November 30 2011 Sermon
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! When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. (vv 1–3)
Three days ago, we gathered here in God’s presence on the First Sunday in Advent. With the season of Advent, we begin a new Church Year. And at the same time, we prepare for the celebration of the festival of the holy incarnation—the coming of Christ on that first Christmas Day. In last Sunday’s Holy Gospel, we heard the account of our Lord’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. This is how the Church begins things each year. We stand between our Lord’s first coming and wait for his second coming at the end of time. We wait and live by faith, not by sight. Our faith is nourished and made certain as we remember our Lord Jesus, who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday 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 as they waited for 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). “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 are also spoken to us. They speak to us about the Son of God; indeed, the words they speak are full of Christ himself.
The prophet Isaiah gives us an inspired prayer. It is a prayer of great comfort expressing the longings of God’s people during the disastrous years when the Babylonian armies conquered Israel. They destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and those who were not slaughtered in the siege were taken away in chains to Babylon. But this prayer is not limited to those dark days. It is also the prayer of the Church of all times whenever she is surrounded by God’s enemies and when all appears hopeless. It is also our prayer. With Isaiah,
We Pray as We Await Our Lord and Live by Faith in Love
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (v 1). A deist cannot say such a prayer. 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 seem God has forgotten us. Nevertheless, in faith we pray and wait and pray. 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 end with the same refrain. “That the mountains might quake at your presence” (v 1). “To make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (v 2). “The mountains quaked at your presence” (v 3). It is a frightening thing to ask almighty God to come down in judgment. If even the mountains 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).
Therefore, Advent is a penitential season. While we wait by faith in love for his coming, we repent of our sins and seek his mercy. So that our prayer is, when you come, come to us in love.
Nevertheless, we pray these words knowing full well the consequence. What a vivid picture Isaiah gives us. We have seen wildfires so hot that dry bushes simply explode. When fire heats water, it turns to vapor and vanishes into the air. And so it is with those who oppress us. We want them simply to go away like a mist and leave us in peace. God did 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 merely pray for the destruction of our enemies by fire. We pray, 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 is he. In his presence the mountains tremble. The word Isaiah uses for tremble literally means “to flow.” It is thus a picture of rock turning to liquid and flowing away, and it describes how the presence of God will change the rock-hard hearts of the ungodly. How our Smugness and arrogance melt into fear. Such is the way of God’s judgment, the way of the Law. Our prayer is that this 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.” It is a dangerous thing to ask God to come down in judgment on all nations, for he will judge us too. 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 is our prayer. “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). The unexpected has happened. At the birth of Jesus, the heavens were literally rent. The glory of the Lord ripped open the heavens in the presence of the shepherds. The shepherds did not melt away like molten rock, but 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” (Lk 2:10–11). He came in Love: The manner in which God came down was wonderfully unexpected in that he came down clothed in the flesh of a humble baby boy. Through the miracle of the incarnation, this Child, true God and true man, came to bring salvation and peace to all people. Of this 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!” (Lk 2:14). 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. During the season of Advent, the church does not sing the Gloria. We wait until Christmas Day. In a real sense, we await with the Old Testament Church. It is, of course, true that we live after the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, we pray with and as those who went before us; we live and wait and pray by faith, not by sight. Since the Lord’s ascension, we live in a time of hearing, not seeing. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29). We hear what they heard. We listen to God’s Word from the prophet Isaiah. Their prayer for deliverance from God’s enemies and for forgiveness of sins is our prayer. Despite all of our righteousness being as filthy rags, we pray with them the great “nevertheless” of the Gospel; nevertheless come to us in Love, grace, and mercy: “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 for we are his people, his children. Come to us in Love, not in anger!
Israel’s prayer is our prayer. “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 destroyed by her enemies. Her great walls and palaces were put to flame. The Lord brought a remnant home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. But the full answer to this prayer took place many years later when blood and water flowed from the Eternal Rock (Jn 19:34; Is 26:4). The moment Jesus gave up his spirit, the heavens were rent, and the mountains quaked. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened” (Mt 27:51–52).