O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence... (Isaiah 64:1)
Isaiah's honest cry ushers us into the season of Advent. It is a poignant plea, giving voice to one of our deepest desires. God, if you would only rip open the heavens, come down here and make everything right again. This is shortly followed by verse three, a piece of scripture I'd always overlooked until our denominational worship material lifted its theme from these words. "When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence." It's as if the Israelites are suddenly remembering stories from their past of God's miraculous intervention and deliverance. They acknowledge that in hindsight, perhaps God has indeed already come down and shaken the very pillars of this earth in ways they had not expected.
In the book, The Boundary-Breaking God, Danielle Shroyer writes about the first time she enountered the idea that the universe is still expanding. Being a pastor, she connects that mind-blowing information with God.
"God's story is like that. Like the universe, it is always expanding, growing, moving, and being created, even this very moment....Through the stories of God's relationship with humanity, we see the same pattern Hubble used as the foundation of his Law--the further we travel into the story of God, the more we see light expanding outward."
Unless we happen to have access to some of the world's most powerful telescopes and are likewise proficient with complex mathematical equations, we will not be able to "see" this happening. But rest assured, science has proven in multiple ways, the universe is most definitely growing. In a similar way, God's Kingdom is growing, is expanding. The Bible is just one of the testaments to our "boundary-breaking God". But unless we access a different set of tools for vision - things like intentionality, history, curiousity, faith, patience - we will not be able to "see" this happening. Thankfully, untold believers throughout the history of human civilization have given credible witness to God's Kingdom expansion.
God is tricky. God doesn't like to be boxed in and doesn't necessarily perform according to human expectations or desires. God so often operates under the radar, flying low. Our family watched The Prince of Egypt last week. While the movie plays with some of the scriptural fine points, I find it true to the spirit of the biblical story. The movie opens with the enslaved Israelites laboring in the desert sands, crying out to God for deliverance, unaware that God has already set in motion the mechanism of their deliverance in the form of a mortally threatened infant named, Moses. (Doesn't that just totally break in a radical way with human expectation, sending a baby to be a Savior?.....) According to the movie, there's only one person who is able to really "see" what's going on, who is able to "see" God's Kingdom grow by a baby step as she stands guard over her baby brother and sees him safely delivered into the palace of the Pharaoh. Miriam stands hidden in the bulrushes and sings, "Brother, you're safe now and safe may you stay, for I have a prayer just for you: Grow, baby brother. Come back someday. Come and deliver us too..."
Neither is God's Kingdom limited to baby steps. God does indeed move mountains. But again, it's not in the way we expect. As the Israelites begin their joyful exodus from Egypt, another song from the movie has an adult Miriam singing, "Now we're not afraid, although we know there's much to fear. We were moving mountains long before we knew we could!"
God does not say to us, "For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, I will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for me." No, that's not what the text says. Matthew 17:20 - "For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you." God makes mountains quake through us.
I had the opportunity earlier this month to spend a day with the local school district's virtual education coordinator visiting the district's three satellite schools. All three are private, tiny, Christian boarding schools - a potential last chance for kids in trouble with the law, in trouble at home or in trouble because of home. All three schools are also amazing places, staffed with people committed to these kids and committed to this calling, despite really meager wages.
The final school we stopped at is called Victory Village. It's located in the country, east of Hutchinson, Kansas. It's founders, Bill and Carole Cowell, were Baptist ministers in this area of Kansas in the 1960's. One night they were called on to bail a 14 year old out of jail and this youth ended up part of their family. A year later they took in two teenage girls. A few months after that, their family grew by another three teenagers. In 1971, Heart Ministries was established and has grown from there. It is a boarding school for girls and accepts kids from all over the country. The school is equipped for an enrollment of around 20. The core approach is unconditional love. I was quite taken, during my short visit, with the family atmosphere that prevailed as well as the quality of the staff.
A few weeks ago Victory Village had a dedication service for their new chapel. The chapel's creation is a source of inspiration on its own. The story began with a monetary donation sufficient for a foundation and floor. And so with what I suppose must have been a healthy mix of faith and apprehension, the foundation was poured. The chapel remained a bare foundation for some time before the ball really got rolling. And then, as I understand, donations of time, material and expertise began arriving on the doorstep in a totally coordinated and timely fashion, from all across Kansas. Even the interior furnishings carry with them powerful stories of unexplainable coincidences and unexpected blessings. It is a beautiful space out there in the rural sand hills.
So there sits this little academy, accomplishing amazing things and most people living in that general area of the state don't "see" it happening. It hasn't been a flashy movement. It hasn't worked to crowd itself into the public eye. It has simply been quietly expanding God's Kingdom for the last 40 years. God has moved mountains through Bill and Carole Cowell's passionate and faithful vision.
My thoughts these days keep taking me back to church. Church is to be the people who are paying attention, who are working to "see", who are looking for opportunities to join with God in expanding God's Kingdom, who believe that mountains can indeed be moved. But to be church requires something of us. To sustain this kind of vision, we have to be willing to invest time, energy, passion, even comfort - or the whole point of church doesn't get off the ground. Being church is not easy. Church requires much of us. God's Kingdom does not expand on its own. As much as we might want God to rip open the heavens, come down here and do all the work for us, that's not how God works. When God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in and with us, the ground shifted under civilization's feet and quite honestly, it hasn't stopped moving yet, because in that moment everything changed. We were all commissioned to be ministers, followers ordained by the Holy Spirit to partner with God in God's Kingdom expansion. But do we, the church, have this vision? Can we "see" in our future even the mere possibility of awesome deeds we did not expect?