Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
So, knowing that advent chaos was just around the corner, last week, I was fortunate enough to have a few days of relaxation in Southern Ireland. It was a lovely minibreak which saw me kayaking by moonlight, walking by the ocean, kissing the Blarney Stone, enjoying Irish hospitality and having a couple of cosy evenings by a roaring fire. On one of these evenings we watched the film ‘Silence’ an award winning drama about the persecution of Christians in seventeenth century Japan. Yes, I really do know how to have fun on holiday! It’s a brutal but powerful film which follows two priests as they try to keep the Christian faith alive in underground communities whilst searching for a missing priest who is said to have lost his faith. Throughout the film, those who confess Christ as Saviour are given the choice of renouncing their faith or to face torture and possible execution which led Clare and I to have a passionate debate about what we might do as the credits rolled. At one point in the plot, Father Rodrigues, a compassionate priest and missionary, witnesses the execution of three faithful believers and says;
“I had long read about martyrdom in The Lives of the Saints, but this was no such glorious thing. Surely God heard their prayers as they died. But did He hear their screams? I prayed that He might reach out to them, but how can I explain His silence to these people who have endured so much? I need all my strength to understand it myself. Humanity is so sad, Lord, and the ocean so blue.”
In that moment, Father Rodrigues articulated the question that believers of all faiths have continually for millennia. “God, why don’t you say something, do something in the face of all this suffering?” “God, why don’t you get involved and stop refugees drowning in our seas?” “God, why don’t you act and stop the growing famine in Yemen?”
Over two and a half thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah was asking this very same question;
“God, why don’t you tear the sky apart and come down?”
Just like today, Isaiah’s question was born from the suffering he witnessed around him. These words were written after cities had been sacked, families divided and homes destroyed. Many in Israel had been forced to leave their homeland, the promised land, to journey to a strange and foreign country. Why had God allowed such a thing to happen to Israel? Why had God, who had liberated them from Egypt, who had provided for them in the wilderness and protected them in many conflicts…why had he allowed the Babylonians to come and oppress them, to destroy God’s temple and take God’s people as slaves?
Though far from a theology textbook, in his wrestling with the issue, Isaiah hints at possible answers to the question he raises. The first, and perhaps most challenging to consider is that God’s hiddenness is a result of our walking away from God. Verse 7 of our passage reads ‘No one turns to you in prayer; no one goes to you for help. You have hidden yourself from us and have abandoned us because of our sins’. Could this be true? Isaiah certainly thought so. Looking around at the society he was in, Isaiah witnessed the rich and powerful taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable; he had seen widows and orphans starve whilst the religious leaders feasted; he watched as politicians used fear and hate to blame all their woes on their enemies so making the argument that the only way forward for Israel was to militarize – to look to violence and bloodshed to put Israel First, to Make Israel Great Again. It was them and their God against the world. Only God thought differently –
“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you,” God says earlier in Isaiah, “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”
But why would God ignore us, why would God be silent to our suffering, why would God not heed our prayers, the Israelites asked and pleaded?
“It’s because you’re hands are full of blood.” God replies. ‘To be in right relationship with me, to be blessed, to live fruitful lives and to stand a chance of prosperity and peace you must wash yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
So don’t blame the Babylonians, Isaiah tells his society. Don’t blame our enemies and most certainly don’t blame God for God has spoken to you and told you what needs to be done for your society to flourish.
Back in Ireland, when kayaking one night, our guide spoke to us about Irish history and came to the infamous famine of the mid nineteenth century when, of Ireland’s 8 million population, 1 million died of hunger and another million emigrated overseas in order to survive. These years are often known as ‘The Great Famine’, only it should better be known as ‘The Great Hunger’, our guide explained, because there was enough food to go around, only the wealthy and the powerful did not enable this to happen. ‘The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight,” remarked the Irish writer John Mitchel at the time, “But the English created the famine.” In other words, there was food enough to feed the oppressed, the orphan and the widow but the crops were not shared.
The same is sadly true of today. In a world where we’re nationalism and prejudice seem to be on the increase, where borders and walls are being built across the globe, where the wealthiest countries claim there is no room at the inn for people whose lives have been destroyed by war, how can we blame God for those drowning in the ocean? In a world in which the so-called developed countries face an obesity epidemic, at a time in which we stock our cupboards and fridges with more food than we can possibly eat, how do we dare speak of a famine in Yemen? So we might well ask God to tear open the sky and come down, to which God might say to us – “how about you cease doing evil and learn to good, then come back to me with your pleading!”
So Isaiah reproaches Israel. God reproaches us but thankfully, neither are finished;
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be like snow,” God says through Isaiah in the very first chapter. “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land!” A good harvest being a symbol of blessing from God. And there are other hints throughout the book that God hasn’t given up with His people just yet, but, Isais tells us, you’d better sit up and listen for events won’t follow your plans but God’s. The world won’t be blessed through the sky being torn apart and mountains trembling but rather through a young woman’s pregnancy and a baby boy called Immanuel. These words were given to the people of Isaiah’s day and they’re words which echo around us every advent.
For at this time of year, we are blessed to tell the tale of a God who did come down, yet not to make the mountains shake with fear but to transform all of creation; not to make enemies tremble but to forgive them; not to force people to bow down before him but to share food and drink with them, to laugh and weep with them, to live and die for them. This season reminds us that we believe in a God who gave up power and might and control and who instead gets involved in the messiness and ambiguity of human life, whose shocking love for us led Christ to the cross. In advent, we imaginatively enter a time of waiting on the God who came as a vulnerable babe in a dirty manger; who lives alongside the poor and the powerless; and who will redeem the cosmos; who will return to complete the vision of God’s new world where widows and orphans shall feast, where those who mourn will be comforted, where the persecuted will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
This is the hope that we must hold on to. This is the world that we must live in to. For in the meantime, though there is much of which to be thankful, our waiting on God will be no simple thing to do. There will still be times when we feel lost and alone; when our pain or the suffering of others will cause us to cry out, “‘Why don’t you tear the sky apart and come down?” And such passion, such questioning, such anger even, is not to be silenced for it is real and might even lead us into ever more faithful action, ever deeper knowledge of God. As God says back in Isaiah’s first chapter – “Come now, let’s argue this out.”
But as the followers of Christ, such questioning must be accompanied with the cry that God has come; God is with us; God will come again.
This advent then, may we repeat the protests of the prophets at the suffering of the poor. May we declare that God is coming to bring justice and joy and let this hope so fill our hearts that it shapes the way we live now. And may we look for the day when no one will ask ‘Why don’t you come down?’ for there will be no more pain, no more death, no more tears; but peace, forgiveness, and the unceasing, extravagant love of God. Amen.