Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
Date: Advent I + 11/27/11
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,” the prophet Isaiah leads God’s people to pray. But it is only when God seems far away, out of reach in the distant heavens that the heavens need to be rent, that the separation between us and God needs to be torn apart. Because we cannot hope to ascend to God, He must “come down” to us. I used to wonder why, on the First Sunday in Advent, we would hear the Gospel reading that “belonged” to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. After more than four decades I think I finally figured it out. On Palm Sunday, when we begin Holy Week, we are the more aware of our hypocrisy (or should be!), the hypocrisy of our, first, cheering with the crowds, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed,” indeed (Mark 11:9-10). But then in a matter of days we hear our voices joining the same crowds jeering, “Crucify him, crucify him” (Mark 15:13-14). But the Hosanna cheer and cry and the words of blessing are appropriate at every Sunday eucharist and throughout our lives especially as they express the heart of repentance and faith and hope in God. Today we begin a new Church Year with that season of hopeful anticipation.
The people among whom the prophet Isaiah lived were just like us in this sense: they were a people more or less aware of their sin and need of God, and they were a people of hope. They had hope in God because they had God’s promises and they knew how God had acted in the past to deliver, to save and to redeem. Therefore they cried, and therefore we cry today, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
O Savior, rend the heavens wide;
Come down, come down with mighty stride;
Unlock the gates, the doors break down;
Unbar the way to heaven’s crown. (LSB 355:1)
God must come to us since we cannot rise to Him. We cannot seek and find God because, as Isaiah says, “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.” Isaiah’s words are a prayer of the confession of sins, of repentance. Ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of God’s care because of their disobedience, a wall has separated us from God. Indeed, so thoroughly has our sin alienated us from God that, like our first parents, we have made a veritable art of hiding in the bushes of our shame. Even if we desired God’s help we stand helpless to approach Him.
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” For this reason alone it is a fearful thing to come into the presence of God. For when He comes, He comes in judgment. As at Sinai He comes in mountain quake and fire “that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
Yet, mysteriously it seems, it was not to destroy or annihilate His people that His anger burned, but to save them. In cloud by day and fire by night He led His people out of the slavery of Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea and destroyed their pursuers there. He gave them His Holy Law and promised them a home. By His Word He formed a people for Himself, the work of His hand as a potter forms clay.
Our plea for help was answered, however, not in a mighty earthquake or fiery judgment but when God rent the heavens and came down in the person of the Son of God, the Son of Mary, Jesus. At Christmas we sing,
Come from on high to me;
I cannot rise to Thee.
Cheer my wearied spirit,
O pure and holy Child;
Through Thy grace and merit
Blest Jesus, Lord most mild,
Draw me unto Thee! Draw me unto Thee! (LSB 386:2)
And this is He who would speak of His ultimate act by which He would save us, just after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, saying,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:27-33)
In Jesus God draws us to Himself in both judgment and grace. On the cross He took the judgment against our sin upon Himself. Now not through fire but through water we are joined to His death that we might become what He is, the sons and daughters of God.
As at the beginning of the life of faith so each day we wrestle and struggle, for sin still tries to ensnare us. Therefore daily we still cry for God’s help and He daily “rouses himself to take hold” of us, showing us His face of mercy, never tiring of forgiving our sins, applying that endless healing of the cleansing blood of Jesus.
This is why we look forward to our annual celebration of Christmas, the celebration of the Word made flesh, the Incarnate Word in whom is our deliverance, healing and hope. This is why we continually pray for His second coming that we may finally attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:11) in eternal life. With this advent prayer we learn “to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8) in true repentance, in faith, in certain hope and with a note of joy. Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.