Thursday, November 24, 2011

Time To Tear Open the Heavens? A Lectionary Meditation


Isaiah 64:1-9


1 Corinthians 1:3-9


Mark 13:24-37


Time to Tear Open the Heavens?


In the Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass) , an effort is made by Lord Arseniel to tear a hole into an alternative reality, which could be “heaven?”  One can argue as to whether this is an atheist treatise or not, or whether the alternate reality is heaven, but the series did tap into this long-standing human desire to find a way into heaven on our own terms.  If given the opportunity, many would love to storm heaven and gain access to the riches of the divine realm.  It is an idea that goes back in the biblical story at least to the story of Babel and its tower.  Of course, there is another side to this story, and that is God’s comings and goings, and the prospect of God coming into the world and bringing the rod of  judgment.  In some of the more apocalyptic texts, the vision is that of God tearing open the veil separating the heavenly and the earthly realms, and when this happens there will be no question as to whether God is both ruler and judge.  Such apocalyptic imagery still grabs the attention, especially for those who embrace the idea that God is radically separate from our reality, but on occasion visits us supernaturally.  
Such imagery has mythic dimensions, and for those of us who are increasingly uncomfortable with an interventionist model of divine presence, we must wrestle with the implications.  Do we, especially at a season like Advent, ignore the imagery or do we find new ways of appropriating the vision?  As we wrestle with these questions, the issue of judgment remains present.  How do we envision God’s relationship to us?   Is there something to fear from God?   Because we know that Christmas is on the horizon, do we miss the darker tones of the Advent texts, such as the ones that mark this first Sunday of the Advent season?  

The question that Advent raises each year concerns our readiness to face God.  It is a time of penitence and preparation.  It is a call to be alert to the presence of God in our midst, and with this alertness a recognition that all might not be right with our lives.  Hanging over the Advent season is another issue – the reality that we live between two advents.  Thus, even as we prepare to celebrate one, we are aware that another may befall us.  So, are we ready?  Will we be wise stewards of the gifts that the master has left with us?  

On this first Sunday of Advent we hear the words of Isaiah (the third emanation of this prophetic tradition).   This passage presents us with a two-edged sword.   It holds out the promise of judgment on the enemies of Israel – granting to the people of God some hope that their cause will be honored – but a recognition that judgment could be visited upon them as well. There is this imagery at the start of the passage describing the tearing open of heaven, so that God might come to earth and render judgment.  The mountains will quake and emit fire, so that the enemies of God will tremble at God’s presence.  There’s something to cheer in this, if you’re on God’s side (or so we are led to believe).  God looks kindly on those who do what is right, but will visit divine wrath on those who do evil.  So, the question then is – where does one find oneself in relationship to God?   Isaiah offers a word of confession on behalf of this people:     “We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away” (Is. 64:6 CEB).   Recognizing their position before God, the author of this prophetic word acknowledges that they are but clay and God is the potter.  We are the work of God’s hand – this is a word of reminder to God – so don’t hold our sins against us – this is a plea for mercy.  Recognition that one stands before God needing divine mercy, enables the one who waits, to wait in hopefulness.

In these opening verses of Paul’s letter, we hear the great Apostle offer thanks to God for the grace that God has bestowed upon this church.  And the grace that has been bestowed has made them rich in gifts that enable communication and knowledge and testimony.  Indeed, Paul says of the Corinthians that not one gift is missing.  Of course, if you continue reading you’ll discover that this is a rather dysfunctional community of faith.  They are rather fractious, and they are divided over spiritual gifts, over morals, over what kind of meat to eat, and yes, they experience the effects of social stratification.  If one knows the rest of the story, one may wonder why Paul begins his letter in this manner.  Lenora Tubbs Tisdale, asks this very question, but finds in the way in which Paul commends them, despite the realities of their experience, a word of hope and reconciliation.  As she notes, Paul not only expresses his own sentiments, he expresses God’s perception of this people.  God is the provider of the grace that sustains and empowers them.  Tisdale writes:

“Paul’s uplifting tone in this passage reminds us of a temptation in preaching social justice: to leave people with a clear vision of how far short we have fallen in doing what God requires (hence, with a lot of guilt), but without much encouragement or grace to move toward God’s vision.  The encouragement and grace in this text is a theological antidote.  Yes, we fall short. . . . Yes, we get more entangled in our own internal church fights than in the quest to bring God’s justice to a hurting world.  Yes, we are paralyzed by fear.  But this is not the last word.”  [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B , WJK, 2011, p. 4].

 We may fall short.  We may be sinners.  But the gifts and graces of God are present in our midst.  Thus, even as we are called to look inwardly and discern the stain upon our lives, there is also the call to engage with God’s desires for the world.  As Paul tells the Corinthians, we may now use these gifts so that we might bear witness to the one who is coming.  Indeed, these gifts will confirm their testimony that God is faithful and has called them into partnership with Christ.

Mark lacks an infancy narrative and any other marker of where he comes from.  He just appears before John and receives his commission.  Thus, in this cycle, which makes use of Mark’s gospel we start with Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of what is ahead for the people of God.  This passage from Mark 13 begins with a vision similar to that of Isaiah, but it is seemingly even more dramatic.  There is much foreboding in this announcement that a day will come, after the suffering ceases (perhaps thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), when the sun and the moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky and the planets will be shaken (do you see in this an ancient cosmology present?)  It is at this moment, that the Son of Man or the Human One, will be seen coming in the clouds with great power and accompanied by the hosts of heaven who will gather the chosen ones from the far corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.  This will be an event like no other.  You won’t be able to miss it.  But the question that always stands out in moments like this is – when will this happen?  Of course, we all want to know the time and place so we’ll be ready.  We can put it on our calendars, and with our modern electronic devices, we can set the calender to remind us ahead of time, just in case we forget.  But there is no such possibility here.  No one knows the time, not even the Human One.  So you just have to always be on the alert.

But there will be signs, but you have to be watching carefully.  Consider the fig tree, for instance, when its branches become tender and it begins to sprout new leaves, then you’ll know that summer is near.  So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.  It sounds so simple, but the warning signs seem rather subtle.  You have to be alert and watching.  You can’t be complacent.  

To further reinforce this sense of preparation, Jesus tells another of those stories about a master going off on a trip and leaving everything, from the finances to the family, in the hands of his servants.  He seems to have a lot of trust in them, but will they merit it?  Each servant has a job and the doorkeeper is charged with keeping on the alert, because you don’t know when the head of the household will return.  What is interesting is that the passage begins with this apocalyptic vision of the sky darkening and the planets falling, but now Jesus suggests that all of this could happen under the cover of darkness, at midnight or at the break of day.  You just don’t know.  In another place, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming like a “thief in the night.”  If you’d known the thief was coming, you’d be prepared, but you don’t know.  So, you always have to be on the alert, because you don’ want to be discovered having fallen asleep.  

And so as we begin the Advent journey, we seek to be on the alert, aware that we fall short of God’s desires, and yet there is also this word of grace.  We can’t forget that word of grace that Paul speaks to the Corinthians, because God speaks it to us as well!




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