Tags

, , , , ,


Isaiah wanted God to come down, but Isaiah wanted God to come down big.  Instead God comes in the form of a baby.  Not big by first century standards, but life-changing in ways no one could imagine. That’s what Advent is about — anticipating God’s coming in love and power. 

When God Comes Down

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 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.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 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.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 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.  – Isaiah 64:1-9 NIV’84

The Beginning of the Christian Year

Here we are again.  Usually on this Sunday after Thanksgiving, although there is the rare exception, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Christian Year, which is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

This first season in the Christian Year is called advent, which simply means “coming” or “coming toward” from the Latin adventus.  But adventus is itself Latin for the Greek word parousia which means “appearing.”

In other words, the season of Advent is the anticipation of the coming of the Christ, the Messiah.  So, it is fitting that we begin our journey through the life of Christ with the anticipation of Christ’s coming, both as the promised messiah and as the future coming king of all creation.

Advent incorporates both a looking back to the promises of the messiah, and of course to his actual birth, and a look forward into the future when “this same Jesus” shall come again, as the apostles believed and taught.  This is not just religious history then, but a story whose beginning and end are both marked by the appearance of this extraordinary figure we call Jesus.

Let’s get started then.  Today we start with the scene in Isaiah’s day, about 600 years before the birth of Christ.  Because Isaiah’s life spans several kings, the fall of the northern kingdom, and prophesies the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah has a lot to say about a nation that needs God.

When God Comes Down, We Want Him To Come Big

In the passage we read today, Isaiah is pleading for God to come back to his people.  As I mentioned, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are no longer united as they were under David and Solomon.  They are divided, and the northern kingdom has been splintered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BC.

Although Isaiah’s actual lifetime does not encompass the Babylonian captivity, he prophesies the result of that tragedy when he speaks to God in the verses we did not read and observes:

10 Your sacred cities have become a desert;
even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you,
has been burned with fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

This sounds very much like the situation after the Babylonians captured the southern kingdom of Judah and overran Jerusalem in 587-586 BC.  The “holy and glorious temple” – Solomon’s temple – had been destroyed, and the city pulled down to rubble.

Isaiah then pleads,

12 After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back?

Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

But the heartcry of Isaiah is in verses 1-3 –

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

The idea that Israel had during this period, and which persisted until the first century, was that if they were in exile being ruled by a pagan power, that God had left them.

Why did they think that?  Because God’s promise to Abraham was to make his off-spring into a great nation, a nation with their own special place, a nation that would be blessed and be a blessing to the world.

The story of Israel was built on that idea.  They were God’s chosen people, and when things were going well, God was blessing them. But when things went badly, God had deserted them.  So, their prayer, and Isaiah’s prophetic cry is that God will come down from his throne of indifference, but come down in God’s unmistakable majesty.

But Isaiah doesn’t want God to come down from his throne in just any old way.  Isaiah wants a show, a spectacle, a little supernatural shock-and-awe when God makes his appearance.

Both Old and New Testament writers connect the manifest presence of God – God’s intervention – with cataclysmic events.

Here Isaiah talks about the mountains trembling, and the nations quaking before God.  As though he needed to remind God of what God’s appearances had been in the past, Isaiah says –

3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

Perhaps Isaiah has in mind God’s brooding presence on Mount Sinai.  The mountain peak was covered with fire and cloud, thunder and lightning, and all the nation of Israel was afraid.  So they sent Moses to meet with God on the mountain.  It was unmistakable that God was there, and when Moses came down off the mountain, his own face glowed with the glory of God, so much so that he wore a veil to keep the people from being afraid.

But here’s the problem.  Isaiah was sure that God was so displeased with Israel being held captive by Babylon that God would come down and show those pagans a thing or two.  And that God would come down big and hard.  Mountains would tremble, fire would fall, lightning would strike, thunder would roll.  It would be spectacular!

And don’t we still want that today?  Don’t we still want God to intervene in a big way?  And don’t we still try to explain natural disasters as God’s judgment on some group or people.

When the tsunami hit one of the most stridently Islamic sections of Indonesia – Banda Aceh – there were American Christians who impetuously explained that natural disaster as God’s punishment on that Islamic region.

We want God to come big, and we want to see his coming in the quaking mountains, or in the case of Indonesia, in the earthquake and tsunami that followed.

But be careful because when God did come to his people about 600 years later, he didn’t come big.  He came in the form of a baby.  That’s about as small, as helpless, and as insignificant as you can get when compared to the power of world kingdoms.

The first lesson of Advent is this:  God comes to us in many ways.  And as Elijah found out, God comes not always in the wind, earthquake, and fire, but sometimes in the still small voice.

When God Comes Down He Comes To Save

But Isaiah recognizes that God isn’t just coming down from heaven to put on a spectacular display.  When God comes down, he comes judging his people.

Isaiah is right to say that God has come to those who wait on Him.  But then, Isaiah continues by admitting –

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 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.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

How can we be saved is the question.  How is it possible for God’s people who have disobeyed God’s law, broken God’s commands, and with them God’s heart, how is it possible for God to come and not destroy this rebellious people?

Because when God comes down He comes to save us.  Isaiah articulates the sins of the nation.  We are unclean, he says.  Even our religious practice – our righteousness – is like a filthy rag, unfit for the presence of worship much less God’s presence. As a result of the sin Isaiah identifies, he said that they are shriveling up like November’s leaves, with no more substance than to be swept away by the wind that blows them about.

So, how do we know that when God comes he comes to save us?  Because we have the words of Jesus, reading from the same scroll, the scroll of Isaiah.

As Jesus begins his ministry, Luke records the scene.  Jesus has gone back home to Nazareth, to the synagogue there.  Here Luke picks up the story in the 4th chapter –

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[e]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And there it is.  Right from the very same prophet, from the very same scroll.  Jesus identifies himself at God’s anointed – that’s what the word “messiah” means – and them proceeds to describe what he has come to do.  It all sounds like salvation to me.

“To preach good news to the poor;

to proclaim freedom for prisoners;

the recovery of sight for the blind;

to release the oppressed;

to proclaim a Jubilee – the year of the Lord’s favor in which all debts are canceled and things are restored to their rightful order.

 

When God comes down, he comes to save us.  And so to get people ready for the coming of the messiah, John the Baptist calls the nation to repentance, and as a sign of that change of heart, baptism in the Jordan.  Which in itself was a kind of crossing over into the promised land again, only this time to get it right, to follow God’s messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

When God Comes Down, He Comes Because He Loves Us

I may be stretching this passage a little here, but Isaiah identifies God as “our father.”  Which is also how Jesus tells us to address God in prayer – “our Father who art in heaven.”

And the idea of God as our father means that God not only brought us into being, and that we are his children, but that God also cares for us, guides us, nurtures us, corrects us, and has a purpose for us.

God does indeed have a plan for our lives. And that is why God sent Jesus.  Because when things look their darkest, when it appears as though God has forsaken his people, turned his back on them, and abandoned them to the mercies of the kingdoms opposed to everything God stands for, God comes down.

God comes down because he loves us.  He loves us so much that he sends his only son to show his love.  His son shares the father’s love.  His son also has a purpose.  His son will give himself a ransom for many, will become the sacrificial lamb, and will take on the sin of the world and the calamity of God’s people, to save them.

That’s what we look forward to during this Advent season.  We look back on the coming of Jesus as both a spiritual touchpoint, and a model for the future.  For God still comes in many ways to save his people because he loves us.  That is really something to look forward to.