This week in worship we begin our Advent Series, “What God Does for Us at Christmas” with Pastor Joe sharing about a work of fantastic power on God’s part. “God Rends the Heavens”, tearing open barriers to meet us where we are with divine blessings.
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God Rends the Heavens
Isaiah 64:1b “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
Have you ever noticed how water boils faster on Cape Cod? At least that’s been the case in my experience. It used to be at my house that we had to wait and wait for water to boil. You know the old phrase, “A watched pot never boils”? It used to be true, but not anymore. It could be how clean, how pure and refined Brewster water is or it could be that the Greemores have always used an electric range, and now that we’re using our very first gas stovetop range, it’s like somebody hit the fast forward button. The other day, I put the water on, turned on the flame, blinked once, and it was boiling. A modern-day miracle! Someone asked me, “Why are the flames blue?” I replied, “Because they’re extremely hot.”
Often when God shows up in the Hebrew Bible, part of the context is fire. Whether it’s a burning bush, a smoking mountain filled with fire, the fire of an offering, or hail that burns, God is depicted as fiery and wrathful. In the New Testament, we look past the destructive flame to find the warmth. The prophet Isaiah had no such luxury, but rather than destructive, he found the flames to be refining.
Isaiah is one of the Old Testament sources quoted most often in the New Testament.
It is no coincidence that the largest literature found at the Essenes’ Qumran community in the late 1940’s and 50’s was the Isaiah scroll. This prophet, Bishop Gregory of Nyssa believed, “knew more perfectly than all others the mystery of the gospel.” The promises he shared on God’s behalf not only pointed toward the salvation of Israel, but of all the world. Although Isaiah walked the earth some 7oo years before Jesus’ incarnation, his vision was 20/20 when it came to seeing what God was doing. I invite you to recall the prophet’s foundational call story found in Chapter 6, when God’s glory filled the temple and the prophet beheld God’s mysterious glory.
Frederick Beuchner, in his commentary Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, captures the encounter thus: “There were banks of candles flickering in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him, as if it had always been there but was only now seen for what it was (like a face in the leaves of a tree or a bear in the stars), there was the Mystery Itself, whose gown was the incense and the candles a dusting of gold at the hem.”
God was preserving the history of God’s dealings with humanity, discovered in a cave by a boy herding goats. In my office hangs a reminder of this scroll and the manner of earthenware jar in which it was discovered, a diminutive example of the massive complex in Jerusalem known as the Scroll of the Book which houses great portions of this ancient prophetic writing. All of this is the backdrop for our Advent series at BBC this year: in the weeks to come, we will meander through the prophet Isaiah’s foreshadowing the good news of Jesus, which will launch us into the gospel itself as we hear of the beginnings of Jesus’ story.
As we begin a series called “What God Does for Us at Christmas,” we remember the redemptive work God has done.
- God works with us and on our behalf.
- God brings comfort and good news in times of challenge and uncertainty.
- God reverses our expectations, often showing up in places we least expect.
- Almighty, All-powerful, All-knowing, All-present God, becomes vulnerable on our behalf.
Now I invite you to listen to Isaiah 64:1-9.
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 forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
This morning, as we hear these words, I’d like for us to consider other beginnings, other times during which God rent the heavens. The first is the beginning of creation.
This was the occasion on which God literally separated the heavens, the waters above from the waters below, putting the stars in place, and separating day from night. Ex nihilo, out of nothing, God created the vast expanse of beauty we behold from our back porch and in the night sky. God rent the heavens.
Then, at the Exodus, a new beginning for the foundling nation of Israel, God rent the heavens above and the waters below, sending a pillar of cloud to guide the people by day and a flame of fire to guide them by night. The people crossed the sea on dry ground as God divided impassable terrain to allow room for deliverance.
At the beginning of the story of the church, in the Acts 7:55, a man named Stephen, chosen to be among the very first deacons, looked to the heavens and beheld them wide open, beheld Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
This Jesus for whom heaven opened at this baptism and God poured out God’s Spirit; whose followers were gathered in an upper room when the heavens parted to allow room for the Spirit to descend like a dove; at whose death the curtain of the temple was torn in half, dividing the barrier between heaven and earth, implacable death which stood between people and their Creator.
God rends the heavens!
In our time of need, God rends the heavens.
When God’s people long for deliverance, God rends the heavens.
When we’re sick and tired of this pandemic and long to be able to laugh again with our friends without wearing mask, gives hugs without consequences, and have family over for the holidays, God rends the heavens, shows us new ways to connect and new ways to show gratitude and celebrate the gifts of community.
In our darkest hour, God rends the heavens.
When God rends the heavens, God is glorified.
In a time of exile, God’s people were calling on God to come down, come again as powerfully as God had come in the past. Exodus 19:18-20 recounts this incredible event.
“Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up.” (NIV)
Shake the heavens, melt the clouds back, make the mountains dissipate, make God’s presence known in the heavens above and on the earth. They were desperately longing for good news, perhaps not unlike ourselves. Remember these two powerful examples of God’s provision in the Hebrew Bible.
