01 December 2014

Sermon – “O that you would rend the heavens” (Isaiah 64:1-9)

What this country needs, what the church needs, is a restoration of the vision of the Most High God… The honor of God has been lost to men. And the God of today’s Christianity is a weakling. He is a little, cheap palsied “god” that you can pal around with. He’s the “Man upstairs”. He’s the fellow that will help you in difficulty and not bother you too much when you’re not.[1]
Those are the words of the great Chicago preacher, A.W. Tozer. I believe they are truer today when he first spoke them to his congregation two or three generations ago. The “god” that Tozer describes is certainly not the God of the prophet Isaiah, from whom we will be reading throughout the four Sundays of this season of Advent. But first we need to say a little bit about Isaiah himself.

In fact Isaiah reveals very few details about his personal life. His name means, “The Lord is salvation”. He tells us in the opening verse of his prophecy that his father was called Amoz and that his ministry extended from the end of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah into the reign of Hezekiah, which adds up to a period of about forty years. Although we don’t know his wife’s name, we do know that he was married and that they had two sons, who bore two of the most unwieldy names in all of Scripture: Shearjashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

According to tradition, Isaiah was of noble blood. There is also a tradition that he was martyred by order of the evil king Manasseh, by being sawn asunder. Thus when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes of saints of the past who were sawn in two, this may just be a reference to a tradition about Isaiah.

Far more important than any of these details is the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy sprang out of a profound experience of the presence of God. There is hardly a more arresting passage in all the Bible than Isaiah’s description of God’s call to him as he worshiped in the Temple: the hem of God’s garment filling the whole of that vast structure, the flying seraphim each with their six wings crying aloud, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” and the prophet himself falling on his face and protesting, “Woe is me! I am lost… for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

The Lord

It is this astounding vision of God that permeates and dominates the whole sixty-six chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy, not least the chapter that we have before us this morning. The nine verses that we have read fall in fact towards the end of a longer poem, which begins in verse 7 of the previous chapter. There, Isaiah begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord…” He takes his listeners back to the time when the Lord revealed himself to his people on Mount Sinai. There, Isaiah tells us, “he became their Savior”. He did not send an angel to rescue them but led them himself.

The sad truth was, however, that the people quickly forgot about what the Lord had done for them. Their life-changing experience had faded to less than a dim shadow their memory. And what had been true of the nation of Israel in Moses’ time continued to be true in Isaiah’s time as well. For them God was like an absentee landlord, little more than a vague concept. As chapter 63 draws to a close, Isaiah laments, “We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.”

So it is that as our passage opens this morning Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” We find that verb which our Bibles translate “tear open” numerous times in the Old Testament. In most instances it has to do with people tearing apart their garments much like the Incredible Hulk does as he rips off his shirt. In those days, however, it was a sign of deep sorrow, of repentance and mourning. People would tear off what they were wearing and then clothe themselves in sackcloth. In the same way, Isaiah begs the Lord to tear apart the heavens, to rip open the clouds and to be undeniably, unmistakably present with his people as he had been in the days of Sinai. “That the mountains would quake at your presence…, that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Isaiah’s dream, Isaiah’s fervent desire, was that God should reveal himself to his people with power as he had done with Moses at Mount Sinai. The words that Moses had heard that day were these: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6,7).

The God whom Isaiah worshiped and served was not only infinitely powerful. He is also holy: and therein lies the problem. He would not countenance the people’s sins. He would not tolerate their waywardness and rebellion, their apathy towards him on the one hand and their indifference towards their own sins on the other. Isaiah’s words for his people (and note how he includes himself: it is always “we” not “they”) are devastating. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” In fact, Isaiah’s term in the original Hebrew is considerably coarser than our English translations render it. It should really be a menstrual rag.

Our Father

Yet fortunately there is more to Isaiah’s message—and to Isaiah’s God—than that. We see in verse 8 that God who is the almighty and holy Lord is also our Father. To speak of God as Father is simply a given for us. Yet in the Old Testament it is a rarity. Psalm 68:5 speaks of God as the father of orphans. Yet that is more in the sense of a protector, a guardian. In the messianic Psalm 89, the coming king cries out, “You are my Father…” Aside from that there are a half dozen other references, but most of them are accounts of Israel’s failure to honor God as Father at all.

We have to wait for Jesus in the New Testament for God fully to be revealed as Father. There we find Jesus teaching his followers to address God not just as Father, but as Abba, “our Father”, “Papa”. It is a term of intimacy used only by family members. Against the background of the Old Testament you can see why all the religious people of his day, Pharisees and Sadducees alike, were shocked. To address the thrice-holy God in such a familiar manner was effrontery. Worse than that, it was blasphemy.

Yet we have the kernel of it here in Isaiah—not only here in verse 8, but twice in the preceding chapter as well. “For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father; our Redeemer from of old is your name.” So it is that God comes to us not only as the mighty Lord, who causes the mountains to tremble, he comes to us also as a Father—our Father—in tenderness and compassion. “As a father has compassion for his children,” we read in another of those rare references in the Old Testament, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).

Once again, it is Jesus who gives us the fullest picture of that, in the parable of the prodigal son. There the father patiently, expectantly, waits for his wayward son to return home. And when the son finally appears, the father’s legs cannot carry him down the road quickly enough to meet him. He wraps his arms around him, places a robe on his shoulders and a ring on his finger and brings him home again to celebrate. 

The Potter

We have only to move on a few words to find a third image that Isaiah gives us of God: the potter. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah is not the only prophet to use the image of the potter. You will find it in Jeremiah also. There, Jeremiah goes into the potter’s workshop and watches him as he works at his wheel. As he deftly moves his hands a vessel—a jug or a bowl—begins to take shape. But then something goes wrong and the potter reworks the soft, pliable clay into something entirely different. “Then,” Jeremiah says, “the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. ‘Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’ ”

Jeremiah’s emphasis was on the sovereign power of God to do as he wills with his creatures. Isaiah, however, uses the same imagery to underscore something quite different. I believe he is taking us back to the opening chapters of Genesis where God takes the dust of the earth (the word can mean literally a clod of clay) and molds it into a human being—Adam. And that lump of clay bears his image. Isaiah’s picture is of the care and the love that a potter or any artisan puts into each of his artifacts—to the point, I would want to add, where he etches his mark into the bottom of it so that it is identifiable as his work. We have a Creator who cares infinitely for each of his creatures, who has imprinted his own image into us, whose only desire is for our good.

So today, as we read Isaiah’s prophecy through the lens of the gospel, what do we see? That the day would come when the Potter would himself become the clay of his own making, to take on our form and flesh and become one of us. The day would come when the Father would run down to the road to draw his erring children back to himself. The day would come when the earth would indeed shudder. But this time it would not be the heavens that were rent apart, but the curtain of the Temple, as the Son of God cried aloud, “Why have you abandoned me?” Praise God that he has not abandoned us. Praise God that he has not remembered our iniquity forever. We are his people, bought with the blood of his Son.

[1]     Fellowship of the Burning Heart, 28

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