First Sunday of Christmas: December 28, 2014

movarian star

Moravian star on our front porch

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 64

 

Jesus was born at an interesting time. Luke provides a historical setting for the birth: Augustus was emperor, Quirinius was governor, and there was a major census being conducted.  It was a time of stability and peace in which the word easily spread throughout the known world.  But it was a fragile peace, maintained by terror and force.

In Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright begins telling Jesus’ story by going into the background of this world.  As an analogy, he draws upon the story of the fishing boat, Andrea Gail.  If  you read the book or seen the movie, you’ll remember she was lost in the North Atlantic during a storm created by the confluence of three weather systems that created The Perfect Storm.

Wright identifies the making of this first century perfect storm into which Jesus was born involving the confluence of the Roman world (which provided the means for the message to get out), the Jewish world (which was longing for a Messiah and hated the Romans) and the sovereign wind of God blowing into the already troubled world and challenges everyone’s (the Romans and the Jews) assumptions.[1]

When we invite God into our midst, we need to be careful.  We need to be ready to have things shaken up.  And that’s what happened when God came to us as a child born in Bethlehem.  Today, I want us to once again go back to that world without Jesus and imagine what life was like in Israel.  My passage today is from the Book of Isaiah, the 64th chapter, in which the prophet cries out for God to intervene.  Would we be so brave?  Read Isaiah 64:

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Although Isaiah was centuries before the birth of Jesus, it was already a similar world.  Israel was a small nation, a pawn on an international scene dominated by foreign armies.  It started with the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, Babylonians and would continue on with the Persians, Greeks and finally the Romans.  This world of power was spinning around Israel.  God’s people were dizzy and felt lost and abandoned so that the prophet cries out to God to tear open the heavens and come down.

This is a cry of lament!  Isaiah knows God is near; he’s a devoted worshiper of the Almighty.  He and all Israel know God is not locked up in the heavens, beyond their grasp.  God exists! God listens to their complaints.  Tearing open the heavens is metaphorical language.  God is present!  It’s just that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything.  Israel would like to see some tangible evidence, a reminder, something to boost their faithfulness.  Therefore they call on God to reveal himself in a manner that his presence will be unmistakable: in an earthquake or fire or lightning.  They want God to reveal himself as in the days of old.  Isaiah cries for God to give his contemporaries who feels abandoned an example of his power like God did for Pharaoh. What they’d really like God to do is show up and scares the pants off their enemies.

You know, Isaiah’s request is a familiar one.  We’d all like to witness such power. I’ve been told many times by individuals that if they just had a sign, if they just had more tangible evidence, it’d make all the difference in their lives.  But does it?  After all, the Hebrew children in the wilderness had witnessed God’s power and all its fury with the plagues and the parting of the sea, yet they still continued to turn from God.  The disciples witnessed Jesus’ miracles, yet they still denied him.

There’s just something about us wanting God to step into history and to solve our problems, right here, right now.  We want God to be on our side; we want God to do our bidding; we want to choose God for our team as if we’re in some pick-up basketball game, forgetting that we don’t choose God. God chooses us!  Instead of us trying to lure God over to our team, we should make sure that we’re on his team.

This prayer, or lament, of Isaiah’s can be divided into three parts and if we separate them, we can better understand the prophet’s theology.  The first five verses ask God to act because God has acted in the past. Isaiah knows what God has done for the Hebrew people, they know what God is capable of doing; therefore he bases his request on God’s past history. Asking God to come down is an appeal for God to act in the world—to enter human history on behalf of his people.

You may be in the situation of Isaiah, knowing God but only in the past tense, thinking that God’s action stop with Jesus or the Apostles or maybe with your baptism or confirmation. If so, I invite you to join in Isaiah’s lament and cry out for God to make himself known to us once again.  God is the only one capable of meeting our innermost longings. We cry out to the Almighty, who already knows our needs.  Our cries led us to reevaluate our lives and how we relate to God. This is what happens to Isaiah.

Isaiah, after recalling God’s past grace, reflects on his and his people’s sinfulness. The second part of the petition involves confession. In verses five through seven, Isaiah admits the problems from which they need deliverance are result of their disobedience.[2] They have sinned; they are guilty; they need God to pull them out of the deep and troubling water.

Here again we often find ourselves in the situation of Isaiah.  At such times, we should ask ourselves what we have done to cause God to seem so far away.  Do we turn our backs on our Savior?  Is the problem with us?  Probably so, and we need to confess those sins which drive us away from God’s holiness.  We need to root out our indifferences toward God that cause Him to seem so distant.

