Just before my 16th birthday, I got the horrible news that a close family member of mine had died tragically. After a pretty sleepless night, I traveled with my mom to Illinois to make arrangements. But before we left, we stopped by our neighborhood grocery store. Between the shock and the heavy waves of grief, we hadn’t really eaten since we had heard the news. My mom was a nurse and a professor who was actually trained professionally on issues of bereavement and so even though things were crashing down around us and she was very much in a fog, she knew that we would need to eat at some point. We got a few things for the road that felt like we might be able to choke down. For me, it was grapes and now anytime I am in mourning of any kind, I crave green grapes.
But there was something strange going on at the grocery store. And by strange, I mean, actually not strange at all. What was strange is that despite my shattered world, everything there seemed so normal. Soccer mom types ran into each other in the aisles and chit chatted. The tabloid stand at the check-out line reported on celebrity gossip. The cashier smiled and asked how our day was going.
I felt myself filled with confusion. And then rage.
How could everyone be acting like nothing had changed when the whole world was ending?!
Now that I am older and myself trained on how grief manifests, I know that anger – alongside denial or bargaining or sadness- is a normal part of processing grief and trauma. But at the time I was genuinely frustrated.
How could people act so normal when the world was ending?!
Part of me fully expected something like the picture we are painted in the Gospel of Mark today. Darkness covering the land. Changes in weather patterns. The Cosmos rearranging themselves. That was closer to what it felt like inside.
I know now that worlds are ending and beginning all the time. And that doesn’t make the pain any less deep or the fall-out any less real.
For many people the past year especially, it has felt a lot like the world was ending. I saw on Etsy the other day a commemorative 2020 ornament, except the 0s in the ornament were replaced by a roll of toilet paper and a mask. Some of us have reached a stage of grief I am not sure I knew about, a delirious sort of absurdist reaction to everything that has happened. Something to laugh about in between tears and panic attacks.
And other times we have felt anger. There’s this post I’ve seen going around, which kind of blends both the anger and the absurdism, where a few cartoon people are outside yelling at the sky, presumably at God, saying things like, “FACE US YOU COWARD!” or “COME OUT. WE JUST WANT TO TALK!”
That feels a lot like this reading we have from Isaiah today. The people in Isaiah’s time were going through their own collective trauma. Isaiah was a prophet, sent by God to warn the people of the terror that was to come if they didn’t change their ways. But then and now, we fail to listen to the prophets among us, even as they are chanting in our streets with bullhorns. And just as the prophet Isaiah warned, carnage and suffering did come. Israel was captured by their enemies who kidnapped and enslaved them. And they spent the next 70 years in exile. In the midst of this anguish, Isaiah cries out to God on behalf of his people, saying, “Oh that you would rend the Heavens and come down!”
Oh God, that you would tear open the sky and get off that heavenly throne and come be near to us in our suffering. Isaiah is asking the same question many of us have asked before and many of us are asking lately, “Where are you, God?”
Face us you coward. We just want to talk.
It might seem a little presumptuous to talk to God that way. Like, is it really ok to speak to God like that? But we actually see a lot of heroes of the faith speak boldly to God. And in many ways what Isaiah is doing an act of great faithfulness. Isaiah recalls the stories of his ancestors. He reminds God of the great deeds that God had done for his forebears; the way that God had interceded with a might so strong that enemies cowered and even the mountains quaked. Isaiah is calling upon God to follow through and deliver the people the way that God had always done. Isaiah is demanding that God see through God’s own promises.
Isaiah is looking at salvation history, the stories of his ancestors, and he is not leaving them as dusty legends, a relic from a former time, that has very little to do with today. Isaiah is claiming those promises for his own people, here and now.
God answers Isaiah. More than once. God first answers Isaiah quite directly a couple of pages later in chapter 65 where God says to Isaiah, “I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation that did not seek me. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people…who follow their own devices.”
God is saying, “It wasn’t me that left. I have been here all along. It wasn’t me who caused this suffering. I tried so hard to prevent it. But you were hell-bent on death and destruction.” God goes on to say it’s as if the people are courting death, just sitting inside tombs.
So often, in every age, and even today, God begs God’s people to choose life for themselves and their descendents. God demands solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. God holds out God’s hands to us all day. And people choose scarcity and violence, whether that is the refusal to listen to our healthcare experts and wear a mask, or ignoring calls for racial justice in our streets. We, as a people, often ignore God’s pleas to choose life and follow our own devices.
This happened, too, in Jesus’ time. In First Century Palestine, people were suffering under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Each time the people rose up to fight for their liberation, they were squashed by the Empire, propped up by the religious aristocracy. It must have felt like a power too big to fail.
But God answered Isaiah’s question again in First Century Palestine, promising that Empires will fall and then sending to overthrow them…a teeny tiny, red faced, bawling little baby, who will be born in this occupied land to an unwed mother with a questionable reputation, who flee as a refugee, and who will later be executed by the state. Isaiah asked for God to tear open the Heavens and come down to earth, to be with us, to make our adversaries tremble, to shake the foundations of the world. And God said Yes. And decided to come in solidarity, as a baby.
Advent is the time of year that resembles that phase where the expectant parents are so excited and anxious and hormonal that despite exhaustion, they can’t keep still. Parents are putting together cribs, anchoring shelves to the wall, putting plugs in outlets, painting the nursery. The whole world is about to change for them as someone new enters into their realm, and their external reality is a reflection of that. Sometimes we call that season, “Nesting.”
We are in the nesting season right now of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, a time to make way for the coming Christ the same way we would carve out space in a home for new life in a nursery or change the linens out for a holiday guest. But in this case the way we “get ready” isn’t by downloading pinterest worthy ideas for decor or washing the sheets. And we don’t “get ready” for the end of the world by hunkering down alone in some bunker or hoarding wealth and resources.
We get ready by acting in solidarity with one another. By siding with the poor and oppressed who are most affected by the times we have chosen to court death by aligning ourselves with powers that exploit the marginalized for our own profit. We get ready by naming and renouncing the evils that we have taken part of, or even those evils done in our name and on our behalf. We get ready by crawling out of the tombs we are sitting in, by resisting death-dealing systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate greed. We get ready by making sure that our neighbors know that we are a sanctuary for vulnerable people who need help, whether that is by refusing to aid ICE or by going through the Reconciling in Christ process so that our LGBTQIA+ neighbors, many of us who have suffered cruel, spiritual abuse, know that we are loved enough to be welcomed explicitly. And we get ready by doing the same thing Isaiah asked of God…we get ready by making sure that we live into our promises by living up to our words with our actions.
Advent is a time of worlds ending and beginning, of physical and spiritual change, of cautious hopeful expectation in the face of what feels like total annihilation. In the midst of a global pandemic we are grieving hundreds of thousands of lives lost and dozens of plans cancelled and milestones half heartedly reimagined. We are weary, and we are asking, like Isaiah and like many other faithful people throughout history, “Where are you God?”
And God is telling us, “I am here. And I am coming. And it is time to get ready.”
1. When has God felt most absent in your life? What did that feel like? Did you ever cry out to God with a, “Where are you, God?” or even a, “Come face us, you coward!”
2. Was there ever a time that you thought maybe the world really was ending?
3. What verses from scripture or stories from our spiritual ancestors do you lean on when you need to be reminded of God’s promises?
4. How is God calling you to get ready for what is coming next? How is God calling this church to be ready?