Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 29, 2020
Isaiah 64:1-9 Commentary
Sometimes I scratch my head over the Lectionary choices for a particular day or season, but not today. These words from Isaiah 64 are absolutely perfect for this First Sunday of Advent.
I mean, it has all these famous verses, each of which would make for a great sermon text all by itself: verse 1, with its passionate plea, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down;” verse 4, with its staunch profession of Jewish faith, “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him;” verse 6, with its rock bottom confession of total depravity, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags… like the wind our sins sweep us away;” and verse 12 with its desperate last gasp prayer, “After all this, O Lord, will you hold yourself back?”
Put them all together and you have the quintessential Advent Prayer. It has a sense of need for redemption, a feeling of unworthiness before God, a longing for God to act, and an assurance that God as Father is the Redeemer we need. And, most of all, it has this fourfold repetition of the word, “come.” “Oh, that you would come, come down, you came down, you come.” O Come, O Come, Immanuel….” Perfect!
Except that many people don’t want to hear something like this the Sunday after Thanksgiving and four weeks before Christmas. What we want is the holidays, good cheer, “a merry little Christmas.” Especially this year, a year devastated by COVID, riven by racial division, and roiled by a nasty contested election in America. What we want is a return to the Norman Rockwell Christmas, filled with comfort and joy, family and gifts, and sweet baby Jesus.
That desire for the good old days is what makes this rich dark text so perfect for our first step into Advent. It was written to people whose situation mirrors ours. Like survivors of California wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes, the coronavirus pandemic and the racial violence, they have lost so much of the life they had, as described in verses 10-11. These exiled Israelites look at their home country and see their “sacred cities… a desert, Jerusalem a desolation, our holy and glorious temple burned with fire….” The end of verse 11 sums it up: “all that we treasured lies in ruins.”
No wonder they yearned for God to come and set things right. We get it. What we might not get is their response to their loss, as expressed in verses 5b-7. As they recall how God acted for them in the past, they realize their own role in their ruin. “But when we continued to sin against them (God’s will and ways), you were angry.”
It’s not just that they sinned once in a while, but that they continued to sin, habitually and deeply, so that they put themselves beyond redemption. “How then can we be saved?” The images Isaiah uses to describe the depravity of Israel are stunning—we have all become unclean, like the “filthy rags” used by a woman during menstruation; we have become skeletal, like a shriveled leaf driven by the wind. No one wants to think of sin this way, but Advent is a time to take stock of who we are in our darkest selves. Indeed, we cannot utter this Advent prayer from the heart until we see our sin as they did.
In fact, they had come to the place where they felt so estranged from an angry God that they didn’t even pray. I wonder how many of our congregants, even us pastors, have come to this point in this difficult time. “No one calls on your name or strives to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” All we can do is grumble and complain and weep.
The sense of God’s disapproval hung over Israel like a dark cloud. They knew they had sinned and they knew God was angry. Can we experience the true joy of Christmas without that knowledge? No, it’s not what we want to know, but it is what we need to know. One wonders how different this past year would have been if we had confessed our sins as individuals and as a church and as a nation. What if we had come to God and said, “Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, do not remember our sins forever?” Advent is a time to take stock of our sins and face our righteous God.
Thank God that he is more than righteous. Thank God for that little word “yet” at the beginning of verse 8. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” In spite of our sin and in spite of your anger, you are still our Father. Yes, we are but clay and you are the potter. You can mold us and make us any way you want. You can even break us, as you have just done. But you are not a heartless God, a perfectionist artist who simply throws away a ruined pot or a cracked cup. You are our Father and you have created us all; “we are all the work of your hand.”
We remember how your hand has been involved in our lives and in our national history: “you act on behalf of those who wait for you.” In all of history, in all the world, no other people have ever had a God like you. People worship their gods, love their gods, trust their gods, but, as Isaiah said in a withering diatribe against idols in chapter 44, “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless….” Yahweh is different; he actually reaches down with his mighty arm and outstretched hands and acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
With that word “wait,” we have at last entered the dominant mood of Advent. This is a time of waiting, not for the holiday fun to begin, but for the coming of God into our “lonely exile here.” Many won’t feel that way, which is why you may need to spend some sermon time on that sin and anger part of this text. Once folks begin to feel that, they will be ready to beg God to come.
That’s the heart of this prayer. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down….” Come down and shake things up, O Lord. This reference to trembling mountains in verses 1 and 3 is probably an allusion to Mt. Sinai, where God descended on that mountain in clouds and thick smoke and thunder and lightning. Isaiah prays for a theophany that will shake the nations of the world, the very enemies who have wrecked such havoc on God’s people. Before and after that theophany, God did such awesome things that the nations and Israel trembled before him.
Now, prays the Exiled People of God, do it again. Tear aside the clouds and come down in your power and majesty, your righteousness and justice, your grace and mercy. Of course, God did come down, in Christ, the personification of all God’s qualities, the incarnation of God himself. God has come down. As a result, God’s anger has been propitiated. Our sins have been expiated. Our punishment has been taken away. God’s silence has been broken.
Verse 12 was a prayer for the time before Christ, even though we might feel like praying it now. “After all this, O Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?” That was a desperate, almost angry prayer. Can’t you give us a break, O Lord, let up a little, tamp down your anger a bit. It was a prayer of people who didn’t have a clue how God would finally answer their perfect Advent prayer. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
We do know, so we can do Advent with greater patience. Or at least we should be able to wait patiently for God to come again. But the times in which we live have made us impatient and irritable and angry. So, this text is a much-needed reminder that God came in Christ and will come again.
So, wait patiently, repent deeply, come to God honestly, recall his awesome deeds, and pray fervently. “O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, who wait in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears. Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
During this COVID induced shut down, my wife and I have watched way too much TV. We’ve become especially fond of some shows like NCIS, in which the bright, smart alecky, but dogged investigators try to solve some horrific crime. One of my favorite scenes is when the good guys have the bad guys trapped. Gibbs and crew are just outside the door of the room in which the crooks have some terrified innocent victim tied up. Then after announcing that they are there, the cops burst through the door and make everything right. The word “rend” in Isaiah 64:1 can be translated, “break down the door.” O Lord, we are imprisoned by powers and people who mean us harm. “Oh, break down the door and come to our rescue!”
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