Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Sunday, we gathered here at St. Paul to observe the beginning of the season of Advent. With Advent, we begin a new Church year. God was present with us that day to dispense His gifts to us, as He always faithfully does—not just at the start of new Church years or big festival days, but throughout the year. Every day. Every hour. Every fleeting moment.
As we do each Advent, we prepare ourselves. We do this not just for the celebration of the festival of the holy incarnation—the coming of Jesus on that first Christmas Day. We also prepare ourselves for the glorious and triumphant return of Jesus as victorious king, as He has promised, on the Last Day.
In last Sunday’s Holy Gospel, we heard the account of our Lord’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. It is with this lesson that the Church begins the new year. We find ourselves in an age where we are waiting in expectation and hope, living in the tension between our Lord’s first coming and His second coming at the end of time. We wait and live by faith, not by sight.
Yet, in spite of not seeing our Lord and Savior in an easy, obvious way, our faith is continually nourished and made certain by the promises He has attached to His Word and Sacraments. As we receive these gifts, we remember our Lord Jesus, who entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday as God’s plan of salvation unfolded. Jesus rode into the jaws of evil in order to remove our unrighteousness through His atoning death and resurrection.
The faithful who came before us in the days of the prophet Isaiah also lived by faith. They were still waiting for the first appearance of the Lord’s Messiah. Their faithfulness is praised in the Book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Hebrews also tells us: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2a).
The words of God spoken to the Lord’s Church through the prophets continue to be spoken to us in the inspired words of scripture they recorded for us. They speak to us about the Son of God. They are words that are every bit as pregnant with the fullness of Christ as was Mary, His virgin mother.
In the lesson we heard tonight from Isaiah 64, the prophet gives us an inspired prayer. It is a prayer which expresses the longings of God’s people during the disastrous years when the Babylonian armies conquered Judah. They destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and many who were not slaughtered in the siege were taken away to Babylon.
But this prayer is not limited to those dark days, nor is it a prayer that lacks hope. It is also the prayer of the Church of all times—whenever she is surrounded by God’s enemies and all appears hopeless. But what is a prayer, if not an expression of hope? It’s a trust that the one to whom it is spoken is not only is real and can hear it, but also has the power and the inclination to do something to address the needs and wants that are expressed.
In this, the prayer of Isaiah is also our prayer. With him,
We Pray as We Await Our Lord and Live by Faith.
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” we hear in verse 1. To rend means to tear or break open, so Isaiah is asking that God split heaven wide open and show Himself to His people on earth. An unbeliever cannot say such a prayer, for he does not think God exists. Nor can anyone who does not believe and trust in a creator God. Nor can anyone who might admit that there is a God who created, but think that God now simply stands far off, admiring His work but not getting involved in the needs of His creation.
But God who created the world by the power of his spoken Word has not left us on our own while he watches, dispassionately detached, from a distance. In difficult times, it may certainly seem to us that God has forgotten us. But that’s never true. He may simply not be giving us the answer we want, according to the calendar and schedule we want. Nevertheless, in faith we continue to pray, and wait, and pray some more.
We pray Isaiah’s advent prayer, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” and rescue us from our enemies. It is a prayer of longing for God’s presence among us. The first three verses of this prayer all end with a similar refrain. “That the mountains might quake at your presence” (v 1). Then: “To make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (v 2). And finally, “The mountains quaked at your presence” (v 3).
It is a frightening thing to ask almighty God to come down in judgment, is it not? If even the mountains—things that have no feelings and cannot fear anything—quake and melt, how much worse will it be for sinners? Thus the Book of Hebrews rightly explains, “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).
Nevertheless, we pray these words because the Scriptures give us these words to pray, knowing full well the consequence. What a vivid picture Isaiah gives us. In Texas in the past few years, we have seen wildfires so hot that dry bushes simply explode in flames. And, when fire heats water enough, it turns to vapor and vanishes into the air, too.
That’s how it will be with those things which oppress us in this world—our sins, the problems and hatred we receive from others, and all the temptations of devil, world, and ourselves. It would be great if they would simply go away like a mist, and leave us in peace. God has done this in the past with Pharaoh at the Red Sea, at Mount Sinai, at Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, and throughout Israel’s history.
