O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide. In the name of Jesus + Amen.
Although this hymn of Friedrich Spee von Lagenfield (1591-1635) can certainly be understood as referring to our Lord’s first advent, it is even more a call for Christ to return to deliver His people on the Last Day. It addresses our trials, our bitter experiences. It was Friedrich who ministered in the 1620’s to those convicted of witchcraft and he was an eyewitness to their executions. You can now imagine why the cry for the Savior to rend open the heavens; that is to rip them asunder.
The phrase represents the petition of Isaiah 64:1 almost word for word: “O that You would rend the heavens and come down.” The “unlock the gates in stanza 1 recalls Psalm 24:7 in its proclamation to “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” Are you starting to hear the advent themes repeated now in this season? Lift up your heads & Lord Jesus come down.
If you want to talk about the end of days. Hear Revelation 21:25 which describes the heaven of the New Jerusalem, whose “gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there.” But there is night now, there is night here – even in this house of worship as we sit in the cool of the night. The end of stanza 1 claims that this unbarring is the way to a reward for the faithful, a reward to receive a crown. But for now, there is no crown for you to go home in the dark with tonight. That head piece will be for another day. That is why we must ask for light. Stanza 2: “O Father light from heaven send.” Do you want this light from heaven? Light from heaven is the revelation of God Himself. For you cannot see anything without light.
Our earthly eyes are darkened now to this morning dew – life as from a spring and rain from a King. That is why in stanza 4 the repeated question stands: “how long, how long?” It accumulates for us the entire longing of the Old Testament believers and those of today, New Testament believers who await the Lord’s Second Advent and final coming. I told you you’ll be hearing Isaiah 40 for a third time this coming Sunday, on gaudete, rejoice Sunday this week. And as a spoiler alert, the third Sunday in Advent ties into asking and receiving and how that comes; “Comfort, comfort ye My people.” Tonight, our office hymn asks these good, right, and salutary questions in Advent: “When will you come with comfort strong?” Those kind of questions. Do you find yourself having like questions? Maybe you don’t think about these things. Well, you should be. The Lord is identifying Himself as the Morning Star in stanza 5. And if you want to identify with your Savior then you must look deep within and identify yourself with sin’s dreadful doom (stanza 6) because He did just that for us. “Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.” That’s scary; no, it’s confessional. And the absolution then comes in stanza 7 with the praises now bringing to our Advent King and thoughts turning to the land (the there) the there of the promised land in the stanza before. The questions question but they do have answers.
Von Spee was a preacher. In 1627 his superiors sent him to serve as priest in Wurzburg and Bamberg. That’s where he heard the confessions and cared spiritually for the numerous innocent people who were tried for witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Some of those cases appalled him deeply because they included children in them too who were younger than 9 years. They too were burned for being witches. He began to oppose witchcraft and because of that had to be moved to Trier in 1633, a province held captive by the French army until the Spanish took it over in 1635 by their force. Amidst that and in the wake of those events, he risked his life to tend to the wounded, sick, and dying.
Exhausted by his efforts, he contracted a fever from some of the hospital patients and finally succumbed to the plague on August 7, 1635 dying in the company of fellow Jesuits, which he was a part of. In all of that, his hymnody (about a total of 60 hymns written) contained a keen awareness of God’s work in the natural world. The common theme he shared with the mystic poets of that era was the union of the soul with Christ. He most certainly was spiritually convicted.
In Isaiah 40 it invokes us to see, to capture the image in our minds that the Lord God comes with strength and his power establishes his rule. Really? But how? With His wages (in verse 10). His wages and His reward accompany Him. It is His wages that protect and even fold his flock like a garment, like the fold of his garment- meaning the Lord sees you as actually being a part of his clothing. He will put you on. He has come down and worn your flesh. And as the Epistle for tonight reads: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. So that we might live through him. That’s the answer to all the questions of time in this life. That his appearing causes the rendering of the heavens. Through the virgin birth the heavens opened so wide that a light deemed the brightest star of them all in history, shown forth the morning dew; even at night, in the manger stall was the infant babe due. Due for humanity and the dew of the spring of life springing forth from Mary’s womb. And so, we can shout the Gospel message: Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel because he has visited and provided redemption for his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets in ancient times…
He spoke and is got fulfilled. Remember the Word of the Lord stands forever. Though we may deem it as fading like those who pass away on this earth below – Christ’s coming on his first advent has now given you the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. And it is because of God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us – to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
You see, one can hardly associate peace with calamity; the two just do not go together. The questions – the Savior rending the heavens wide does not seem to our finite minds the way of peace. It seems violent, doesn’t it? Well, it was violent, for the innocent babe in the manger to come and to die. But that’s how the heavens were rendered open; both on the day of his birth and on the day of his death. And it was that chastisement, that loom of darkness that brought us peace. We look for the mighty hand to come but know that it has already proven itself in the first coming and the first accomplished work. The finishing work too was accomplished on the cross outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Second Advent then is none other than the great reversal coming to a head, where those once closed gates will be lifted up as a bright looking back reflection of the lifting up of the Son of Man and the lifting up of Him arisen from the dead.
Hear some more words of the hymn for tonight: ones like – earth, fount, Morn, clothe, hearts, clouds, life, spring, sprung, come down. From exile to our promised land. Such are the words of reality and what we see and are in everyday. It is the natural order and what we have to build upon the coming of our King of kings and Lord of lords. Our response to the quandaries of life then should be: O Savior rend the Heavens wide. There you shall find yourself in a state of grace, in a marvel that seems so backwards, yet it is the way that breaks down doors.
We are thereby kicking down the doors this Advent season in the year of our Lord, 2021. No more shall grim death loom fierce before our eyes. We have the consolation of the Savior come down. The already and not yet are spoken for in this climate of rending. And this rending is the handlebar of faith that God’s chosen generation clings to above all else. Let this good News shape who you are, in Christ, a part of his garment - a piece of heaven come down. In that way you too, come down, come down to bow before the Lord your Maker. So shall our songs and hymns be as our prayers now rise before him as incense and the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice. Come magnify the Lord for he is forever the heaven renderer. In the name of Jesus + Amen.