1st Sunday of Advent November 29, 2020 Isaiah 64:1-9
by Dr. John Holbert on Sunday, November 29, 2020
1st Sunday of Advent November 29, 2020 Isaiah 64:1-9
It is once again Advent, that season of expectation and anxious waiting for the birth of Jesus, for Christians the long-hoped-for Messiah of the nations. Of course, for the merchants of the world, Advent is right in the middle of the most important shopping days of the whole year. I write this on Nov.11, and in my few forays into the world of commerce during these pandemic days, plastic trees are already up and Christmas music is pouring from speakers, as it has for several weeks. It is painful to hear “Rock Around the Christmas Tree” two weeks before Halloween. Still, I am not naïve; especially in this terrible year of 2020; huge sales simply must be made if many stores are to have any hope of survival, let alone turn a profit. In this COVID time, Isaiah’s rather tentative hope seems particularly appropriate.
The text of the day comes from that grab bag of texts we name III-Isaiah, to differentiate Is.56-66 from the well-delineated II-Isaiah (40-55) and the earlier I-Isaiah (1-39, though various chapters of this section have been traditionally assigned to later authors—e.g. Is.24-27). We have no final answer to the question of when these later texts were composed, but certainly it must have been well after the exile of Judah that ended in 539BCE. Thus, the historical context of the writing is hardly certain at all, since some Judeans returned to Jerusalem following the exile, while others remained in Babylon and Egypt, forming large and flourishing Judean communities in both places. As a result of these uncertainties, we must read the text without being aware of any particular history that may have spawned it. Whoever did write it, we may conclude, faced a time not so different from our own. We have just endured a long and painful election season in US America, and though a clear winner has emerged, the losing candidate has yet to accept his defeat, and so our nation still waits for a new leadership, and is anxious for that leadership to begin its work. In similar fashion, the author of Is.64 begs for the coming of God in order to set the world right again. From the writer’s own words we may imply how that world is understood and just why God’s coming is so urgent, yet remains so fearfully unlikely.
The author begins his desperate cry for God to come down with a most interesting tiny word. That word is in Hebrew lu’. NRSV translates the word “O that you would,” but that is usually a different construction in Hebrew. This word at the beginning of a clause implies to the contrary a case that has not been, or is not likely to be, realized. Thus there is here an exploratory hopefulness, not a full-throated demand for God to show up. “I really do hope that you will come, God, but I am fearful that you will not,” might be a good paraphrase. This is so, even though the language of the cry is delightfully colorful. The poet asks God to “tear open the skies and come down so that mountains might tremble before you, just like a fire kindling brush, a fire boiling water” (Is.64:1-2). God’s coming is envisioned to be cataclysmic, with the skies ripped apart while the power of fires ignite brush and cause vast waters to boil. The author here recalls the language of the Psalms where the manifestation of God inevitably is portrayed as “causing oaks to whirl” (Ps.29) or witnessing “the earth reeling and rocking, and the foundations of the mountains trembling” (Ps.18). The poet reaches deep into the religious language of former poets to express a hope for God’s appearance just as God had appeared in the ancient past of the people.
Of course, what the author wants from this possible repeat performance of God is made more clear in the next lines. You must come God, “to narrate your name to your enemies so that the nations might tremble (the same word from vs.1) before your face” (Is.64:2). It is obvious that the poet faces terrible forces that cannot readily be overcome, and must have the presence and power of God to survive and thrive. Vs.3 reminds us and God of past divine appearances that resulted in “awesome deeds, unexpected” when the mountains trembled (that word again!) before you” (Is.64:3).
The poet continues to try to explain why God is not coming as God came in the past. “You were angry; we sinned. You hid yourself. We have all become as one unclean, and all our (so-called) righteous deeds are like filthy rags” (Is.64:5-6). As we often read in the Psalms, God hides the divine face from the sinning nation and simply will not come to help. This is so, because, “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to grasp you” (Is.64:7). Yet, the author begs, “You, YHWH, are our father; we are clay, and you are our potter (see Jeremiah 18); we are all the work of your hand” (Is.64:8). The poet here attempts to coerce God’s coming by reminding God that the poet knows very well who God is and what God has done in the past for Israel. Yet, the poet’s sin and transgressions weigh heavy and are the reasons why God has not come to help.
Here is our modern Christian dilemma laid out well. We call for God to come, but fear that God will not come because we are not worthy of God’s coming due to our continuous worthless actions and words. We are in effect like those who voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, making them our new leaders, but we witness the absence of clarity in the outcome because Donald Trump will not move out of the way for the new leadership to begin. We wait, anxiously, for what we hope is a new day, but we are fearful that the stain of the old day will not so easily be expunged. In short, we find ourselves in a kind of Advent, awaiting the new day of God, but fearing that that new day will once again not be so new, but instead a reiteration of the same old and tired days we have always had. Like Isaiah we hope, but tentatively, we yearn, but fearfully, we long, but with trepidation. Like Isaiah, we anticipate the coming of Messiah, hoping against hope that his coming will at last make the world new again, a place of justice for all God’s people.