Happy New Year – at least, New Church Year. It is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation, the season of hope and longing, the season of already and not yet. How appropriate that this season opens with this desperate and faithful cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If there were ever a time in our history when the church needs to pray this prayer – it is now. As I write this reflection, we live in a world torn apart by political division, a still-out-of-control pandemic, racial tension, an invasion of murder hornets, and (can you believe it) an approaching asteroid that will narrowly miss planet Earth. 202o just can’t end soon enough!
Unfortunately, the cry of Isaiah 64:1 seems distant from the thoughts and worship of today’s church. We are so preoccupied with actively solving our situation (find a vaccine, elect a president, work for justice), that the power of this prayer eludes us. Without a divine condescension, a divine invasion, a divine intervention into our desperate situation, we are hopeless. And our world will only become more bleak and broken. “Tear open the heavens, God! Come down and do your thing. You’ve done it before. Do it again.”
LISTENING TO THE TEXT – The First Step
These words are spoken as God’s people return from Babylonian exile. Israel failed in her covenant relationship with God, the people forsook the Lord and forgot God’s holy ways. God’s judgment descended in 587 BCE with the capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of key leadership. Nothing shook the faith and confidence of God’s people quite like exile. The reliability of God’s promises and protection could no longer be assumed. These were desperate times, the future still looked bleak, and the people were mired in the pit of despair.
Our passage is part of a longer communal lament, which begins in 63:7 and ends at 64:12. As is common to the lament form, the poet begins with a fond remembrance of the “good old days” (63:7). But those days are gone, and from the depths of grief and loss, the poet speaks boldly, accusing God of parental abandonment (63:15-19). Certainly Israel’s failure has invoked the judgment of exile. But the lament dares to push further, questioning the very character, faithfulness, and purposes of God. This is bold speech.
The heart of the lament is the cry to God “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1). This boldness is often missing in today’s worship. But Advent gives us the opportunity to recover this power of speaking to God “out of the depths.” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here… until the Son of God appear.” It is a bold act of faith to cry out to God in times of hopelessness. It is bolder still to ask God for help after accusing God of abandonment. But such is the faith and candor of Israel – she will be honest about her desperate need, and yet she will hold on to a deep, abiding trust in the God who saves (63:8-9).
Our text begins with 64:1, as the poet moves from complaint to petition – “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” – an urgent plea for God to act decisively and with a theophany of power and splendor. The poet knows that God has come down before, and when that occurs awesome, majestic power and salvation follow (Exodus 15:1-18). The cry of this passage is for God to come down again and deliver Israel from her desperate straits.
ENGAGING THE TEXT
Human Need – Isaiah speaks to and for desperate people living in desperate times. The urgent plea for God to “come down” is based on the realization that these people must have the intervention of God. They have reached the end of their rope. They cannot finally save themselves.
The middle of the poem acknowledges the awareness that Israel is culpable for her unfortunate situation – “we sinned…we transgressed… we have become like one who is unclean” (vv. 5-8). Two startling images describe the people’s ruinous condition: a filthy cloth, so impure and contaminated that it is untouchable and useless; and a faded leaf, vulnerable to the wind, destined for oblivion. These verses convey a deep confession of sin, an admission of utter dependence on the mercy of God.
God’s Answer – The poem turns on the first word in verse 8: “Yet”. In Hebrew it is the phrase: “But now,” and may best be translated: “Nevertheless.” Even though the people have sinned, “nevertheless” God remains Father to these people. Note the possessive pronouns filling verses 8 and 9: You are our Father… you are ourpotter… we are all the work of your hand… we are all your people. These pronouns speak of relationship – the steadfast love of the Lord remembered in the early section of the lament (63:7). So God’s first response to the people’s deep need is this tenacious love that refuses to let go of Israel, even a rebellious Israel.
We also read in these verses of God’s sovereign power: “we are the clay, and you are our potter” (v. 8). This familiar image is both an image from creation (Genesis 2) and the prophetic imagination (Jeremiah 18). To speak of God as “potter” is to remind ourselves of God’s absolute ability to determine (shape) the future. Exile shall be no match for this God who combines steadfast love with sovereign power – who is both Father and potter. Our hope is built on this two-fold identity of God’s relationship to us. God loves us like a parent, so we can trust that God desires to do good for us. God shapes us (and our futures) like a potter who has absolute power and authority to do with the clay whatever the Potter chooses.
Our Response – Verse 4 declares that God “works for those who wait for him.” The proper attitude of this fervent prayer is waiting, a posture of firm expectation that what God has promised, God will deliver. There is an eagerness about this term – like a young lover at the airport, standing on tiptoe as she watches for her fiancé… like a young boy sitting on the edge of his seat at his first Cubs game, awaiting the first pitch … like a first time grandma-to-be in the waiting room anticipating the news, “It’s a girl!” To wait in this way is to open life up to the God who makes all things new. This is the proper posture of Advent hope and Advent faith.
PROCLAIMING THE TEXT – using a homiletic form borrowed from Frank Thomas: Situation / Complication / Resolution / Celebration
Israel’s SITUATION is one of total helplessness and hopelessness – she is in exile because of her own failure and she has no power to liberate herself. COMPLICATION comes when Israel recognizes that God has not acted in a long time. God has abandoned them and neglected the steadfast love of old. There must be a RESOLUTION to this faith crisis, and Isaiah points us to a God who is bound to us – “You are our Father… we are all your people (8-9).” On the basis of this good news – God’s steadfast love, we are bold to pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The CELEBRATION erupts as we realize that God “works for those who wait for him.”
Describe a desperate life situation to open this sermon. Perhaps the image of the waiting room in the hospital will convey this deep sense of need. Relate this urgent need to Isaiah’s world – and to our own. Complication ensues as the surgery persists beyond the expected time. Hearts become restless, anxious, and despairing – apt metaphors for our current context. Only one thing can break the cycle of despair – a word of hope. Resolution comes in the form of a messenger from the operating room bringing a word of progress. We are reminded of the skill and care of the surgeon (her past performance). We are assured of the anticipated outcome of this procedure. This word transforms our waiting from anxious despair to hopeful anticipation. We are empowered to wait in hope. This is the gift of Advent.