It’s always tempting for those who preach and teacher God’s Word to talk more about prayer than actually pray. So those who proclaim Isaiah 64 won’t just want to explore, exegete and apply it carefully this week. We’ll also want to actually spend time praying, perhaps using its structure and themes to do so.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens with an anguished cry to the Lord of earth and heaven: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you” (1). It’s the desperate but poetic plea of a prophet who has probably returned with his Israelite people from Babylonian exile. Isaiah begs God to tear apart what his contemporaries assume separates God from them so that God can revisit the earth.
God, after all, reasons the prophet, tore the heavens to come down to earth at least once before. Though Isaiah doesn’t specifically refer to it, his imagery at least suggests that he has in mind God’s appearance at Sinai to Moses and God’s Israelite children. There, after all, the mountain trembled and spewed fire and smoke, reducing the Israelites to a trembling group of worshipers.
Yet when the prophet begs God to rip open the heavens to come back down to earth, he doesn’t seem to plead with God to come back to God’s Israelite sons and daughters. In verse 2 he begs God to “come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you (italics added).”
In his November 27, 2005 sermon in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, John Buchanan suggests Isaiah’s essentially pleading with God, “O that you would show the Babylonians who’s in charge. O that you would come and put things right again, fix what’s wrong. O that you would come down with justice, punish the wicked, and reward the righteous.”
As Buchanan goes on to note, it’s the type of prayer that still arises from God’s adopted sons and daughters. “O that you would rend the heavens and come down …” is the kind of prayer that escapes our lips every time we read about another suicide attack on a group of people. It’s the kind of prayer that bursts from the hearts of God’s people when we hear about political machinations, corruption and foolishness. It’s the kind of prayer we gasp when we read about famine, as well as deadly storms and earthquakes. It’s even the kind of prayer that arises when we witness or hear about sexual misconduct or abuse of power both within and outside of the church.
Yet it’s as if as soon as the prophet begs God to split the heavens and come down to earth, he also peeks in a kind of spiritual mirror. After all, in almost the same breath as he prays, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down,” he goes on to confess, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (6). It’s almost as if Isaiah says, “We have met God’s enemy … and it is us!”
So almost as quickly as the prophet begs God to come down to confront God’s enemies, he recognizes that Israel has made herself God’s enemy. He admits, “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you” (7a). In his November 24, 2014 Sermon Commentary on this text, Scott Hoezee paraphrases this part of the prophet’s prayer: “O God, we’re sorry to say that our hands are pretty dirty. Even the best we have to offer comes to you soiled and smudged by the time we are able to offer it up to you and, to be honest, that’s not all that often as it is. Folks around here don’t pray much these days. Still others of us know that you’ve seen our sins, how they are so great that they all but carry us away like some fierce hurricane-force wind. And so we’re getting what we have deserved.”
So Isaiah admits that it’s not just God’s “enemies” and “the nations” that need God to split the heavens to come down in order to make things right. It’s also God’s Israelite sons and daughters who are in desperate need of reform. It’s not just the mountains that need a good trembling. It’s also the Israelites who need to learn to tremble in reverence and worship before the Lord.
Some of the prophet’s imagery is very vivid. After all, he compares God’s Israelite people to those who are so ceremonially impure that they would endanger their very lives were they to approach God in worship. Isaiah likens the Israelites’ best actions to a woman’s menstrual flow. He admits God’s Israelite sons and daughters are, in fact, no more substantial than the leaves that fall from the trees in the fall.
As God’s adopted Christian sons and daughters prepare to celebrate God’s ripping open of the heavens to come down to us in Jesus Christ, verses 6 and 7 form a highly appropriate kind of prayer and posture. After all, it’s not just terrorists, abusers and polluters who have who have sinned against God. It’s also us, the very people who can hardly wait to celebrate God’s Christmas arrival. We too have continued to sin against God. So God didn’t just have to tear open the heavens to come to earth in order to fix other people. God also needed to come down in Christ in order to save Christians who so gladly sing Christmas carols and retell the Christmas story. After all, as Hoezee suggests, Advent is “a good time to remember that the only reason Jesus ever advented into our time and space in the first place was because of our own sinfulness, our own weakness, our own vulnerability to temptation with which even now as Christian believers we still struggle every single day of our lives.”
Thank God, then, for Isaiah and Advent’s gracious “Yet” (8). Just when all seems lost, the prophet makes a startling profession: “Yet (italics added), O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the Potter; we are all the works of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people.”
Hoezee continues his paraphrase of the prophet this way: “You are still our Father. We are still your children, your people. We’re just lumps of clay who are nothing unless you sculpt and mold us. So do that. Make us look like you again. Come down that way and be gentle with us so that we may follow you again.”
On the Sunday on which much of the Church begins its celebration of Advent, it’s good for those who proclaim Isaiah 64 to remember that God’s people aren’t just those who have continued to sin against God’s ways (5b). We also remember that God, in fact, in Christ has already split open the heavens once to come down to us. However, because of God’s Son’s life, death and resurrection, God did not come down to sweep away God’s adopted sons and daughters. God, instead, graciously came down to “look upon” (9) God’s people in mercy and kindness.
Yet while Advent is a season that looks back to God’s splitting of the heavens in Christ roughly 2,000 years ago, it’s also a time to look around at the ways God is constantly rending the heavens to come down to God’s people. We remember that God is always coming “down” to us by God’s Holy Spirit, making himself present to, with and among not only us, but also God’s whole creation.
Among the ways God is present to us by the Holy Spirit “potter” is by constantly molding “the clay” (8) that is God’s people. The God who came “down” to us in Jesus Christ comes to us constantly, molding and shaping us in the image of Jesus. God is always transforming us from bloody discharges, filthy rags and dried-up leaves into beautiful vessels of God’s goodness and grace.
However, in Advent we also remember that the God who split the heavens to come down to us in Christ Jesus and always comes to us by the Holy Spirit is coming again. Some day soon God will again rend the heavens to come down to God’s creation to turn it into the new earth and heavens, the eternal home of God among God’s redeemed creatures.
We long for that day when God will tear open the heavens to come as the sacrificed Lamb and victorious King. Though we have continued to sin against God and each other, we don’t have to be afraid. After all, the one who will “look upon” (9) us will be our Savior who lived, died and rose again from the dead for us.
Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s November 30, 2014 Old Testament Sermon Commentary)
The most famous line from the old Pogo comic strip came in the one the cartoonist Walter Kelly produced for Earth Day back in 1971. As Pogo and another character try to make their way through a supposedly “beautiful” forest, they find walking increasingly difficult. The second frame reveals why: the forest is littered with old car tires, broken cinderblocks, broken old chairs and discarded bathtubs. Pogo Possum observes this and says, “Yes, son, we have met the enemy and he is us” (italics added).
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9 Commentary