O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. 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. 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. 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. 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. (Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1-8, ESV)
(from a sermon by Rev. Daniel N. Jastram, CPR)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Advent is a time, the season before Christmas when we think about and prepare for the arrival of our Lord, Jesus Christ. God in a manger, gentle animals peering in, shepherds look on in wonder. It’s an important picture in our minds. It’s very important to prepare before we celebrate Jesus becoming a human being. But there is another emphasis that’s brought out by Holy Scripture today. Isaiah’s words about God coming don’t sound so gentle. He paints a picture of mountains crumbling and rivers boiling. In fact, Isaiah is calling upon God to come and destroy all that’s wrong in the world. “Burn up my enemies. Wipe out all the trouble in the world! Get rid of what’s wrong!” In a way he’s saying, “Visit us, and take care of us!”
Now maybe you’ve shouted something like that to God, too. In fact, I think, there are times in our lives when we are more impressed by what feels like God’s absence than His presence. When we run into trouble or hardship we ask the “Where was God?” question. You know; “Where was God, when the Tsunami killed thousands of people? Where was God when the plane crashed? Where was God when I lost my job, or my crops failed? Where was God when I had to move out of my home? Where was God when my husband/wife died of cancer? Where was God when the accident took away my child?” It’s like asking if God is really “there” for us when we need him most. God’s people have felt like this every since Adam and Eve left the garden. King David knew the feeling too! He wrote in Psalm 13, How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? (v1) If you’ve ever been in the hospital, suffered the loss of a loved one, or spent a holiday alone, you know the feeling. You just want to shout out to God and say, “God, visit me, be with me now, and take care of me!”
Those of us sitting around here this morning aren’t the only ones who have this feeling, about wanting God around. In fact, several years ago there was a very popular show on TV, called Joan of Arcadia. It’s was show all about God, and God being among us. I think the opening song written by Joan Osborn covers this idea pretty well.
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
While the show had its theological problems, it emphasizes the human desire to have God at hand, to be able to talk to Him, especially when things aren’t going well; to have God visit us, be with us and take care of us, is a common human feeling.
That’s just what Isaiah is asking God to do. Visit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God would do just that? But, Isaiah quickly backs off the idea. God had already visited them, in fact. The Assyrian army trampled the northern part of the kingdom. And Isaiah prophesied that they would tromp right down to the gates of Jerusalem and flatten the temple too. God was visiting them, their sins brought God’s judgment, and God was visiting them in the Assyrian army. The people of God couldn’t deny that they had fallen into terrible sin. They are a people who continue to sin; who are “unclean”; whose “righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”; who “fade like a leaf”; whose “iniquities, like the wind, take [them] away” (64:6 ESV); among whom “there is no one who calls upon [God’s] name, who rouses himself to take hold of you.” All of their sin brought terrible judgment. Judgment that was visited upon them. That’s not exactly the “stranger on the bus” from Joan Osbourne’s lyrics, is it?
That’s the problem with God coming to be with us. We might want Him to take care of everything that’s wrong with the world. But are we sure that when He comes we won’t be the object of His justice? Are we sure that when He comes He won’t pour out His anger on us? Are we sure that we’re not the problem? And that’s just what Isaiah realized. If God comes, He would destroy them, because of their sin. That’s us too, because of sin, we are what’s wrong with the world. We can’t deny our sinfulness. Well, and we don’t really. We say it here Sunday after Sunday. Our lives are a dreadfully sinful state of affairs. Sin clings to our every thought, word and deed. Even the good stuff we do is polluted by it. We are full of self interest and self serving. We are quick to speak harsh words and quick to be angry. Our first thought when we are asked to help, is “What do I get out of it?”
I love the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” There are times when the cartoonist is so profound in what he says and he hits the nail precisely on the head. One example is when Calvin is talking to his imaginary pet tiger while careening down “Dismemberment Gorge” on a sled. “Christmas is getting near, huh?” the tiger asks. “You got it,” says Calvin. “I’ve been wondering though,” he thoughtfully continues, “Is it truly being good if the only reason I behave is so I can get more loot at Christmas? Is that good enough or do I have to be good in my heart and spirit? Do I really have to be good or do I just have to act good?” The furry Hobbes answers, “I guess in your case, Santa will just have to take what he can get.” “Ok, so exactly how good do you think I have to act? Really good, or just pretty good?” You see, Calvin understands his true human nature. Even when he tries to be good he knows he’s really doing it for selfish reasons. And the reason we like cartoons like that is that they speak to us, just as we know we are.
This Advent, as we look forward (or not) to God visiting us, we remember that the baby in the manger is the same one who will come again in judgment. We have to acknowledge that we stand before God, sinful and unclean.
Ah, but there a “rest of the story” in this waiting, isn’t there? Just like the television asks, just like Isaiah wanted, God has already become one of us. He has already visited us, not bearing his arm in anger, in naked, terrifying power. He came naked, bare and helpless, as a tiny baby. He came to bare his back to the smiters, to bear everything that’s wrong with the world—and everything that’s wrong with us—to the cross.
Isaiah also said it this way,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6, ESV)
God’s people back then held fast to the confidence they had in God. They even called God by his saving name. “You, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.” (63:16 ESV) Isaiah calls God “Redeemer” over and over again in his book. He used that name for God to remind God’s people that God is faithful to His promises, especially His promise to save. Just as He had saved them from slavery in Egypt, He promises to save again.
But that’s not all. Isaiah also calls God, “our Father.” We do it all the time, whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But in those days they didn’t. In fact, it happens only 15 times in the OT scriptures and three of those times are in these few verses. When Isaiah calls God, Father, he’s emphasizing the relationship God’s people have with Him. He’s giving them a basis for their confidence. Because no matter how rich, warm, comforting, and embracing or how shallow, self-serving, faulty, or incomplete our experience of fatherly love from our earthly fathers may have been, it is only a pale, sinful reflection of our heavenly Father’s love. You see, God’s Fatherly love for us is perfect. God’s perfect love for His people is acted out in ways that are always for our benefit. It’s hard for us always to see it that way. Especially when painful things happen and we don’t feel like God is around at all. But that’s not His promise to us. He promises to be right in the midst of even our painful experiences. We can endure those painful times…
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:2-6, ESV)
That’s the confidence we have, that when God visits us it is always in love.
He makes his love personally clear to us in his means of grace. He comes here in his Word and Sacraments. We can have absolute confidence in the good news that He forgives all our sins through Christ’s death on the cross. We can be absolutely assured of that forgiveness through Baptism and the presence of His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. You see, God comes to us right here through these things, too. We have every reason to be confident in the coming of Christ through the forgiveness of sins!
This Advent, we look forward to the coming of Christ, our Savior. That’s because He is God, himself, coming to save us. We are confident in His coming because He came 2000 years ago, the newborn infant, to fulfill God’s promise to save us from sin. And He visits us right now as our means-of-grace Savior, too. His Word encourages and His Sacraments build up our faith. And those troubles that we face, those too are God visiting us in love. He visits that way so that we are drawn closer to Him in our need. Whenever God visits us we can say 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. (Isa 64:8 ESV). Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.