“Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down” (Isaiah 64:1-9)
The Old Testament Reading for today, from Isaiah 64, is an intense prayer. The prophet is begging God to intervene on behalf of his people. As such, it is a fitting prayer also for God’s New Testament people, the church. And so, on this First Sunday in Advent, as we enter this season of waiting for the Lord’s coming, we cry out with Isaiah, “Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down.”
What is the situation for which Isaiah writes? With prophetic foresight, Isaiah looks ahead to the time when God’s people will be off in exile in Babylon. These would be dark days for the people of God. Judah had been overrun by the Babylonians. Her citizens were hauled off and taken captive to a strange land. Even the Davidic king was taken captive and made a prisoner in Babylon. Jerusalem, the city of God, was destroyed. The temple, the house of God, was burned and leveled and trampled underfoot. These were dark days indeed. In the verses just before our text, the prophet laments: “Our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary. We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name.”
It was like God’s enemies were triumphing. It was like God’s people–like there was nothing special about them anymore. It was like God himself had forgotten his promises to bless them and to give them a future and a hope. And isn’t this a picture of the church today? It seems like God’s enemies, the enemies of the church–it seems like they are triumphing. The church, at least in America, is at a low point these days. Demoralized, dispirited, defeated–that’s the state of the church in our culture. The enemies of God have carried the day. Abortion and homosexual so-called “marriage”–these abominations in God’s sight are legal in our country. Divorce, living together outside of marriage, sexual immorality of all sorts–these things are so epidemic they hardly cause a stir. And they are accepted as the norm in TV shows and movies. Radical secularism rules the day. To be religious is considered weird. The church’s influence in our culture has certainly diminished.
And so the church’s message of Law and Gospel is not resonating. Think about it: If there is no sin anymore, then why would anyone need a Savior? If the Law no longer condemns sinners, then the Gospel becomes irrelevant. And the Gospel is precisely what the church has to offer. So these are dark days for the church. The church is ridiculed, ignored, and disrespected. It’s like we are exiles in our own land. The pagans have taken over.
Therefore we can identify with Isaiah, when he cries out to God:
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!
How long will God allow this low point to last? When will he intervene and act? Strike down your enemies, O God! Vindicate your holy name! Deliver your people!
Then Isaiah pauses to reflect:
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.
God has acted on behalf of his people before. Think of when the Lord came down to deliver Israel from their bondage in Egypt. He is a God who acts for those who wait for him. And so we believe he will act again. Therefore, wait. Wait and trust and remember. The Lord has always been true to his promises before. He has not suddenly changed his character. God will keep his word. He will vindicate his name and deliver his people. He will overthrow his enemies. God will indeed act in judgment and salvation. But this calls for God’s people to wait, in patience and in faith.
Yes, dear people of God, the Lord will come and act on behalf of us, his church. He will deliver us out of this mess. He will right the wrong. He will overthrow the evildoers. The day is coming, the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, when he will “rend the heavens and come down.” It will be a day of fire and quaking. The earth will be moved, and fire will rain down from heaven upon this wicked world. This world is ripe for judgment.
But if God were to come down only in fiery judgment, where would that leave us? We too are ripe for judgment! Yes, we ourselves, God’s own people, have earned and incurred God’s wrath. You see, Isaiah doesn’t just call on God to come down and wipe out the enemies. He also acknowledges the sins of God’s own people. Isaiah confesses the sins of the people before the Lord:
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.
Brothers and sisters, this is our prayer of confession also. We too have sinned. In our sins we have been a long time. We have all become like one who is unclean. All our righteous deeds are stained with sin and are like a polluted garment–like “filthy rags,” the older translation read. We have let ourselves be influenced by the opinions and attitudes of the world. Fading late-autumn leaves, dried up and sapped of vitality–this is what we are like when we do not draw our strength and our life from the Lord through his Word. Apathetic, listless, lifeless, living way below what the church ought to be. How few even bother to come to church anymore! Christians are treating the Lord’s holy day and his holy house as a light and casual thing. By their indifference they are actually despising preaching and God’s Word. How few gladly hear God’s Word and learn it! How weak has our prayer life become? And so how deeply do the words of the prophet strike home today: “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you.”
Dear friends, Advent is a season of repentance. God is giving you this time to repent, to confess your sins, to turn from them, and to change your ways. God is calling on you to turn to him and to seek his mercy and forgiveness. All of us–yes, your pastor included–all of us have things for which we need to repent. We take God’s grace for granted. We do not let God’s Word have its way with us. We let the world’s sick values make inroads into our soul. Lord, have mercy! Forgive us! Restore your people! And so we pray with Isaiah:
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.
And now hear the best good news I can give you: Listen to God’s answer to your prayer. The Lord is not coming down in judgment on you. Instead, he comes down in mercy. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Oh yes, God did indeed rend the heavens and come down! It was our Lord Jesus Christ, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” Behold, he comes as a little child, weak and innocent, meek and lowly, lying in a manger. Behold, he comes as a peaceful king, humble, riding on a borrowed colt. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.” Behold this king, mocked and flogged, disrespected and despised, ridiculed and reviled, nailed to a criminal’s cross.
Here then is God’s answer to our prayer: A Savior, Jesus Christ, who takes the judgment, that terrible anger we deserve, and brings us salvation in its place. God beholds us in mercy, he looks upon us in grace, for the sake of his Son. He came down from heaven and defeated our enemies for us, rending death in the process and quaking the very gates of hell.
And now we wait for his return. Christ our king will rend the heavens and come down, in glory, to destroy God’s enemies and to deliver God’s people. We wait for that day. We long for that day. We wait in faith and hope. God has not forgotten his promises. It’s Advent.