O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people.
So I have to say, I was really fascinated with the passage from Isaiah this week. There was just something about that imagery of God arriving on the scene to respond to the cries of a suffering people by literally tearing open the heavens. And then…mountains, trembling. Oceans and rivers, boiling. Enemies scattering in all directions. It’s all so dramatic, so urgent, even— dare I say— apocalyptic.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
This is not a mundane, lukewarm sort of prayer. Isaiah is not just praying for God’s presence in a tough spot. He’s not just asking God to help out a bit. The prophet is asking for nothing less than for the very boundary between heaven and earth to be torn apart. If that’s not apocalyptic, I don’t know what is.
As it turns out, this passage from Isaiah is just one of many passages that come up every Advent season with more than a little bit of that world ending, apocalyptic senses of urgency about it. Now I decided not to preach on the Gospel of Mark today, but if I had, this is just a little taste of what you would have heard— “But in those days,” the gospel writer proclaims, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light. The stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Like I said, world ending, apocalyptic kind of stuff.
And why not? These people— both the prophet Isaiah and the writer of Mark’s gospel— were living in pretty desperate times. Though centuries apart, each of them was dealing with different forms of corruption, oppression, violence, and overall chaos in the world around them. And maybe it seems strange, or even unimaginable to us, that anyone could be so desperate for change that they would literally want the very world around them to end. That may not seem very hopeful to us. But you know, for the poorest of the poor in this world, for those who feel trapped in endless cycles of violence or poverty or oppression, sometimes, the end of the world as we know it is quite literally the only way to imagine that things could ever change.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
So for all of these reasons, these words just kind of grabbed a hold of me this week and would not let go. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Maybe it’s because I felt like I could sort of relate. After all, these days, the level of corruption in the halls of power seems so entrenched. The disparity between the rich and the poor is so persistent, and grows harder and harder to reverse with each passing year. The prejudices of the human heart feel so deeply and unalterably ingrained. Thousands of years of warfare have led us not to a greater desire for peace, but only to more technologically advanced methods of destroying one other.
And so, yes, I will admit that sometimes, it feels to me like the only way to solve some of the truly overwhelming problems of our world would be for God to tear open the heavens and hit some kind of divine reset button, so we could just start this whole human civilization experiment all over again from the beginning. Surely I’m not the only one who can relate to Isaiah’s desperate, apocalyptic prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Sure, maybe we could all do without the boiling oceans, but the sentiment remains attractive, does it not? God comes down from heaven and puts all the big baddies in their place once and for all. Maybe then we would stand a fighting chance to finally get things right. Maybe.
But you know, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that maybe there’s another possibility here. Maybe there’s more to these apocalyptic texts than meets the eye— or our limited human imagination. Because here’s the thing— our imaginations have been so conditioned after so many years of apocalyptic movies in which the world is about to be utterly destroyed by some terrifying and devastating event— astroids, tsunamis, blizzards, zombies, tornados with sharks— that we have forgotten that the word apocalypse doesn’t actually mean total destruction and devastation. It doesn’t actually mean the end of the world. Sure, if you look it up in Webster’s dictionary, that’s what it means now. But originally, back in biblical times, the Greek word ‘apokaluptein’ meant simply to uncover, or to reveal. And so maybe it did sort of imply the end of the world “as we know it,” but not necessarily because of some horrifying and deadly disaster. Rather, the end of the world “as we know it” would come about because the scales would finally fall from our eyes, and we would finally be able to see the world as it really is. We would finally be able to see one another, and all of creation, as God intended, as very good. Yes, the world as we know it would end— the corruption and the chaos, the division and the injustice— but not because of some horrible violent catastrophe, but because of the revelation of God’s light and truth taking hold in the human heart.
So, if we read the Isaiah passage in that context, then all of a sudden, the idea of God tearing open the heavens to reveal light and truth in a darkened world doesn’t necessarily have to seem quite so scary. Suddenly, the text has endless possibilities— not just for destruction, but also for revelation and illumination.
Specifically, I think there are some profound implications for what this text can reveal to us about the Advent season which we enter into today. Because when we talk about God’s love being born into the world on Christmas, we are not just referring to an event that happened over 2000 years ago, right? Aren’t we also talking about God’s love being born in us— about God’s love becoming incarnate in us— all over again? Is the Christmas story itself not a story about God tearing through the barrier between heaven and earth—tearing past the supposed boundary that exists between human and divine? Is the Christmas story itself not an answer to the prophet’s prayer— “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”?
But of course, that’s not quite the end of the story either. If it was, we could just skip right over Advent and head straight to the feasts and celebrations. But the thing is, just as it is in the story of Mary and Joseph seeking room on the original night before Christmas, before Christ can be born in us, before God’s love can become incarnate in us, we also have to find some room.
So I guess all of this is really just a roundabout, and somewhat clumsy way of saying that maybe, what we really need this Advent season, more than anything else, is a kind of apocalypse of the human heart. Maybe the intervention we need most from God has nothing to do with destroying our enemies, and everything to do with destroying all the hatred, anger and resentment that has built up within us. Maybe what we need most from God, is for God to tear open and tear down all the boundaries and barriers we’ve built up around our hearts— boundaries that keep us from listening to those with whom we disagree, or understanding those who hold a different perspective, or accepting those who speak another language, practice another religion, or have a different understanding of the world. Maybe we need for our hearts to be torn open so that a little more of God’s truth can be revealed to us, so that a little more of God’s love, mercy, and GRACE can settle in and find room there. So that in fact, Christ can be born there once more. Otherwise, what good does the divine reset button really do? We won’t really have learned anything, and we’ll just keep making the same old mistakes, fighting the same tired battles, and hating all the same people we hated before. We’ll end up right back where we started.
And so this Advent season, I anticipate that my prayer will begin very much in the same way as the prophet’s prayer began so many thousands of years ago— “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” But that’s only the beginning. Because when that prayer is answered, as I am confident it will be, I pray that I will have made room for Love’s arrival. I pray that my heart will have made room to receive that divine love and give it space to take root and grow. Because that, I truly believe, is how we will change the world.