- Joshua in battle; the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13) “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”
- Hezekiah’s illness; the sun goes backwards – Hebrew Bible, 2 Kings 20:1-11; King Hezekiah was in the throes of a terrible illness; he asked God for a sign, and the sign was for the sun to go back ten steps of the stairway of Ahaz; Hezekiah did miraculously recover.
God literally made the earth stand still and the sun go backwards for God’s beloved people.
In biblical times, there was a tradition of rending one’s garments when something truly awful happened; the death of someone important or an offense against God. People or even the high priest would rend their garments as a sign of anguish and lament. One of my favorite passages is Joel 2:13, which reads: “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” God tears open the heavens to offer not judgment, but deliverance.
And at the Advent of Jesus, God ripped away the barrier that separated heaven from earth, holy God descending to the world in the form of Jesus, God’s beloved Son.
In the Hebrew, the first verse of Isaiah 64 is actually the final verse of Isaiah 63. The plea for God’s presence, O Come, Emmanuel, transcends language barriers across the conversation from generation to generation. Breaking down invisible, inseparable barriers is reflected in the text itself; God connects the plea of the people with the cry of our hearts beyond chapter and verse, numbers and locations, pages and books, countries and centuries.
God tore open the heavens.
At this time of year, we look back and remember Christ coming to earth, we look within to see evidence of God’s homemaking in us, and we look forward to see how God will surprise us yet again.
Maybe that’s what some of us are waiting for today, for God to act like God has in times past. Do something dramatic; show Your power and divine might, Lord; save and rescue, send deliverance. Help!
Sometimes when we’re looking for signs, we forget to see what’s right before our eyes!
“There is an old story about a rabbi who was out fishing on a river when suddenly, a hole developed in the boat, and the boat started to sink. A villager came by and called out, “Rabbi, grab the tree limb! I will pull you to shore.” The rabbi replied, “No, I don’t want you to get pulled in. Don’t worry, God will save me.
“Soon, another fisherman came by. “Rabbi, climb into my boat!” The rabbi replied, “No, it will make your boat too heavy. Don’t worry, God will save me.” Then a much larger boat came by, on its way to market. “Rabbi, come aboard our boat!” “No, if you take me home instead of bringing your fish to market, your fish will spoil.” So the boat left.
“Soon afterward, the rabbi drowned. In the World to Come, the rabbi spoke with God. He angrily said, “God, I believed in You! How could you let me down?” God looked at the rabbi and answered, “Who do you think sent the villager, the fisherman, and the boat? It was up to you to see the signs.” [This was shared by a good friend in Ft. Lauderdale in February of this year.] Even as we are reminded of God’s strength, presence, and provision, we are also responsible for seeing the signs and finding the capacity within ourselves to act wisely in human community.”
God has already acted. Are we listening?
Maybe we’re waiting for a burning bush, and we have the gift of the gas range which causes water to boil.
Maybe we’re waiting for a fiery chariot, and we have a combustion engine to get us from here to where God’s calling us to go.
Maybe we’re waiting for a parting of the waters, and we have the image of an incredible sunset God allowed us to see.
This should surprise no one, for this same God is always in the habit of working all things to the good of those who love God. By no means should we lack in gratitude.
When God rends the heavens, we see that Mercy matters.
Last week, we celebrated Thanksgiving and honored a lifetime of good things God has done for us. We heard about God’s work at BBC over the past 25 years. God works good out of our desire for God. God gives the very best, enabling us to share God’s best with others. God can come down, God has come down, and God will show up again in our time of need.
But it’s not just about what God can do or has done for us. To paraphrase the late President John F. Kennedy, himself no stranger to Cape Cod living, “Ask not what God can do for you; ask what you can do for God.” It’s all about how we respond; God has done wonderful things for us – we should celebrate those good things, and allow them to be the springboard for us to do even more and greater good. Where is God calling us to do good in the next quarter century?
I have no doubt that God’s goodness has been the impetus for your faithfulness and goodness, just as Rev. Patti Ricotti read in 1 Corinthians Chapter 1 earlier today. I want to pick up where we left off last week and encourage you to find even more creative ways to allow your hands and feet to do the work Christ calls you to.
Maybe you’ve heard the song, “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Christina Rosetti. One of the greatest ways God rent the heavens was by sending love in fleshly form in the person of Jesus Christ.
“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead, love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine;
Love to God and all alike, Love for plea and gift and sign.”
That’s our prayer, along with psalmist and prophet, deacon and disciple; it is our song of praise and our plaintive plea.
When God rends the heavens, we see relationships restored.
Perhaps of equal importance to the macro-cosmic-displacement of which Almighty God is capable is the less sensational, still astonishing interpersonal microcosmic level of restored relations which God facilitates and for which God is responsible. God works with us, in our hearts; God works for us, for our good. One of the most incredible ways in which God rends the heavens has to do with the human heart and breaking down barriers. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Teacher shares, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God breaks through hardened hearts, hearts divided, hearts separated, hearts at odds, and reconciles human relationships by sending divine love to dwell in our hearts.
According to Romans 12:1, we can use our bodies to honor God; we can do this by praying for others, by extending deeds of service, and by speaking and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
God, work in Your strange and wonderful ways as you have in the past, and allow us to align our will, our work, and our entire being with your actions in the world. In so doing, may we find it well with our souls. May it ever be so. Amen.