Prophetic Grief

Isaiah 64:1–9; Mark 13: 24–37, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on November 26, 2023

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” I learned this week that the Hebrew verb, qāraʿtā, almost always refers to the ritual practice of rending a garment, which, in biblical culture, is an expression of mourning.[1] So the prophet is not pleading for God to intervene on earth and fix things for us. He is inviting God to come close and grieve along with us.

Recently, NPR aired a piece that tells the stories of four people whose lives have been touched by the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine: Maoz Inon, an Israeli who lost his parents in the October 7 attacks, swims in the Mediterranean Sea every morning to cope with his grief. He says he feels like he’s swimming in an ocean of sorrow. He is crying, he says, not only for his parents, but also “for all the innocent victims from both sides that will die. And . . . for these 100 years of bloodshed, this cycle of death.” Dr. Lina Qasem Hassan is an Arab citizen of Israel. She works as a family physician at a clinic near Haifa, so the patients she has developed trusting relationships with over many years are Jewish. Before the war, Hassan also served regularly in Gaza with a mobile clinic, Physicians for Human Rights, treating children suffering from the effects of poverty and hunger. 

Robi Damelin is an Israeli mother whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper. She joined a bereavement group for Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost a close family member to the ongoing conflict. She says: “I remember sitting around the table and looking into the eyes of the Palestinian mothers and recognizing that we shared the same pain.” Yousef Bashir grew up in Gaza. When he was 11, Israeli soldiers occupied his home and destroyed his family’s livelihood. Bashir learned from his father to respond non-violently to oppression. When he was 15, he was shot by an Israel soldier, and a bullet lodged in his spine. He was rushed to a hospital in Israel and treated with dignity and kindness by Israeli healthcare professionals. “I don’t think Israel intended to show me their human side,” Bashir says. “But I think some higher power wanted me to see that.”[2]

Friends, what I find remarkable about each of these ordinary people is their capacity to acknowledge the humanity of those on the other side of the conflict. This war, like all wars, wants to divide people irreconcilably into “us” and “them,” “friend” and “enemy,” “good and evil.” The voices that reject these simplistic distinctions get buried beneath the strident calls of extremists on both sides. I would argue that the voices of empathy, of shared grief and shared humanity, so often hidden in plain sight, are the prophetic voices we need to listen to now. I want to be clear that having empathy also means standing firming against hatred and violence. We reject both antisemitism and islamophobia. We condemn the tactics of terrorism and hostage-taking as well as the bombing and starving of innocent civilians.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Today’s passage from the book of Isaiah suggests that a prophetic community is one that pleads for God to sit with us and grieve with us, as we mourn for a world infected with hatred, with profound inequity, with endless cycles of violence, and, ultimately, with bitter hopelessness. There is, Isaiah acknowledges, a barrier between us and all that is sacred, a disconnect, an alienation. The historical context of today’s passage from Isaiah is the tumultuous time after the exile. Generations of Jews had been forced to leave their homeland to live in Babylon. Others had remained in their land under the oppressive rule of the occupiers. Now the exiles were returning home, and the two groups were clashing as they sought to re-negotiate issues of identity and authority.

The prophet laments that, as the nation heals from trauma and rebuilds their broken community, God and the people have mutually withdrawn from each other. The prophet, caught up in the pain of the moment, seems to waffle back and forth. On the one hand, God has not been obviously present. God has not made mountains quake, kindled fire, or boiled water. God has not caused the nations to tremble with respect. On the other hand, the prophet trusts that God “works for those who wait” and “meets those who do right.” Still, Isaiah perceives that God has been angry and absent. And he blames the people’s sin, their alienation from God on God’s apparent silence and absence. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us.” And yet, the bottom line is, no matter how strained humanity’s relationship becomes with God, we are inextricably bound together with the divine, like parent and child, or potter and clay. God is not “out there” or “up in heaven.” God is right here, in and among us: the breath of life, the energy of love. And I am so struck by the notion that it is not a of show of force, but God’s intimate sharing of our grief that has the ability to bring healing and wholeness into the spaces of confusion and pain. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

As we begin the season of Advent, I am also struck by how the Gospel writer’s words articulate a longing for God to come close. The text describes a time of frightening tumult, a time when it feels as if creation itself is unravelling. What we thought eternal and unchanging—sun, moon, and stars—are going dark, falling from the sky. This is the very time, the Gospel writer insists, not for despair, but for hope, for wakeful waiting. This is the time for remembering the one who brings life out of death, who, year after year, arouses the buds, greens the leaves and nurtures the fruits to their fullness.   

Our theme for Advent is “A new day is coming.” This season calls us to a wakeful posture, to a practice of noticing the signs of the dawn, the ways in which morning is already breaking in among us. Grieving together with God and each other is not an end in itself. This act of faithful mourning makes space for the repair of relationships we feared were irrevocably broken. Telling the truth about our deep alienation from divine ways actually allows us to claim new ways of being. Opportunities are all around us to be a prophetic community, awake to the signs of the dawn.

On Tuesday, several of us were in attendance at the Sacred Waters gathering. People from more than a dozen congregations shared a pizza dinner, then experienced a play by Anishinabe elder Sharon Day, performed by native youth. This play about nibi (or water) is a cry of grief for the ways we have collectively desecrated our relationship with water, with each other and with life itself. And yet it is also a cry of hope that we might return to what is sacred. The energy in the room was electric, as hundreds of people took in the play’s message of accountability and possibility, and as we absorbed the call to the offering from Dr. Kelly Sherman Conroy, the new interim pastor of All Nations Indian Church, UCC, to come around native communities in a more authentic way, to learn and support as we move beyond land acknowledgements into a space of reparations. And, before us is also an invitation from folks at Jewish Voices for Peace, to grow in relationship, to learn from each other, and perhaps, when the time is right, to speak and act together about the war in Gaza.  

Maoz Inon, the Israeli man who is swimming in his grief, spoke about a vision he had when the war began.

It was the middle of the night, and he awoke in tears. “And I saw an image of everyone crying,” he recalls. “Just we all cry—you cry, your daughter cries, everyone. And our tears are healing the wounds from Israelis and Palestinians. And our tears wash the blood.”

He says we shouldn’t have more weapons, build higher walls, or create better security systems. 

That’s the old world, OK? You want to start a new world? We need to cry. And then, we’ll see the path for peace.”[3]


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