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Bible readings:

Advent I Year B (November 30, 2014)                                                         St James', Peace River

So today, we start to tell the story all over again – the story of the Bible, which is the story of God and the story of the world, but also our story, the story of our lives. And like all the best stories, this one starts in the middle. I can remember way back in Grade 8 learning a term for that – in medias res, “in the middle of things”. The good stories start with the action already on the go, with characters who are in the thick of events already, and trying to piece together what is happening to them. And those are the best stories because they are most like what our lives are like – we don't get to start at the beginning and go on till we get to the end. We are always in the middle, trying to figure out whether we're even in a story, or just in a series of random and meaningless events. A story that begins at the beginning, and unfolds in order, may be a beautiful thing, but it is not the story of life!

So today, we begin with the words of Isaiah, almost from the end of that very long book: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” What a great place to start! It speaks volumes about where we really are, in relation to God. We are far away, and yet something in us wants to be close. Our world is the place where we come to know God, and long to meet God, yet what we feel most of all is that things are not as they should be, because we on earth and God in heaven have somehow become separated. And the conviction which the prophet gives words to – and it is an Advent conviction – is that God longs to be reunited with us, just as much if not more than we yearn for God.

To ask God to rip open heaven and come and be with us – what a wonderful and scary prayer. It is certainly not a simple thing. Like any prayer, we first have to know how much we really mean it. How wrong have things got? Are we willing to pay attention to that, to plumb the depths of our lives and our world, and understand what the problems really are? If we really want to join in Isaiah's prayer, we need to have an answer to that question. This prayer isn't asking God to pop over for a visit and then go away when we've had enough. It's asking God to come and finish making us, like a potter makes a work of art. It's asking God to restore us so that we will never turn back again – that's the way the psalm captures the same feeling, the same spirit of this Advent prayer.

So we need to have some sense of what we are really asking God to do. I don't imagine for one minute that any of us really knows everything that's going on in our own lives, let alone in the life of the world,

that needs to be reconciled to God. Our prayer isn't to know all the details before we let God come and do what God does.... But we need to know that what God does isn't just to make adjustments, or correct mistakes. God comes to change lives, to transform the world. We will look different when God is through with us. But that is why we pray this prayer – Isaiah and the psalmist, and you and me – because we want to be changed people, in a transformed world.

That's where the story begins. With people ready to say, yes Lord, come and change us, come and make us (and this world where we live) look you in the eye and start to reshape into what we are meant to be. We are going to keep crying out that prayer throughout this service, and in a way throughout Advent, as we call out “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”, and “O come, O come Emmanuel”, and “Kum ba yah, my Lord.” We cry out because we need God, and because we see how much people need God, and even the sky and the rocks and the trees and the creatures of the world need God. Someone's praying Lord. Someone's crying, Lord. Someone needs you, Lord. Come, and be with us.

So that's where we are, and it's why we begin where we are, in the middle of our story. But as we start to tell this story again, we also begin at the end. (Confusing, isn't it?) We begin with what we look forward to, with the certainty that God will come, heaven will open, and the Son of Man will be there in great power and glory. The world will be transformed, and we will be changed. This is no empty promise, and no empty threat. If we learn anything from what Jesus shows us, and the Bible tells us, about God, it's that this is what God wants. And what God wants, you bet it's going to happen.

God wants to be with us, first with us in our lives and in our world just as it is; but finally, with us as we receive real life in the world as it is created to be. That promise goes all the way back to the very beginning, when God looked at all that he had made and pronounced it very good. It was very good, and it isn't very good right now, but God's commitment in creating us, and redeeming the world through his Son, and making people holy by his Spirit – God's commitment is that it will be very good again, at the last, for ever.

So what we have now, as we look back to the beginning and forward to the end, is a promise. God's promise. That promise gives us hope – hope that we are in a story after all, in the story which God is telling, which begins in goodness and ends in glory, even though it passes through the valley of the shadow of death on the way. And that hope is what we live by; it's what the people of God have lived by since the time of Isaiah. At the end of Isaiah's book, remember where they were. They had seen their nation overrun by invaders, their leaders taken off to Babylon, God's temple destroyed. They had learned that God was still with them – had gone into exile with them, and kept working to bring them home. They had come back to their land, dispirited and disillusioned, aware only of how small and powerless they were in the face of the enormous task of rebuilding their lives, their homes and communities, and their faith. All they had to go on was the hope of God's promise; and when they couldn't even feel very sure of that, they would cry out as the prophet did, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Individually and together, we the people of God have always found a new beginning to our story in places like that. The new beginning comes when we let the longing for God's new day sink into our hearts; when we wait and watch and pray and hope and cry out to God. The people who called out to God to rend the heavens had no idea what God would do or when he would do it. Centuries later, they were still calling. But at the end of that time, a young woman who was raised with that longing in her heart, saw and heard an angel, who brought word that she would conceive a child who would bring salvation, and bring in God's everlasting kingdom. The birth of Jesus did not do away with the need for hope – God is still working to complete God's promise. So we still live by hope, confronting every day in our own lives our own weakness and our need for God; and wondering.... wondering what God may yet do, and how God will ever make a new heaven and a new earth out of the mess this one is in.

This is what sets the stage for Advent, and as we begin this season there are two things for us to do. One is to dig way down to where our deepest hopes and longings lie buried, and to bring them to God. They are down there so deep because something in us isn't sure we can risk exposing them to the light of day. But if God is there, if God is to be trusted, if God's promise means what it says – then our hopes and yearnings are all we have, and all we need. What is it you are longing for? How do you want to be changed? What do you wish would be different in the lives of the people whom you have in your heart? What is it about this church, this community, this country, this world that you are desperate to see transformed? God has made you a promise, that everything is being made new. Name your hopes, out loud, first to yourself and then (as God gives you courage) to others. Trust God, and see what can happen.

But there is a second thing to do. Because even when we live by our hopes, and by faith in God's promise, there is still the matter of persistence. Even in God's time, the world is not remade overnight. God works patiently, and often invisibly, to remake the world and its people, to nudge hearts gently back towards him, to create the conditions in which we can find the path that takes us home; and it often appears that the story is going the wrong way, deeper into darkness – we cannot see, what only God knows, that that is the way to the light. When our courage is failing, and hope is faint, there is only one thing to do, and it is what we started with. Cry out to God. Call on God to come and be with you. Let your longing for God be your prayer. That is what gets you through.

Maran atha. Come, Lord Jesus.   Maran atha. Come, Lord Jesus.   Maran atha. Come, Lord Jesus.