The long dry spell


Isaiah 64

The Great Basin.  Photo credit: dkbonde

The Great Basin. Photo credit: dkbonde

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

It’s strangely comforting to know that a prophet must struggle through those times when God seems remote. The cry, “Where are you, God?” is not just the cry of the moments of tragedy; it is also the cry of the long dry spell – the season when God seems far removed, when the consolations of God’s presence and peace are absent.

I took a group of high school students on a canoe trip down the Au Sable River in Michigan one summer. I don’t remember precisely why one of the youth leaders and I put in late. I assume it was because we had ferried one of the cars to the first night’s campground – or, perhaps, to the place where we would take out on the last day. I just remember that the group had gone ahead and the two of us had to paddle intensely to catch up. We knew what we were doing and worked together well, staying with the current to maximize our speed as the river wove down its course. Unfortunately, we spent all our energy where the current was strong, only to catch the group where the river spread out in a broad still section of flat water. Floating with the current is pleasant. You feel the progress of your movement; there is shade overhead; and the murmur of the water is always with you. The flat water is beautiful, too, but the current has left you and paddling is work. Here, among the reeds and grasses you bear the heat of the day. There is no pleasant song of the stream. And the way is uncertain as the water makes several paths through the meadowlands.

The people of Israel are in one of these times when people are tired of paddling and uncertain of the way. They remember the glories of the temple – and the heady hopes of the days of the return from exile. But what is before them is hard work and the heat of the day. The city is largely abandoned and the walls in ruins. They have constructed an altar, but no temple has arisen. Harvests have not been abundant and so offerings have been meager. People have been reluctant to offer their first and best. Malachi will excoriate them for offering lame animals. It’s like eating a scrawny old chicken at Thanksgiving, because the turkey is still vigorous enough to bear young.

This spiritual malaise is a communal malady as well as an individual one. When one person acts selfishly others follow suit. Why should I donate generously when others aren’t pulling their weight? (Why should I give my turkey when others are bringing the leftovers from last year’s potatoes?) When such weariness strikes a community, Joy withers. Praise diminishes. Our faithfulness to God and one another fades.

The prophet recognizes that God is not fickle; this is a legacy of their sins (v. 4b). God was justified in tossing them away like a used menstrual cloth (v. 6). But, the prophet reminds God that he is their father (v. 8); they are the clay and he the potter – God is the one who formed them and can recreate them.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

“It’s time, God,” says the prophet. “It’s time for you to show yourself. It’s time to drawn near. It’s time to tear open the heavens and come down to us.”

There are no answers here in this text, no “Ten steps to greater spiritual energy,” just the fellowship of the prophet in our own hard times and the example of his prayer.

But this is the Advent season. And we know that God has opened the heavens and come down.   We have seen the child of Bethlehem. And even in those times when God seems absent; he remains “Immanuel, God with us”.