By Mark Michael
“Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down.” Isaiah 64:1
I scratched my head to see that the incoming call last Tuesday was from Pearre, South Dakota, not a place where I know too many people. The Bishop of South Dakota was on the other end of the line, in a jolly mood, ribbing me about a misprint in the issue ofThe Living Church that had been released earlier in the day. We publish a column each issue called “People and Places,” that lists ordinations, appointments, and retirements across the Episcopal Church. The bishop had spotted an error.
“I ordained Father Maynus to the priesthood four months ago,” Bishop Folts said. “The new rector in Rapid City-he’s 28, and you listed him as ready to retire.” “A typesetting error,” I surmised. “We’ll print a correction.” “He and I already had a laugh about it,” the bishop said. “We figured that four months of COVID feels about like forty years — maybe we’re both about due to retire by now.”
Four months of these times could seem like an eternity for a new priest. Imagine what it must feel like for those people we hear about who have been sick with the virus for months, or for nurses who put on their scrubs each day to head back into the danger zone, the dishwasher or the hotel maid who doesn’t know how long it will be until there’s work again. We’ve all had a taste of it, time moving so slowly, so much altered and beyond our control. None of us really knows how much longer it will be until we can go to the movies again or plan a family reunion, go back to school or take a business trip.
I’ve preached on the First Sunday of Advent nearly every year for a decade and half. Usually I have to invite my listeners to try out a thought experiment to understand the setting of today’s Old Testament lesson. Imagine that you live in a neighborhood wracked with violence, or you sleep each night in a refugee camp on the wrong side of the border, or you’re sentenced to death, but your lawyer’s really hopeful about the appeal.
“Put yourself in that situation,” I told them, “and then you’ll have a sense of how hard it is to be forced to wait, with almost everything out of your control.” Now we all know what it’s like to feel that urgency, the desperate insistence in the prophet’s cry: “Rend the heavens and come down, O Lord. Make yourself known to us dramatically like an earthquake shaking the mountains and a great fire kindling to life. Send a sign that the good life we long for is being restored, that justice will triumph. After so much sadness, let us rejoice again.
Isaiah was crying out on behalf of the Israelites who were struggling to rebuild their homes after returning from Babylon. They had a sense of what it would be like to see the temple rebuilt and glorious, their enemies subdued, a true and faithful king at their head. But the Israelites knew it was beyond their own power to make it so. Only a dramatic intervention by God could bring together so many different forces at once and give them the future they longed to see.
In one sense, our hearts are racing for a humbler sort of miracle — to share holidays with those we love, to enjoy concerts and ball games again, to live without fear that an unseen virus could steal the lives of those who are closest to us. But these months have also revealed deeper and more long-term problems in our common life. We see leaders unable to act wisely and decisively, and citizens unwilling to trust the decisions they do make. We see bitter ideological divides, glaring inequalities in the virus’ impact on rich and poor and black and white communities. Maybe we will all be vaccinated by Easter, but problems like these, which extend far beyond our national borders, will not be solved quickly.
The world seems more deeply broken that it did a year ago, humanity less capable of charting its own destiny. Opening our eyes prompts us to yearn more deeply for our Savior’s return and the triumph of his kingdom where the walls of division come down and we live without fear and pain.
But it’s not just the world in general that seems more broken, is it? Isaiah begins by raising Israel’s cry for righteousness, but as he draws a second breath, he admits that God’s people too have sinned. “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,” he says, “our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
We recognize the truth of his words. These endless days of lockdown have confronted many of us with how much anger we harbor in our hearts, how quick we are to snipe at the failings of others, how prone we are to deal with our stress by eating too much or drinking too much, or seeking fulfillment of our lust. We have time to pray, but we haven’t prayed all that much.
Maybe we thought our character would be tempered in the crucible of adversity and emerge stronger and purer than ever. But it has not been so. We are just as weak and fearful as those who don’t know any better, and even the good we’ve done has been clouded with mixed motives. It’s not just those other wicked people we want God to set right, not just the world’s problems that calls for Christ’s righteous rule. We need his forgiveness now, and the grace of His Spirit poured into our hearts. Each of us is just as broken as the whole world, each of us just as incapable of putting it all the right way round. Rend the heavens, O Lord, and come down, we cry, for we stand in urgent need of your mercy.
Isaiah’s cry resolves itself in one of the Bible’s greatest declarations of humble trust. “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter.” God will surely forgive us because we belong to Him. He will not withhold his grace because, as Jesus promised, the Father longs to give good gifts from His children. He comes to us now, in the midst of our sin-smirched lives, and we need not run from him in fear.
We remain in His hands, pleading for His return, watching and praying, but making no demands, setting no timetables. He is the potter, and we are the clay — pliable and humble, not knowing what He will choose to make of us, receiving life’s inevitable failures and disappointments as gifts meant for our good.
“The divine life presents itself at every moment in an unknown but very certain manner under such appearances as physical death, torments in the soul, ruin in temporal affairs. In all these faith finds its nourishment and support” wrote de Caussade in his Abandonment to the Divine Providence, a classic for these days if ever there was one. He goes on, “Faith cuts through these appearances and grasps the hand of God who keeps us alive. We shall know the joy of the coming of God and will savor it more intensely the more completely we abandon ourselves to His adorable will.”
I don’t know when there will be a vaccine, or when we Americans will feel like one people again. I don’t know when Jesus will come again, like a sun rising across this darkened world in glorious splendor. But I do know that when you seek His help, God will be there, and even when nothing seems to go right in your life, He has not really forgotten to be gracious. The potter is molding you even now. Your Father sends His gifts, even when they are most unlike what you thought you wanted. And if you turn to Him in faith and humble submission, you also will know the joy of the coming of God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine andof St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford