December 3, 2017
Recording of Joshua Bell (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen intro)
That is a recording a Joshua Bell, an award-winning musician and conductor, playing on his 3 plus million dollar Stradivarius violin. About eleven years ago, Bell put on blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap and took his Stradivarius to a D.C. Metro station. As any good busker does, he threw some seed money in the case and started playing.
Over a thousand people streamed by as he played for 45 minutes. Twenty-eight people threw some money in the case. Only seven stopped to listen. One person recognized him—and gave him twenty of the $52.17 he made that day. Three nights before, he played to a sold out crowd at Boston Symphony Hall, where basic tickets cost $100.
The ancient Israelites, they wanted the spectacular concert hall experience. Just like music-lovers expected Joshua Bell to be accompanied by expensive tickets and well-dressed patrons and spotlights, the Israelites expected God to come with torn heavens and quaking mountains and fire.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
But for the Israelites, the heavens were not opening. The mountains were not quaking. In fact, things were pretty bad and God seemed to be in hiding.
These final chapters of Isaiah, often called 3rd Isaiah, were written during the post-exilic period of Israelite history. So, briefly, the nation of Israel had been conquered; the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and many prominent Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon. Then, under Persian leadership, some of the displaced Israelites were allowed to return to Israel. But this homecoming was not the exuberant, joyful return that they had been dreaming of. Instead, the exiles returned to a destroyed city and to tensions with those who had remained behind and set up new systems and power structures.
We don’t know the details of the Israelite’s troubles—what exact circumstances made them cry out to God, desperate for divine salvation. We don’t know the details, but we can relate to the sentiment. After this week of news, including the passage of a national budget bill that prioritizes the wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable, we could all shout with the writer of Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
We don’t know the details of the Israelite’s anguish, but I wonder if some of their concerns weren’t the same as ours: inadequate health care; excessive homelessness; food shortages for the poor; environmental degradation; impoverished neighborhoods; cultural clashes; religious intolerance—all fueled by leaders who only cared about maintaining power and lining their own pockets.
O, that God would tear open the heavens and come down!
But for the Israelites, God was not showing up. At least not in the way they expected—with earthquakes and fire and a spectacular show to prove to the nations that Israel had been right all along. For the Israelites—or at least for the writer of 3rd Isaiah—God was in hiding.
I wonder, though. I wonder if God wasn’t hiding in plain sight. If God wasn’t playing the divine music in the subway station instead of the concert hall.
Because as much as we want dramatic, divine intervention, that’s often not the way God shows the Divine face. Generally speaking, we can walk right past God on our way to other obligations and not even notice. And then, once in awhile, a note catches in our ear and we stop, and turn, and actually listen.
It has been a frustrating, angering, saddening week politically. Nationally, of course . . . lots of stuff . . . topped off by the passage of the budget. Locally, the County Commissioners selected a $44 million jail expansion proposal to likely put before voters in the spring—spending money so we can incarcerate more people more easily rather than putting money into programs and services that would help people stay out of jail to begin with. Plus my mom has had a rough time and my friend Howard died and I’ve just been generally grumpy and you should all probably send Ryan some “thinking of you” cards or something.
The point, though. The point is that I was definitely in a “God, tear open the heavens” kind of mood yesterday morning when I went to the Justice Matters research kick-off. (A mood only exacerbated by my needing to attend said kickoff rather than stay home and write this sermon.)
“O God, tear open the heavens!” But no. It wasn’t happening.
And then. Then, about ten minutes into the meeting I peered up from my grumpy haze and looked around.
Do you know what I saw? Over fifty people who were choosing to spend a Saturday morning in a church gym because they love God and want justice for God’s people.
Do you know what I saw? That God was not coming down, but was already present in the work we have been doing together—in the affordable housing trust fund getting established, in the childhood trauma screenings being done to help families, in the research being done on restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration and effective mental health care.
Do you know what I saw? I saw the face of God. Not hiding, exactly, but almost too close and too common to notice.
The writer of Isaiah 64 asks God to tear open the heavens and boil the waters “to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” This divine display is so that other people—Israel’s enemies—might know God.
The Hebrew word translated “know” in this passage . . . Well, you might be familiar with it from Genesis 4: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.” It is not merely knowing about someone or acknowledging their existence. It is an intimate knowledge. A knowledge of God the “the nations” supposedly need.
A knowledge that, ironically, seems lacking in the writer of Isaiah 64. Surely, if the writer knew God intimately, they would understand that God is not most fully or deeply known in grand natural phenomenon. For Elijah, after all, God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire—but in the still small voice.
Surely, if the writer knew God intimately, they would know that God does not hide the Divine face from those who are in pain. In fact, through the prophet Hosea, God says, “I led [my people] with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
The God attested to in scripture is a God who bends down to care for God’s people. While the writer wants the nations to know God, it seems God is more concerned with knowing us.
There is a fascinating shift, though, in verse 8. The writer goes from begging God to swoop down from heaven in divine glory and right all that is wrong in the world, to using the metaphor of God as the potter and us as the clay—a very intimate image indeed.
Isaiah 64, of course, is not the only place we see this tension and struggle about the nature of God: God’s transcendence—the divine distance and “otherness”—versus God’s immanence—God’s presence and compassion. This is not the only place where we see the people of God struggle to understand exactly whether and how God is present with them in their suffering.
The tension and the struggle persist throughout scripture. God’s nature is mysterious and the human relationship with the divine is not quite certain. We concluded our reading this morning with verse 9, but Isaiah 64 concludes with verse 12:
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?
I humbly suggest that we look for the answers to these questions in the narrative of this season.
Will God restrain Godself? The Gospel tells of God’s unrestrained love: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Will God keep silent? Listen for the song of the angels, the cry of the Christ child.
I cannot tell you exactly when or how God will show up—as the writer of 3rd Isaiah says, God does awesome deeds that we do not expect. God’s presence is eternal and faithful and utterly surprising.
Our God does not hide from our pain and suffering. But maybe God whispers in our ear rather than thundering from the clouds. Maybe God reveals the path piece by piece rather than shining a blinding light. Maybe God unsettles our hearts rather than shaking the earth.
Maybe we serve a God who puts on jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap rather than a tuxedo; a God who carefully tunes the most exquisite violin in the filthiest subway station and plays holy music for us all—whether we listen or not.