Isaiah 64:1-9; Ps 80: 1-7, 16-18; I Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13: 24-37
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence— (Isaiah 64:1)
Today is the first Sunday in Advent; traditionally, the start of the church year. I find it poignant that our year begins, not in jubilation, but with a cry — a cry of human need, all the voices through all the years crying out to God: to be heard, to be helped, to be saved, even just to be acknowledged. This year, those voices are almost palpable; we can hear them from the pages of the papers, from the images on our cell phones or on the evening news. They are human and animal, plant and earth, and what they are crying for is life.
How, then, are we to respond? Does God even hear their cries, or ours?
The belief that God does is the golden thread which runs through our scriptures, the central claim of our faith. Long ago, at the beginning of our time of freedom with God, a man named Moses saw an astonishing thing: he was grazing his flock and he saw a bush which burned and was not consumed, and he turned aside to understand what this marvel might be. And God spoke to him out of the flame, saying, “‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” (Ex 3: 7-8) I have seen; I have heard; I know; and I have come down: with those four claims, God spells his name into Moses’ heart: God is God with us. And then God gives Moses his actual name: Yod He Vav He, which we usually translate, “I am who I am.” According to the scholar James Kugel, however, that’s not quite all it means. Rabbinic tradition understands it as “I will be with you” 1 — the same understanding we Christians have when we call God “Emmanuel.”
This promise of divine presence comes in an unexpected form. While other faiths have tended to link divinity to Very Important People — divine monarchs and the like, teaching that kings and priests were the ones directly connected to the holy, our faith teaches something quite different. The word we know as “Hebrew” is actually ‘apiru, a derogatory term for a person of low class or a refugee. God, then, makes his covenant and claims as his own precisely the people who have no other defender. And this idea has never been lost. Even Philo of Alexandria, perhaps the most revered teacher of Scripture in the century before Jesus, explained that the burning “bush was a symbol of those who suffer the flames of injustice… but that which burned did not burn up, and those who suffered injustice were not to be destroyed by their oppressors.” 2
Those are strong words, strong claims. They mark a world in which God is not the property of one people, but is available to all who suffer. For those who believe them, they kindle a different fire: the fire of hope to counter the flames of injustice. But what form does that hope take? And to whom is it offered?
The form that our hope takes is the form of a cross. Admittedly, the cross is a strange shape for hope. The cross was an instrument of torture, the archetype of human degradation. Certainly, that’s what it was designed to be — but for us who are Christian, it is the place where human degradation meets the mercy of God. More important, it is the place where God sees all that is evil in us — all the hatred, all the violence, all the greed, all the lust for power — and refuses to let go. Christ stands in the midst of the storm, and the darkness does not overcome him.
Think about that shape for a moment: On the cross, Jesus’ hands were pinned wide by love, his body torn nearly apart by love: love for the oppressed, yes, but also love for those who harm them. After all, this is the same Jesus who commanded us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5: 44-45, 48) So often, we focus our piety on the other axis of the cross, the one which joins earth to heaven. We pray to be pure, to be whole, to be renewed — as if there were only two of us in our relationship with God. The Cross reveals the truth: there can be no relationship with God which does not run through our relationships with our neighbor, with the stranger, and with the enemy — the three groups of people we have been commanded to love.
There is an agony at the heart of our call as Christians. Where Christ is, there we are called to be with him. The Greek word agon means struggle, and our life of faith is a struggle: a struggle to love those who do not love us, a struggle to love those who do not love one another. It is precisely in this work of deepening love that our hearts are purified for God. At times like these, when we are all tempted to divide the world into good and bad, righteous and evil, victim and oppressor, we need to remember that God is god of all of it, all of us.
Last week, the New York Times ran an interview with Phil Klay, a writer and U.S. army veteran who served thirteen months in Iraq. Near the end, the interviewer asked, “How do you see God in a war zone?” Klay replied, “How do you not see God in a war zone? The God I believe in was tortured and died in agony on the cross. God is there when I see another human being and see something of infinite worth and value. God is there in this infinite horror and majesty of the world. …— a world which is complex and beautiful and blood-soaked and infinitely generative… I’m also deeply convicted by the sense that there’s a God whose ultimate experience was to suffer and die, and yet that’s not the totality of the story. That is a central image in the idea of forgiveness and unearned redemption… I don’t know what other option there is.” 3
I don’t know what other option there is. What Klay is talking about, what Christ reveals, is the generosity at the heart of the world. So often, we think about generosity in trivial or trivializing ways. We are generous, we think, when we give away what we do not need — spare clothes, spare cash, extra food. And we are generous when we do that! We could, after all, choose to hoard it for our selves. Some of us even go beyond that, and give away what we cannot easily spare.
But that’s not the generosity I’m speaking of today. I’m speaking of an ontological generosity — a generosity which runs through the fabric of our being. It’s the generosity which has held us all the days of our life: the generosity of a mother nursing her child, or of a brother making space for a nagging little sister, or of a farmer who performs hard labor so that people she will never meet may eat the food she grows. It’s the generosity of a sheep which grows wool without even thinking of those that wool will warm, of the earth which brings forth blossoms each spring, whether or not there is anyone to see them. And, yes — it’s the generosity of a God whose essential nature is to give: to give life, to give love, to give freedom and dignity; to give hope, to give faith; to give and give and give, to just and to unjust alike.
And so, this Advent, let us commit ourselves, as best we can, to live into the profound generosity of God. We do not know the day nor the hour when we may be held to account for what we have made of our lives. But we do know what Christ made of his: a living bridge drawing all creation back into divine love. A love so deep that questions of right and wrong fall away, and every face is, simply, beloved.
None of us can do what Christ did; we are not the messiah. But each of us can do something, whatever is at hand. Some of us, like Vivian, who will receive the Bishop’s Award at the end of this service, have spent decades doing that, gathering up the flinders of her time to cook, to sew, to study, to preach, to guide, to mentor, to help in a hundred small ways until they became a living stream of love. Others, like Morgan-Pierre, are nearer the beginning of that work, choosing to join a church knowing that the imperfect people in it will test and stretch his capacity to love. But each of us is called to offer what we can, as we can, to whoever has need.
I will leave you today with a prayer that I love:
Lord, I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And what I can do, I ought to do.
And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I shall do. (Edward Everett Hale)
1. James Kugel, How to Read the Bible, p. 214.
2. Philo, Life of Moses, cited Ibid, 213.
3. Phil Klay, interviewed by David Marchese for NYTimes, “Finding a Moral Center in This Era of War,” Nov 28, 2023.