The third part of this lament affirms their trust in God while continuing to plea for God’s help.  In a fashion reminiscence of Moses, who shamed God when the Lord wanted to destroy the people after the fashioning of the golden calf, Isaiah reminds God that the Israelites are his people.[3]  “God,” he says, “those destroyed cities are your cities; that ruined temple is your temple.”  God has big shoulders and Isaiah brings his petition before God, dropping his concerns on the Almighty.  Then he waits.  There is nothing more to do but to carry on as we wait for God’s answer.  We wait, trusting in the Lord.

In the fourth verse of this chapter, we are reminded that God’s works for those who wait.  And when we think about it, much of scripture is about God’s people waiting on God to act.  Abraham and Sarah waiting for a child; the Hebrew slaves waiting in bondage; those exiled in Babylon waiting for release; the waiting for the Messiah.  And now it’s our turn to wait for Christ’s return.  At times, at least within the measurement of human history, it seems as if God is slow to act.  Yet, in the meantime, we are to wait faithfully.  Our willingness to wait reflects our trust in the Almighty.

But our culture does not place much value on waiting.  We want things immediately—we desire instant gratification!  Fast food and faster computers, interstate highways and supersonic jets.  Instead of mailing a letter, we zip ‘em off by email, or we shoot a text and expect an almost immediate response.  We don’t make time nor do we have time to wait.  This is even true in religion for we want immediate salvation.  We want to accept Christ and all-of-a-sudden have everything better.  We want to have our spiritual longings filled, immediately!  But it doesn’t work that way.  There is truth in the old cliché, “Anything worthwhile takes time.”

About ten years ago, there was an editorial in Christianity Today about the prevalent culture of cheating.  The author pointed to book by David Callahan titled, The Cheating Culture; Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.  According to the author of this book, cheating had increased greatly in the final decade of the 20th century.  One study cited found 90% of college graduates saying they’d cheat to get the job they wanted.  The editorial went on to extend Callahan’s thoughts to the spiritual realm and suggested that we cheat even there and that much of evangelical Christianity stands guilty.  “We read one-minute Bibles, pray through five-minute devotions, wander from one conference to another to get five keys to Spiritual success,” he writes.  “We except Spiritual maturity in 40 days of purpose-filled studies…  One of the lies of the world is that we can have instant discipleship….  We think we’re tourist, after instant gratification, forgetting we’re pilgrims in for the long haul to our new heavenly home.”[4]

We’ve just finished four weeks of Advent in which there was a lot of talk about waiting…  During these weeks, we were reminded of the centuries God’s people waiting for the Messiah, even as we wait for his return.  God, through the Psalmist, encourages us to be still (or, we might say, to wait) and know that He is God.[5]   At times, waiting may be our only real option.  We can barge ahead without God and screw everything up, or we can patiently wait for God’s direction.

You know, the ironic thing about this passage is that even while Isaiah calls upon God to come down from the heavens and make himself known, God was there.  God was present.  At the beginning of Chapter 65, God replies: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’ to a nation that did not call my name.”  God was present, but Isaiah’s contemporaries were unwilling to seek Him out.  God was working to get Israel out of exile and back to the Promised Land.  God was already forging a new relationship with his people, one that would in time cumulate with the birth of a Savior.

God was present then, amidst the chaos of the world, just as God is present now in a world that is seemingly just as chaotic.  At times, from our point of view, we might not know where God is, but when we look back on where we’ve been, we often realize God has been with us, guiding us along, working through us to bring about his purposes.

Let me clarify one point as we close.  I don’t want you to go away thinking that our waiting on God means no action on our part.  Isaiah wasn’t inactive.  He was proactive, taking his concerns to God and admitting his and his people’s shortcomings and in so doing, opening himself up for God to reveal himself as we see happening in the 65th chapter of Isaiah.

Craig Barnes, who is now the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, says in one of his earlier books, Sacred Thirst, that the point of hope (and I’d say that same applies to waiting) is not just to hold on, it’s to be free so we can seek holiness where we find ourselves.[6]  And isn’t that what Isaiah does?  Externally, his situation doesn’t change, even after God replies in the next chapter. But he’s changed.  He’s changed because having called upon God and reflected upon his sinfulness, he’s now open to encounter God and to know God’s presence.  Knowing God’s presence is ultimately all that matters, for when God is with us, we can undergo any obstacles and face any challenges.  Amen.

 

©2014

[1] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus” A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 13-56.

[2] It is interesting that Isaiah began by blaming God (we sinned because you away-verse 5).  But the tone changes as he takes responsibility (you have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity-verse 7).

[3] Exodus 32:11-14. See also Numbers 14:13-17.

[4] “Spiritual Shortcuts,” Christianity Today (January 2005), 27.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] M. Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 175.


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