Years ago, I got a call from a young couple in the church I was serving, who were expecting their second child. They were at an OB appointment not long before the baby was due.
Allison had gotten nervous because she hadn’t felt the baby moving. So, she went straight away to the doctor. The doctor, it turned out, couldn’t locate the baby’s heart beat—which, of course, launched everything into urgent mode.
They ran a series of tests and finally determined that the baby hadn’t made it—they weren’t sure why. It was just one of those things, you know?
But it was more than one of those things for this young couple. I could tell that when I got the call. They were devastated, and asked if I would meet them down at the hospital.
I got in my car and drove. When I walked into the hospital room, they were crying. They looked at me and said, “They want Allison to deliver the baby. They’re going to induce labor in a bit.”
I tried to imagine the agony of waiting in that situation. It was heartbreaking, looking at their pain, knowing that there was nothing I could do or say that would bring them even a little relief. So, I prayed and cried with them, and generally tried to bring peace to an awful situation.
Finally, Davis said to me, “After she’s born, and even though it might not be theologically according to Hoyle, we’d like for you to baptize her.”
I was honored, but also completely torn up about the prospect. “Of course, I will.”
“But Allison might not deliver until the middle of the night.”
I said, “It’s no problem. I’ll sleep with the phone by my bed. I’ll be here.”
So, I went home and waited for a phone call—a phone call I knew was coming, but one I dreaded receiving.
Finally, about 4:00 in the morning it came. I put on my jeans and a t-shirt, picked up the bottle of oil, threw on my leather jacket, and took off for the hospital.
When I got to the room, it was just the four of us. They were holding her, crying softly. I went over to the bed and they hugged me like the world was falling apart—which, of course, it was.
Then they told me what they’d decided to name her. I was taken aback by the name, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me, standing in that dreary hospital room.
I took the baby, kissed her beautiful head. Then I made the sign of the cross on her forehead with oil and water . . . and I said her name. And I offered up little baby grace Grace to God, and bade the angels to usher her into paradise.
As much as anything that’s stayed with me all these years, it was the look in the eyes of this young mother and father. The pain they felt, the obvious questioning about how God could let this happen—how not even the most precious and vulnerable among us are safe.
We see something like that kind of pain if we stop to take a look around, don’t we? How many times do we have to see our African American friends and family mistreated and killed in the street before we start to recognize that pained look?
How many LGBTQ kids do we have to see living on the street or dying alone in their bedrooms because they’ve been told repeatedly that their lives are somehow a mistake, an abomination that neither their families nor society ought to have to bear . . . before we start to understand the desperation in their eyes?
How many undocumented immigrants do we have to see huddled behind closed doors, terrified of the knock on the door that threatens to tear their families apart . . . before we start to imagine what it must feel like to live with the terror that today might be the day when Mom and Dad get packed off to a detention facility, leaving their babies and small children in the hands of strangers?
How many of our friends and family who struggle every day with mental illness, wondering if the struggle to hold it together is still worth it, do we have to see before we understand the depths of despair in that look?
How many people do we have to see who woke up yesterday morning after hearing about the tax bill that just passed, angry and afraid that their healthcare is in jeopardy and their children’s future is uncertain all so that we might give tax exemptions to private jet owners . . . before we get a sense of the darkness in our world that so many people behold?
Because the world is indeed a dark and forbidding place when it seems that God no longer hears the cries of those who’ve shouted themselves hoarse at the injustice and heartache of it all. Where is God when the lights go off, and the darkness starts to flood in through the cracks—threatening to extinguish the light and overwhelm all that is good?
Difficult questions, aren’t they? Tough to see that look in somebody else’s eyes. Tough to believe that others see that look when they peer into your eyes.
If you try really hard, you can see that look in the eyes of the people in our Old Testament reading this morning:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.
Shake the world. Shine a little light. Quit hiding. Come down, O Lord.
Oftentimes, religion seeks a shortcut to dispel the darkness. And we preachers find ourselves right in the middle of it, trying too quickly to make everything all right, to reassure people that it’s not really darkness they experience, but merely a series of short term shadows.
