O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Advent breaks upon us, like the first rays of light shining out on the horizon. Dawn is coming for the world, the arrival of the true source of all goodness. God returning to God’s people, and all things being set right in a rush of grace and justice and mercy. The dawning of a new era of God’s presence on earth with us. We look to the skies, we wait for the night to pass into the day, we wait for Christ to come and be among us. Advent, the season of arrival, is for us a season in which we wait.
Anticipating the next act of God is nothing new. From the moment that humanity first found itself apart from God, it has looked for God to come to be among them. Though we stray from God, the call of the Spirit upon our life always brings us back to looking for more of God. We long to see God here, with us, and we long to benefit from the presence of God in all the ways that we possibly could.
The brokenness of the world around us demands that something happen to set the world straight. God reaching down and scooping us out of it would be one thing, but we are offered something much better. God’s work was not to pull us out of the darkness of the world but to transform darkness into light, evil into good. God’s work in creation was to redeem it from its fallen state, not to abandon some of it and rescue others. As we wait for Christmas and for the fullest celebration of God coming to be with us, we do so with anticipation of a world set right.
Our scripture for today, from the book of Isaiah, is written after the Babylonian Captivity of Judah had ended. The Kingdom was not functioning at its fullest potential just yet, but people had returned to their ancestral home and were finding their way back into patterns of life their grandparents had known. How surprising then, that they discovered that the world was not magically made better because they moved back into their ancient home.
The final chunk of Isaiah is a mixture of prophecy describing God’s goodness and Judah’s continual failure to live as they ought to. In biting terms, the prophet describes the land of Judah as a place filled with cruelty, where the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Returning to the land of blessing which benefited them in the past was not enough to wash away the wickedness of the people’s hearts. Simply moving location or changing our situation will always do nothing unless our heart is likewise changed. The people, now several generations removed from the original Babylonian exiles, find themselves falling into the same pitfalls that their ancestors did.
God, the covenant partner of all the faithful, expresses frustration at this through the prophet. “Though you are free from Babylon, you are not free from your sins!” The people have been freed from the empire that had enslaved them, but they were not willing to live into the freedom that they had been offered. What was God to do? Another exile? Another punishment or plague?
God’s response to the continued rebellion of the faithful was to extend still more grace to them. The promise of the final chapters of Isaiah is that all will be made new, that the Heaven’s the Earth, and even the people themselves will be renewed. In the midst of the promises God makes to God’s people, our scripture for today breaks out. A powerful prayer to God to come and act, to come and redeem God’s people from the troubles that they face – both the problems of the world around them and that they cause for themselves.
The opening line of our scripture, “tear open the Heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake…” Is meant to bring to mind in its hearers the Song of Deborah (Judges 5.) After overcoming the Canaanites that had threatened the Israelites, Deborah saw God as their deliverer – not her or anyone else involved. She describes God moving mountains to clear the way for God’s people. God’s love for God’s people was such that nothing – not even the mountains were willing to get in between the two.
The prophet recalls the goodness of God but identifies that things are not as they should be. While immediately recalling the Babylonian exile in citing that God became angry and, “hid” from Judah, the reality is that human sin is never tied to a single era or action. Since the Garden humanity has transgressed, and in the process of our sinning we find ourselves removed from the presence of God. Does God hide? Or do we simply cease to look? The two feel much like one another and in the prophet’s prayer we see God given particular agency over the relationship.
There are several things in life that can darken our view of God and seemingly hide God away from us. When we live our lives wrongly, chasing after darkness and not light, we will find it hard to see God. Likewise, when disaster overtakes us, and we are propelled into a place of uncertainty we can lose track of God. However, no matter how we find ourselves pushed away from the divine presence; we feel the need to find it again. God, the source of life, is what we need to truly be alive. When we feel cut off, for any reason, then we feel lesser because of it.
God’s promise then to us is that we can be made alive, that the present darkness is not forever, that redemption awaits us even when we stray as far as we could ever dream away from God’s goodness. We are offered redemption through being remade into the image of what God would have us be. No longer are we the, “filthy cloth,” but washed clean and made beautiful. No longer do we “fade away” like leaves, but we are filled with life and made to shine out in beauty. Revivification is one thing, restoration to what was, but we are pushed somehow farther and given more life and more goodness than we ever had before.
We have talked several times about the things that have happened in this year and oftentimes it seems like this is the worst year we could ever dream of. However, even in the midst of that, we must not pretend that an awful year can keep us from the love of God. Disaster shows us who we are, pushes back layers of pretention and posturing and opens us up to show the true content of our heart. For the people of Judah who had their own disasters, who found that coming home and being restored to life were not one and the same, it revealed that they were far from what they ought to have been.
The prayer of the prophet offers a final word of hope. After describing God as a potter who can reform the clay of our being into its proper shape, the prophet calls to mind one final scripture from Judah’s past. The book of Lamentations, perhaps the most barren book of the Bible, ends with a cry for help. “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:9)
The prophet’s prayer in Isaiah 64 seeks to soothe the troubled heart of Lamentations 5. God, do not be angry. God, consider that we are you people. The prayer of the prophets often contains the truth of God hidden away in their intercession. God will not remain angry. God will not forget that we are God’s people. No matter what barriers come between us and God – ones that we put up, ones put up against us – they cannot stand forever. God will not utterly reject us, but God will bring us close and set us right. As we wait throughout Advent, we wait for God. We wait for Redemption. We wait for mountains to quake as God comes running to our aid. God our maker will be God our redeemer, and our redeemer will live among us. – Amen