Rending the heavens: on hope, judgement and justice

Written by Molly Boot

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence…

Isaiah 64:1

‘Get up, God, from your heaven, and do something! Show yourself! Prove you’re there!’

Those of us who follow the lectionary
will have begun advent with a bang,
with this passage from Isaiah pleading with God
just to get up and do something,
anything to make God’s presence known and felt.
We’re right at the end of Isaiah here,
after Israel had returned from exile in Babylon
Their years of wandering, and waiting and crying out were over,
as they came back to Judah and Jerusalem, their home.
This was the beginning of a new, hope-filled age:
surely, the Lord would return in triumph to Zion,
to the temple and city of God.
Through those years of exile,
they hoped for that day when God’s glory would be obvious to all,
and everyone would live in prosperity.
But: this section of Isaiah reads like a dawning realisation
that their hope may have been in vain.

This section of Isaiah is full of laments at God’s apparent absence:
Where is the God who brought his people through the sea?
Whose power was with Moses?
Where is God’s power and might?
God’s tenderness and compassion?
Why did the God of Israel’s ancestors
make them wander away and harden their hearts?
They were back where we’re supposed to be,
but there was still suffering and wandering
and God seemed still to be hidden.
The exile was over — but was it really?
Nothing seemed to have changed.

The people of Israel were confused and tired,
and were calling out for God to act.
‘If only God would do something dramatic and obvious.’
I’m not sure about you, but I’m pretty tired, too.
2020 has been its own kind of global exile.
Perhaps more than ever,
we find ourselves wandering through a world
that’s obscure and unfamiliar,
with so much more fear than usual in the air.

We scarcely allow ourselves to hope that
things will return to ‘normal’,
let alone that some of what was already broken before this
might be healed as well.
Every time it seems as though we might have found our footing
and returned home,
there is still suffering and wandering,
God still seems to be hidden,
and the world doesn’t feel quite like the home we hope and imagine it to be.

So, where is God?
Why won’t God get up and do something?
Something obvious, and dramatic,
breaking in and interrupting things as they are
and making them into things as they should be.

But was that really what Israel wanted?
As they returned to the stories of their ancestors,
looking for long-held hope that God would act,
they remembered those times in which God has come down,
shaken the mountains, set fires ablaze —
and they seemed to get cold feet.
‘Erm, actually God, we think that when you’ve come before
you’ve caught us out a bit with the things that you’ve done,
and that’s why we’ve been hiding from you,
caught up in our sin
and anxious about your anger.
So we’re calling on you,
but we’re not sure we actually want you to answer…’

During Advent, we tend to think about what it means
to approach God with reverence and awe,
to wonder at who God is and how God interacts with creation.
And, we reflect on judgement:
the good judgement of God
which brings justice, liberation and healing
for all who are oppressed, ensnared and wounded.
Israel, in this part of Isaiah,
don’t seem to have grasped that God’s judgement
is good and redemptive, yet.
They’re still afraid, not in the ‘awe and wonder’ sort of way,
but in the ‘let’s hide from God,
or hope that God hides from us because of our sin,
because he’s sure to be angry, or have abandoned us’
sort of way.

The reign of God, which we hope for throughout advent –
and maybe especially, this Advent –
is God’s interruption and untangling of all the mess and brokenness:
but not from outside of it.
The heavens have been torn, once and for all,
by the birth, and life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The interruption of God into the world
that Israel in this Isaiah passage feared,
shook and continues to shake the earth,
to set fires in the hearts of those who love him,
to interrupt things as they are and bring in things as they ought to be.
When the heavens were torn in Bethlehem,
God, the child, was lit by a star,
totally exposed to all that the world would do to him,
and totally exposed to love.
As we enter this season of waiting,
as we pray and cry out for God to get up and do something obvious,
We do have reason to hope:
God is not hiding from us in anger,
but is made obvious in Jesus.

God has torn into and collided with this world,
in the Christ-child in the manger
who makes his home in our hearts by his Spirit.
This Advent, may we welcome him;
may we cry with and to him to come to us in healing judgement;
and may we never pretend that God chooses to hide from us and our brokenness.
He was born into it.
And is born into it again, and again, and again.

Molly Boot is a Ministry Intern at St Matthew’s Bethnal Green and a Trustee for Greenbelt Festival.

This post is part of an advent series. Twenty-Four diverse voices have been invited to share some thoughts on one of four themes (Hope, Peace, Joy and Love) each day during the season of Advent. Each contributor has been given just one theme and no further parameters – they may write as much or as little in the style of their own choosing.

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