We’re fixers, we preachers. We find it difficult to peer into the darkness, to look into people’s eyes and see the emptiness and pain reflected back to us. So, we throw platitudes around about how “we don’t like to be political,” about how “everything’s going to work out fine,” about trusting God and praying.
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I’m not trying to denigrate trust in God or prayer. Those things are wonderful, powerful, necessary parts of our faith. But we preachers too often fail to take seriously the depth and breadth of the darkness, we’re too quick to look away from the emptiness we see in people’s eyes, wanting it to go away before we’ve ever taken the time to try to sit with them in its starless presence, too afraid of it to seek to understand what that desperation feels like in a world where God is hidden.
But Isaiah’s made of sterner stuff than most of us clergy-types.
Isaiah, you see, is standing in the middle—in between God and the people of Judah. He’s in a difficult position. He has to communicate to the people why it is that God allowed them to be defeated, the temple torn down, and taken into exile by the Babylonians.
We’re used to that part of Isaiah—the part where Isaiah makes sure everybody knows just how disappointed God is. “You let things go. You didn’t listen, didn’t protect the weak and the poor, allowed other gods to come before our God.”
But Isaiah also finds himself standing before God, lifting up the despair of the people, explaining how they’re pretty well convinced that God has taken a holiday and left them holding the bag. Technically, it’s called a communal lament—when everybody wants to know why God seems to have taken a holiday and left them to clean up the mess?
Judah has been released from bondage in Babylon, and God has made a way for them to return to their beloved homeland. And there was so much relief, so much excitement . . . until they pull into the driveway and knock over the ugly gnome aunt Janice got you for your birthday all those years ago.
Trudging home. A difficult journey, but the difficulty is tempered by the light they fervently believe awaits them when they arrive.
But when they finally get back home, the light of their dreams, the vision they expect to see is crowded out by the ugly reality of the darkness that envelops the land.
The olive groves are blighted and full of Kudzu. The vineyards have grown wild and untamed. The houses are mere shacks—unkempt, broken down washing machines on the front porch, old Fords and Chevys rotting in the front yard.
And the temple . . . the temple isn’t even in that good a shape. Only a giant pile of debris, covered in fifty years of mud and bird droppings, where God’s house used to stand.
They knew they’d have a little fixing up to do—but never in their wildest imaginings did they expect anything like what they’ve found. The bright light of hope has dimmed to a dark shroud of despair.
And it only takes a few moments. One minute they’re laughing and carrying on about picking up a few things down at the Kroger before they turn the electricity back on; and the next minute they’re slack-jawed at the utter devastation they behold, or perhaps better—are now being held by.
And you can see it in their eyes, can’t you? “Not again. How long does this have to go on? When will all this waiting and suffering end? Why us? Why this? Why now? Come down, O Lord, and save us from hateful times such as these.”
We know how they felt, right? We know how quickly the darkness can descend. We’re all just a phone call away from it, just a doctor’s visit, a note from the principal, an account statement from your mutual fund.
So, how does Isaiah—on behalf of a wary and bedraggled people—appeal to a God that everyone is pretty well convinced has left them sitting alone with the lights turned off?
“Yet, O Lord, you are our God; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
In other words, “You’ve always been the light in our world, shine for us now . . . now that everything seems so bleak and futile, now that everything seems to have lost meaning, and we’re only realistically able to expect more of the same. Tear open the heavens, and come down, O Lord—down here where we are, where disease and violence take babies from the loving arms of their parents, where fire and gunshots destroy, where politicians take from the poor and dispossessed and give to the rich and powerful, and where we sit—our eyes searching for you in the Advent darkness, waiting for you to come down and take us by the hand once more, and shine a little light into our starless world.”
Just a little light. Remind us that you’re still here. Come down, O Lord.
When we gathered for baby Grace’s funeral on a bright October day, a grieving mass, it was difficult to imagine much beyond the darkness that enveloped us. When I had to say my part, all I could manage to choke out was a short passage from Frederick Buechner:
Grace. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you were because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
And into that dark place, into eyes weary from crying, a little light shone. I saw baby Grace as a beautiful gift, without whose wonderful presence our lives would have been unutterably poorer.
God tore open the heavens and came down into the darkness and offered a tiny bit of light—a small bundle of grace.