: 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. There at the death of Jesus revelation has happened. The curtain of the Temple hid the Holy of Holies from the people. But now they can see the holy one hanging on the cross. The revelation is such that the Centurion standing there says, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Mark 15:39)
If this apocalyptic literature in Mark is pointing us to a revelation of God in the baptism of Jesus and especially on the cross, where else might we see God present in our midst. In both of these stories there is a giving up of self, it is in vulnerability. That same giving up of self and vulnerability can be seen in the birth of Jesus. God is present in the tiny infant that can do absolutely nothing for itself let a lone for anybody else.
Perhaps then we encounter God present in our nursing homes in the people rely on others to feed and cloth them and to keep them safe from Covid 19. Perhaps we encounter God in the homeless and destitute who seem to be always struggling to keep their head above water. Last week Matthew’s Gospel invited us to encounter God in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, those in prison, the stranger, and the sick. Are we meant to alert and awake to God already in our midst in those we tend to ignore. Yes we love the image of God in that new born baby at Christmas. Afterall babies might be vulnerable and helpless but they are so gorgeous we want to pick them up and cuddle them, holding them to our cheek. May be if we are alert and awake we will see immense beauty in the homeless, the hungry, the stranger and we will want to cuddle them and hold them to our cheek as well.
I said earlier that we saw God at work when our politicians entered into dialogue with scientists and physicians. They embraced a level of humility and giving up of self to learn and to collaborate. When we Australians heard the wisdom of their collaboration, we gave up something of self, recognising our vulnerability and did as we were asked to do. In doing so we saw the hand of God in our midst. When we reach out to minister to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, those in prison, we risk something of ourselves and as such God is at work in us.
As we prepare for Christmas this year lets be alert and awake looking for God’s presence. We will discover God already present in our midst. We will be encouraged and filled with hope. And in our wiliness to serve we will bring hope to others who will see God in us.