“A Prayer to the God Who Acts” (Isaiah 64:1-9)
Today is the First Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church year. And this season of Advent is a time of waiting, a time of penitential preparation, as we wait for the coming of our King. Christ is coming, our Savior and Redeemer. We prepare for the celebration of our Savior’s birth at Christmas. And we wait for his coming again at the end of this age. Advent is a time for remembering God’s promises to send a Savior. It is a time to repent of our sins, to prepare the way of the Lord before him. This is a time for humble prayer and reflection, a time for patient waiting for our God to act, as he has promised to do.
And so the Old Testament Reading for today is a fitting lesson for this season of Advent. It’s a prayer, really, this reading from Isaiah 64. Isaiah the prophet is voicing a prayer to the Lord that is most appropriate for us to pray, also. It’s an Advent kind of prayer. It’s a prayer to God to come down and deliver his people and make his glory known. It is a prayer of remembrance, as we remember how God has acted in the past. It is a prayer of repentance, as we mourn our sin and turn to God for forgiveness. And it is a prayer of quiet trust and patient waiting. As we’re about to see, this prayer from Isaiah 64 is “A Prayer to the God Who Acts.”
Now the prophet Isaiah lived about a hundred years before the situation he describes in our text. But with prophetic foresight, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Isaiah is able to pen these words that foresee the desperate situation that would befall the people of Judah at that time. Isaiah is envisioning what it will be like for the people of Judah after the conquering Babylonian army comes through and defeats Judah and plunders and pillages the nation and takes the people captive. It was a tough time to be the people of God.
It’s a tough time to be the people of God now, isn’t it? We may feel like an army has come through and overrun the church. Downcast and downtrodden we may feel. Tough times for the church these days. All across the land, church interest and involvement is down, compared to what it used to be. The hearts and minds of our people have become dull and distracted. Disinterest and apathy rule the day. The minds of so many are so far from God. Good is called evil, and evil good. And so we who know that the gospel of Christ, entrusted to the church to preach and teach, we who know that this is truly the most important thing going on in the world today–we can become discouraged and wonder when God is going to act on our behalf.
That is why we can so identify with Isaiah’s prayer when he cries out to the Lord:
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
This is a prayer to God to come down and deliver his people and make his glory known. We would like to see God do that in our day also. It’s an understandable desire.
Yes, it’s OK to call on God to act. And we know that he will, in the end. Part of our confidence is in knowing that the Lord has acted in the past. He has shown himself to be a God we can trust, a God we can count on, one who is faithful to his promises to guard and keep and deliver his people. That’s how the prayer continues:
When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
This a prayer of remembrance, remembering how God has acted in the past. The prophet Isaiah ponders the mighty deeds of old that the Lord did for Israel. The Exodus from Egypt. The awesome presence of the Lord at Mount Sinai. “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”
We do well to remember how God has acted in the past. Certainly front and center in our mind is how God sent his own Son to be our Savior. Jesus Christ came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation. We remember how he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, riding into town, acclaimed as Israel’s king, welcomed with hosannas, yet riding in to suffer and die on our behalf. God was acting, acting to deliver us, but not in the glory way that we might expect. No, acting in a quite contrary-seeming way. The way of the cross. But this is the way that would work. The only way. In order to deliver us, the Son of God needed to die for us. Jesus shed his blood for us, on that cross, to pay the debt of our sin. Your sins and mine, all atoned for, by the blood of Christ.
It is good that we realize that it is our sins that messed up this world. Not just the sins of others, but ours too. This is what Isaiah is realizing as he continues with his prayer:
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
This is a prayer of repentance, mourning our sin and turning to God for forgiveness. The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that our guilt–yes, even the guilt of God’s own people–our sinfulness is real and it is pervasive. All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. Even our good works, our best works, are stained with sin.
And so Advent is a time of penitential preparation. It’s time to come to grips with our sin–and our sins. Confess them. Be honest with God about them. Seek your forgiveness and find your healing in the holy wounds of Christ. God has acted to deliver you from your sins. “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” Answer: Yes! Yes, we shall be saved, for God has acted in Christ to save us. You can count on this. Your salvation is secure, because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But now we wait. Just like the people of Judah had to wait till the deliverance came from the Babylonian Captivity–and it did come, by the way–in like manner we now must wait for our deliverance when Christ comes again on the last day. Again, the prayer from Isaiah 64 is instructive. Listen to the patient trust in the prophet’s voice:
But now, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Be not so terribly angry, O LORD,
and remember not iniquity forever.
Behold, please look, we are all your people.
This is a prayer of quiet trust and patient waiting. We turn the timing over to our heavenly Father. How and when he will deliver us in the end–that is up to him. Until that day, we will wait and trust, putting our trust in God’s promises and his mercy. How he has acted in the past, to act on behalf of his people, this bolsters our confidence that our God will indeed come through for us in the end.
For now we wait. But it is a busy and productive waiting. We use this time to remember and reflect, to repent and to be restored. This is a time to go to work, to be busy with the vocations God has blessed us with, our individual vocations as husband, wife, worker, citizen, etc., and our calling together as church, to carry out and carry on the work of the church’s ministry.
Quiet trust, patient waiting. Remembering and repenting. Calling on God to act. And knowing that he is the God who does act, and will continue to act, and will finally act, to save his people, you and me and us–the church’s “us”–included. That is Isaiah’s Advent prayer. And this is our prayer too during this Advent season.