But we don’t need to pray for the destruction of our enemies, nor should we. Instead, we are called to pray for them, so that God might reach them, too, with His word, and bring them to faith. We pray to God, Come down “to make your name known to your adversaries” and cause the nations to “tremble at your presence!” (v 2). Where the Lord’s name is, there He is, too. In His presence, even great, strong, high, solid mountains tremble. The Hebrew word Isaiah uses for tremble there literally means “to flow.”
So, picture a rock turning to liquid and flowing away, like lava. This describes how the consuming fire and powerful presence of God will change the rock-hard hearts of the ungodly. Smugness and arrogance will simply melt into fear. This is the way of God’s judgment, the way of the Law. So, our prayer is that God would save us from our enemies, but also that all nations, including ours, will repent and call on the name of the Lord for forgiveness.
It is often said, “Be careful what you pray for.” That’s very good advice, because sometimes we’ll ask for the wrong things, and sometimes God will allow those wrong things to come to us, just to show us how it wasn’t so good to have the things that aren’t part of His desires for us.
It is an even more dangerous thing to ask God to come down in judgment on all nations, for He will judge us too. We are sinners, every bit as much as anyone else. In fact, though it shouldn’t be so, sometimes Christians are bigger sinners than unbelievers. So, the focus of Isaiah’s prayer turns from Israel’s enemies to the Church herself, to the enemy within us. As God’s people come into the Lord’s presence, their sins are made manifest, and prayer becomes a confession of sin and plea for forgiveness.
So we pray with Isaiah and Israel:
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.
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. (vv 5–6)
Israel’s prayer though Isaiah is our prayer, too. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down; the mountains quaked at your presence.” “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (vv 3, 1). And an awesome thing, something we would never have expected, has happened, indeed. At the birth of Jesus, the heavens were literally rent open. The glory of the Lord ripped open the heavens as angels appeared in the presence of the shepherds.
Yet, the shepherds did not melt away like molten rock, but instead were told by the angel, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).
The manner in which God came down was wonderfully unexpected. Who would have thought that God Himself would come to the world, clothed in the flesh of a baby? Yet through the miracle of the incarnation, this Child, true God and true man, came to bring salvation and peace to all people.
At Jesus’ birth, the Lord’s heavenly army of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). And so, when the Church gathers in the Lord’s presence to worship, she sings the Gloria in Excelsis, a hymn of peace that first sounded forth when the skies over Bethlehem were torn open.
However, during the season of Advent—except when one of its pastors makes a mistake at the 8:15 service—the Church does not sing the Gloria. We wait until Christmas. That’s to represent the waiting for the coming presence of Christ. In a very real sense, we are waiting just like those in the Old Testament. Even though we live after the birth of Christ, we unite ourselves with them for a little while as we contemplate God’s promises and fulfillment. We pray with those who went before us, using words similar to theirs. We continue to live and wait and pray by faith, not by sight. Since the Lord’s ascension, we live in a time of hearing, not seeing. But that’s OK, because faith comes through our hearing of the Word of God, not by the obvious. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus told Thomas (John 20:29).
We might not see it, but we hear what they heard. We listen to God’s Word from the prophet Isaiah. The prayer for deliverance from God’s enemies and for forgiveness of sins is our prayer, too. Despite all of our righteousness being as filthy rags, we pray with them the great “nevertheless” of the Gospel. “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” (vv 8–9). We dare ask God to look upon us as His people, His children.
So Israel’s prayer is our prayer. Israel’s waiting is our waiting. Israel’s faith is our faith. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.” Did God answer Isaiah’s prayer? Yes. Babylon was eventually destroyed by her enemies. Her great walls and palaces were burned up.
The Lord later brought back to the Promised Land a small group of exile survivors to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. That was one, temporary answer to their prayer for deliverance from their enemies. But the full answer to this prayer took place many years later, when blood and water flowed from the Eternal Rock, Jesus Christ. (John 19:34; Isaiah 26:4). The moment Jesus gave up his spirit, the heavens were rent, and the mountains quaked. Matthew tells us, “The curtain if the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened” (Mt 27:51–52).
The first wait was over; the separation of God and man was ended. So, wait patiently in prayer and readiness, for He has promised to return once again, to gather all the faithful to Himself.
In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.