The Gospel According to Isaiah: Isaiah 64:1-9

The poetry in Isaiah is striking.  The turns of phrase and imagery amplify and repeat.  The people are like grass, soon turning into flowers wilting in the intense, Middle-Eastern sun.  Next, valleys are twisting upward, reaching for the sky, while mountains flatten as they become molten.  Such power resonates in those well-crafted words.  A Hebrew poet stands before us, delivering the first Handel’s Messiah.

Those who lived during the time of Isaiah, did so, trusting that one day the Promise will become a reality.  The Book of Hebrews praises their faithfulness.  “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, convinced of what we do not experience” (11:1).  “Long ago, in many times and many ways, God spoke by the prophets to our forefathers.  Now, in these last days, He spoke to us by His Son” (1:1-2a).  The Spirit’s message provided to the Lord’s Church through those messengers of old is for us as well.  For they tell us about the Father’s Son, delivering words pregnant with Christ Himself.

The first reading for today gave us an inspired prayer, expressing the longing of Yahweh’s chosen people.  For Israel suffered defeat by the Babylonians.  Both Jerusalem and its Temple lay in ruins.  Those not slaughtered in the siege became prisoners, hauled away in chains to a foreign land.

Still, the prayer, which entered our ears, isn’t limited to those dark and dour days.  For its words can become our petitions whenever assailants surround us and all appears hopeless.  With Isaiah, we pray as we, too, await our Lord, living by faith.

“Tear the heavens open and come down,” O Lord.  The world’s Creator by the power of His spoken Word will not abandon us, aloof and detached at a distance.  In difficulty, when troubles assail us from all sides, we might think we are far from His mind.  So, today’s Advent prayer teaches us of a God Almighty, who can, and does, and will come down.

Yes, the language is poetry, but the truth impacts us, all the more, by its formidable message.  Like long ago, we also yearn for God’s presence among us.  The first three verses of this prayer all end with similar refrains.  “So the mountains may shake at your presence.”  Next, we find the other lands quaking.  For when God, who came down, carried out His fearsome deeds, the mountain peaks quaked at His presence.

How frightening to ask God, mighty and majestic, to sweep down in judgment.  For if the tallest summits can crack and turn into lava, what will happen to sinners?  For the Lord is a consuming fire, a passionate God (Deuteronomy 4:24).

Such a vivid picture Scripture portrays to our eyes.  A wildfire can blaze so hot, igniting and exploding dry bushes.  Fierce flames can blast water into vapor, vanishing into the air, as the sinful can also act, abusing others for self-gain.  Do we not want our adversaries to evaporate like the morning mist on a scorching afternoon, leaving us alone?  In times past, God treated Pharaoh this way at the Red Sea and during Elijah’s battle with the priests of Baal.

So, why do we call out to heaven in those words?  For they come with grave consequences!  Well, if we asked God to conquer our opponents as our end goal, we are no better.  So, we urge our life-giving Lord to come down and reveal Himself to His enemies (vs. 2) because where the Lord’s name is, so He promises to be.

The Hebrew word for “shake” means “to flow.”  The rock liquefies into magma.  So, the blazing heat of divine wrath burns with a purpose, melting rock-hardened hearts.  The smugness and arrogance dissolve into a proper fear of God.  Such is the way of His Law, which reveals to us what we deserve by being unable to keep them.  The request to be rescued from our foes is so they may turn toward God, calling on His name for forgiveness.

“Be careful what you pray for,” the saying goes.  How dangerous for us to ask our Father to descend and judge the nations, for He will judge us, as well.  The emphasis of this poetic prayer shifts away from Israel’s enemies to the Church herself, to the enemy inside you and me.

In the earlier Covenant, the people of God entered into His presence.  The sinless One dwelt among them, as they confessed their failings and pleaded for His pardon.  So also do we beseech our Father, as did Isaiah and Israel.

