A one-match fire in the snow is the test. An old-timer once told me a story of a time he failed. He and a buddy were making a long trek on snowshoes between two northern villages. The night was colder than they expected. They were counting on a trapper’s cabin but couldn’t find it. They set up as best they could in the snow with spruce boughs and down sleeping bags. But they couldn’t get a fire started. Match after match, they went through almost every one they had. The flame wouldn’t catch.
The temperature dove below -30. The only alternative was to walk in circles in the dark waiting for the sun to rise. Then, a prayer, a memory of an old candle stub in the bottom of a pack, and they were in business. The wick held the flame. Shavings caught it. Then dry twigs from the underside of a conifer, the size of matches themselves. Then pinkie-sized branches. Then bigger. When wrist-sized sticks caught the two men finally relaxed. The chain reaction would hold. Despite the snow, despite the boreal vastness, sleeping bags would be enough.
. . .
“As when fire kindles brushwood and when fire causes water to boil.”
Today we’re we have before us a reading from Isaiah 64. This part of Isaiah sounds a lot like the Psalms. Our reading is a part of a long poem that began in the previous chapter. The first line we heard, however, was this: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
It’s a request put to God by a representative voice, Isaiah ben Amoz perhaps, or an unnamed prophet working in his tradition. Whoever he is, the speaker asks God, to stick a hand through the clouds and rip them open. Tear them back like wrapping paper. He isn’t just asking for himself. The word ‘heaven’ is used in several ways in the Bible. The most recognizable is the way it’s used here in the plural, ‘heavens’. When they use the plural the biblical writers are usually thinking of the layered dome they believed encapsulated them, like the top of a snow globe.
Break it open and come down, the speaker pleads. If you would do that the mountains would shake and the enemies of justice would tremble. It would be like a fire kindled in brushwood, a release of energy that changes everything it touches—warming, heating, boiling. Leaving nothing as it was.
What is the problem, we might wonder? Why is there a need for such a radical intrusion?
The problem was that the people whom the speaker gave voice were in a strange land. They were not like most of us, purposefully transient. When asked to define ourselves we say nothing of land. So it might be hard for us to see the speaker’s problem. Maybe if we think of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, we might get a sense of the rupture. For the speaker’s community to be away from their homeland was to be estranged from their ancestors. When they spoke of their family tree they would hit a point where the lineage had been cleaved by an axe.
But why is the speaker so confident of what would happen if God actually did tear open the sky?
It’s because it happened before. Just as the jazz musician learns the canon so she can improvise, so the speaker here is as much a historian as a prophet. He says, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” Maybe this sentence leaves us a little less skeptical. The speaker is not expecting an alien creature to open the sky and descend in a hiss of light. He’s asking for a reprise: the release of captive Israel, food and water in the wilderness, improbable victory in battle, radical prophets. Do it again, God, he says. Do it again.
The world has never seen a God like you who works for those who wait, that’s what the speaker says. A God who works for those who wait—never seen another, only one, who works for those who wait.
For those who wait.
Not for those who yell and stamp, who light sacrifices aflame or who offer the bodies of others. Some of the ancients did that. They sacrificed the bodies of women, children, slaves and captives, to please the god. To put a coin in the slot. To get the result—the battle victory, the fruitful crop, the male heir. Not this God. This one responds to those who wait, who wait for the fire to grow and for the pot to boil.
The speaker continues: you, o God, meet those who do right. Or we could say, God meets those who are concerned for justice. God meets those who remember the ways of the divine.
But this is all too neat and tidy. It doesn’t fit the context. Dark and away from home.
Interestingly enough, the word ‘meet’ might not be the right one at all. The Hebrew, I’m told, is ambiguous. It might be that the speaker is actually a little less confident in God. Theology influences translation. The beginning of verse 5 could just as well read “You strike those who are pleased to do what’s right.” Or even, “You confront those who are happy to do justice.” That fits a bit better with the second half of the verse: “you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” That’s all backwards. It’s not how it’s supposed to work. Whose fault is it? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.
