In early May 2020, Lillian Yu-Feng Hsu, 87, died in an assisted-living facility in White Plains, New York. Of Han Chinese decent, she lived through WWII in China when she was a kid, but later studied medicine in Taiwan. Her next step was a major move to the United States to complete a medical internship. “I knew I had to become educated so I could be totally independent,” she would say later in her memoirs.
In time, she became not only a doctor, but a geneticist in New York for many years. Her research was published in such journals as the American Journal of Medical Genetics and The Journal of Pediatrics. She was often the only foreigner and/or the only woman in her class, office or lab, and she later told her grandchildren about the difficulties of dealing with inconsiderate men while working to the top of her field. She set up the first lab in New York City that performed amniocentesis, setting the international standard for prenatal diagnostic testing.
When she died, none of her family members could be with her. They were able to chat with her via Zoom for a two-week period before she passed, thanks to the help of nurses and aides. At her burial, only 10 people were allowed, and they had to maintain “social distance.”
One of her children, a daughter, was unable to join other family members to grieve and share. She was in Shanghai, the city of her mother’s birth. Her full name is Carol Wen-Jen Lin Willison, but her friends just call her Carol. Carol teaches in the elementary school of a prominent international school there. Her husband, the Rev. John P. Willison, is the lead pastor of a large international congregation there.
Carol was not with her mother before she died, and she was not at her mother’s funeral, although she desperately wanted to be. She might have been able to leave Shanghai to be with her mother and attend her funeral, but she would not have been able to return to Shanghai, since at that time China had barred entry to foreigners.
She was stuck. Separated from her dying mother if she stays; separated from her husband if she goes, and risking the loss of her teaching position as well.
Carol’s experience was not unlike thousands of others at the height of the pandemic that has swept (and continues to sweep) across the globe in 2020. Some spouses were separated by quarantine rules, canceled flights and entry rules – like Yang Zhang and her husband, who said goodbye to each other in Hong Kong on February 2 and still have not been reunited. Some spouses were separated when one caught the virus and had to be isolated for the safety of other family members. In extreme cases, children were separated from parents. Others were isolated on cruise ships. Some Americans had difficulty returning home. They were stuck in Europe somewhere, and could not find flights to get back. Babies were born, and grandparents sometimes had to wait months before visiting.
And we were stuck, too, under “stay at home” orders. No restaurants. No church. No sporting activities. No nothing. And, of course, we’re still stuck. We all went through this. We know the angst, the pain, the silent suffering, the fear and the loss of hope. We miss our loved ones.
If only the door would open and our husband, wife, child or parents would come bursting through! Yes, we could Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet or Teams, but we miss touching a face, hugging, laughing and crying together. We’ve lost something and we want it back. We want a return, a restoration of relationships — for things to be like they used to be.
This is the emotional, psychological and spiritual context of the Isaiah text before us. The glory of Israel had long faded. Hundreds of years earlier, the northern kingdom had disappeared. And now, the memory of life in Judea and temple worship was a faint memory. Carried into captivity, the ancient Hebrews have been exiles in a foreign land.
Their recent history when still in their homeland had been scandalous:
- They neglected religious observance.
- They lived in open rebellion against God.
- Their rulers had set up false idols and corruption.
- Disregard for the poor and disposed was rampant.
- They refused to listen to the prophets.
So, it was a long time since they had experienced prosperity or enjoyed blessings from the hand of God. In fact, God for years now had seemed far away, as though God had abandoned them: “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (v. 7b).
In captivity, in a strange land, the Hebrews now recalled the glory of their past. They remembered now how God had intervened on their behalf. They longed to know and experience the presence of God. And so the prophet opens today’s reading with the anguished words: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Had these Hebrews forgotten that God loves to visit? God is a visiting God. The Bible begins with the Creator God not only bringing creation into being, but visiting our first parents in the garden of Eden. In fact, according to Genesis 3, the Lord God came walking into the neighborhood where Adam and Eve lived: “The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (v. 9).
That is the question, isn’t it? Where exactly are we? God wants to visit us, so what are we doing? The southern kingdom of Judah clearly was not paying attention to God. They had other things to do than worship the Lord God.
Yet God loves to visit us. From the very beginning, this has been amply demonstrated:
- God visited Abraham in the guise of angels who sat down for a meal.
- God visited Jacob, wrestling with him in the night.
- God visited Moses in the burning bush, on Mount Sinai and elsewhere.
- God’s presence went with the Israelites through the wilderness in the form of fire and cloud.
- God visited Samuel as a boy, calling him in his sleeping hours.
- God visited Elijah in a still small voice.
Now, the prophet cries, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The prophet knows that it is in God’s nature to visit us. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down” (v. 3). The prophet says, in effect, “Hey, you used to visit us a lot. What gives? Why aren’t you coming around anymore? Please come for a visit – soon!”
Yes, it is in God’s nature to visit. And this is still true. Want a visit from God? God is surely willing and eager to visit, and even to stay a while!
The prophet feels as though they’re in some sort of quarantine. They must be infected, or something. There’s some reason God is staying away. Knowing that God is a just God, he suspects that something is wrong: “You meet those who gladly do right,” he says. (v. 5). He also knows that God works for those who “wait for him” (v. 4, echoing Lamentations 3:25).
Recognizing that it has been a long time since they’ve had a visit from their “Father” (v. 8), he complains that God has left them, committing His own people to an unwelcome quarantine.
- No visits from God.
- No meals left at the door.
- No face to face encounters.
- No Zoom.
- No nothing.
They have infected the relationship with their sin and idolatry. Now “you hid yourself” (v. 5c). Now, even though they attempt “to take hold of you … you have hidden your face from us” (v. 7).
Now, some of the Hebrews have returned, but their homeland is in turmoil. They need the Lord to visit them. The temple needs to be rebuilt. The walls need to be erected for the safety of the people. The city of Jerusalem is in ruins. Will God visit again?
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1:1)
This is the first Sunday of Advent. We know there’s going to be a reopening. We know God is coming for a visit!
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)
Yes, the heavens were torn open.
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage,
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:6-7)
What kind of visit will it be? How will we receive Him? How do we receive Him now? We are still a people in a strange land – exiles as it were. We long for our heavenly home. We, too, would like a visit. Yet, this is precisely the promise of Christmas: Emmanuel! God is with us.
- God is with us throughout shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.
- God is with us throughout quarantine.
- God is with us throughout physical distancing – God is going to come close.
Carol Willison mourns the passing of her mother, Lillian, and yet at the same time, she only recently welcomed into the world her first grandchild, a boy. In a sense, Lillian continues to live now. There is a baby in the family now, and babies are such miracles of wonder and awe. There is no visitation quite like the arrival of a baby.
Think of Mary and Joseph on that night long ago. We may not know the details of this divine visitation, but it was a wonderful event in which the heavens were rent, and God Himself in the person of a small baby paid humankind the most important visit of all.
Because of this, God continues to visit us today. May Advent be a time when we not only prepare for the visit, but experience the fullness of God’s presence every day!