For those who delight in doing what is right, You welcome them, and they remember You in Your ways.  Indeed, You are angry because we continue to sin.  How can we be saved if we remain in our sins?  For we are all like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like a filthy rag.  Each of us withers like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind. [vs. 5-6]

The truth often vexes and chafes.  For we are still sinful.  So, God did what we do not deserve.  The Son descended from above, tearing eternity open.  The Incarnate Glory broke the barrier between heaven’s beauty and us time-bound creatures.

The angels sang before frightened shepherds, who did not burn and melt like molten rock.  For an angel also came with consoling words.  “Don’t be afraid.  Listen, I proclaim to you a Gospel of astounding joy for all the people: This day in the city of David a Savior is born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

So, Divinity garbed Himself in human flesh.  Through the miracle of His incarnation in the virgin’s womb, God became a man, coming to save us and bringing peace to the people.  The heavenly army of angels rejoiced in this.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!” (Luke 2:14).

For Jesus taught, “where two or three gather in my name, I am present with them” (Matthew 18:20).  So, in the church service, we often sing the angelic words first received on Christmas night, which we call the “Gloria.”  The liturgy tutors us to understand that every time of worship is a mini-incarnation.  The sin-slaying Christ is present in His Word—preached, read, and in His Supper.

In the Advent season, we don’t chant the joy-filled Gloria.  No, the missing piece of our weekly ritual is to pull us forward, to anticipate the birth of Jesus.  So, in this time of delay, we wait, meeting to receive God’s Word, also proclaimed by His spokesmen in ages past.  For we need deliverance and absolution, as did they.

Though our righteousness is like putrid scraps, we pray this grand and glorious comfort with them, found in the saving Word.

O Lord, You are our Father, we are the clay, You are our potter, and we are all the work of Your hands.  Don’t be angry beyond measure, or remember our iniquity forever.  Gaze down upon us, for we are all Your people! [vs. 8-9]

A sculptor owes nothing to the malleable clay He shapes, free to fashion the lump, whether to create or destroy, as he chooses.  Despite what we warrant, God selected us for life, not death.  Like He first formed Adam out of the red soil, so He creates and shapes us as His people (Genesis 2:7).  So, we can ask God to examine us, for we are His own!

So, the plea from ancient days is also our prayer.  “Tear the heavens open and come down.  Make the mountains shake at Your presence.”  Did God answer the prophet’s prayer?  Yes.  The Babylonian enemy retreated into the abyss, as fiery flames charred their forbidding walls and imposing palaces.

A remnant returned to Jerusalem to reconstitute and rebuild the sacred Temple.  Earlier, Isaiah described this Temple as God’s holy place (63:18).  Here, he uses the word “our,” our Temple!  Hmm, this is God gifting us with what is His.

The sharpest revelation of this took place years later.  The Temple’s fulfillment, Jesus, sacrificed Himself for your salvation (John 2:18-22, 4:20-24).  Now, what is His is yours, where your body becomes “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

To supersede the Old Covenant with the New, our Savior yielded up His Spirit.  The veil of the Temple tore in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, and the rocks split.  The flesh-and-blood Son prayed all the “sinner” parts of Isaiah’s prayer for you.  Why?  So, you can also pray these words of the prayer, “Yet Lord, you are our Father.”

Yes, God is your loving father, He the potter, you the clay.  To Him, you are precious.  For You are His, the work of His hands since He created you and still cherishes you.  Oh, He is a Father who loves you!

Often neglected, and many times unwanted, the Advent season teaches us to wait for our Lord.  For we are an impatient people, wanting to celebrate an event before its arrival.  So, the prophet still schools by his prayer, teaching us God “acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him” (vs. 4).  So, we live in, and live out, a patient and expectant faith, believing God will do everything based on His timetable.

So, we wait, soon to rejoice in our Lord’s first coming as a humble Child, but also anticipating the King on Day of His return.  Dressed in His holiness and purity, we will savor His mercy, compassion, and love.

So, this fitting prayer from the last book of the Bible is suitable also in this hallowed season.  “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).  Amen.