The way things are supposed to work is that you do good and God blesses you. But here we have a slip of the tongue, or of the pen, and the truth gets out. Sometimes God’s very self is hidden from us. We become, in our experience at least, like one who is unclean. Like a soiled cloth, ready for the garbage. Like a leaf that’s lost the vital pressure of moisture. We are cracked, brittle and blown about by the knock-on effects of our own choices.
And then—maybe now—nobody calls on God. Nobody attempts to take hold of the divine.
“For you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
For some of us this year has been a year just like that. Some of us have lost jobs, lost friends, lost family members. For many of us our physical health, mental health and relational health has been stretched like never before. And all around us the political landscape seems so deeply cleaved, that it’s hard to imagine it ever being repaired. The threat of war hangs in the air too, a far-away peninsula in our back yard. The toll of other wars is still being counted. The shroud that hid abuse in so many workplaces has been drawn back, and we are disgusted by the extent of it. We are grieved for the many who have had to bear the brunt of this sin. Disgusted and grieved, but hardly surprised.
Delivered into the hands of our collective iniquity.
. . .
Here’s a different picture. There is a character in the Disney movie Planes named El Chupacabra. Named after a legendary bloodsucking creature, the Disney incarnation is a colorful, charismatic, anthropomorphized airplane. He’s a biplane, to be more specific. When slighted, he spins dramatically, swishes his cape and storms off. “I swish my cape at you,” he says. For some of us this year has felt as though God has done just that, turned and walked away with the swish of a cape and the clip of boot soles, or the squeak of airplane tires.
. . .
“The people walked in darkness,” Isaiah said in chapter 9. “The people sat in darkness,” Jesus says in Matthew chapter 4. Sat in darkness, walked in darkness, watched the news, read our e-mail, tried match after match, spark after spark—nothing. Waiting. Cold. Darkness.
“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father,” says the speaker in Isaiah 64. We are so used to using parent language for God—Father or Mother—we miss something here. In the Hebrew Scriptures it is quite rare. Hardly ever do the Old Testament writers, or writers of other ancient Jewish texts, speak of God this way. Scholars think they were worried about the sexual overtones. Yet, here just after the acknowledgment of being delivered into iniquity, there is a tender intrusion. The situation is as it is, yet God is like a caring parent, like the paradigm for all loving parents.
Or, the speaker reaches for a different metaphor, God is like a potter and we like clay. The metaphor makes visible a vast difference, an infinite qualitative difference, as Søren Kierkegaard would say. Difference, yes, but not distance. The relationship between potter and clay is intimate, perhaps more than could be the relationship of two clay pieces.
Waiting. Cold. Darkness. Yet.
Violent. Sinful. Wounded. Delivered into iniquity. Yet.
Yet the speaker thinks that God may forget the iniquity. The internet never forgets, we’re told. Put something dumb up there and it never, ever goes away. Yet God forgets, a wonderful forgetfulness for creatures prone to over-confidence and self-destructive blunders.
Then, the speaker asks God to consider this: the fact that “we are all your people.” Will there only be silence? The speaker asks this at the end of the litany. Will there only be the dismissive swish of a cape. Will God do something? We will wait. Will God do something?
In our minds we sit with the question, in darkness, in the cold, but in our hearts there is the answer. God would not be silent forever. God was not silent forever. God would speak, and speak in the fullest way possible. God’s word would become flesh and dwell among us.
We sit in darkness and in cold, but in our hearts there is a seed of confidence. There is a spark. There is a tongue of flame. The cup, the bread, the announcement of the angel. The spark will catch, the pot will boil. The mountains will quake. Here comes a light: fire of justice, fire of warmth, radiating the stored energy of the sun.
Despite our differences, despite our situation, we are a hopeful people.
“As when fire kindles brushwood.”