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Isaiah 64:1-9

This is the first Sunday of the new Christian year. In Advent we begin to look forward to the coming of our Lord at Christmas. Our minds turn to images of the baby Jesus, the stable, and shepherds; a very humble arrival, and one influenced very heavily by the Gospel of Luke. However, today’s readings, especially the Isaiah reading and the Gospel (Mark 13:24-37), point in another direction, one dominated by apocalyptic images of a dramatic coming with cosmic disturbance. The Christmas story that we often recall with its focus on what is least expected, what appears weak, and what is full of gentleness and love, is an important part of the Christmas message but it is by no means the whole of it. The four Gospels each tell the story of the coming of Jesus into our world in a different way. Each has something to say to us. The same can be said for the readings in Advent. We are prepared for Christmas in more ways than one. Advent invites a re-examination of our expectations of the Christmas story and the readings set serve to call us to reflect again on this significance event.

Isaiah 64:1-9 needs to be read in the context of Isaiah 63:7-64:12. This is part of what is commonly called Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). This section of the Book of Isaiah is associated with the literature of the return from Exile. Isaiah 40-55 is attributed to a prophet who lived in exile in Babylon with other Judeans, and who saw the end of that dreadful experience in the near future. He tried to encourage others to get ready for a ‘new exodus’ back to their beloved Jerusalem. His hopes were high. We will read his introductory passage (Isa 40:1-11) next week. However, these high hopes of return were never fully realised. There was the difficulty of a long journey, the challenges of rebuilding homes and lives, as well as opposition from other groups, both Israelite and foreign. And all of this was under the oversight of the imperial rule of the Persians. There may even have been other hardships such as drought with which to cope (cf. Hag 1:5-6). Our reading today, part of a lament from the time of return, reminds us that our most treasured hopes, those founded even upon the word of God, can be reshaped in the very process of fulfilment, and this even beyond the failure of any false expectations we might attach to genuine hopes.

The prayer for the coming of the Lord in Isa 64:1-3 speaks in terms of terrifying judgment – God is like a fire that kindles dry brushwood and boils water. The coming of the Lord will not be without serious and possibly devastating effect, for the Lord’s adversaries (64:2) as well as those faithful people (64:5-6). The language is reminiscent of other earlier theophanies of the Lord (Exod 19:16-18; Judg 5:4-5; Hab 3:3-15). Compare also the note of judgment in the Gospel last week (Matt 25:31-46, Reign of Christ, Year A). The coming of the Lord brings with it not only hope but judgment on all that denies the life that God seeks for creation. This may sound harsh, but the establishment of all that enhances life for all calls for the removal of all that denies that life.

The prophet begins his lament by recounting the Lord’s past action and hesed ‘loyalty’ (Isa 63:7-10). In earlier times the Lord redeemed the people even though they rebelled further and became enemies. In 63:15-19 the prophet calls for the Lord to look down from heaven, and turn back – for the sake of the ‘servants’ or tribes, the holy people. The prophet attributes the hard times the people face to the absence of the Lord. He pleads for the Lord not to be angry forever (64:8-9). Israel’s faith, in spite of the circumstances and in spite of their sin, nevertheless endures, but so does their sin. They are like the leaves, which fade and are blown away (cf. Isa 40:7-8). The fulfilment of their hopes is dependent solely on the Lord, who alone can reshape the people (64:8).

Finally, the passage also alludes to the law of the Lord by stressing that the people have gladly done what is right and remembered the Lord’s ways, i.e. followed the laws, (64:5). The connection back to the story of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law, is reinforced by calling the Lord to come down from the heavens making the mountains quake and bringing fire. In spite of the people’s glad action and desire, they have transgressed. All they can do is wait (i.e. hope; 64:4) and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord. The reference to God as ‘father’ (63:16; 64:8) touches on the intimacy of their relationship with the Lord and their dependence on the Lord. The use of the term ‘father’ for God is rare in the Old Testament. It may well have grown out of a covenant context. Its use increases in frequency in later post-exilic writings, such as we read today. In the Hellenistic era it developed in Judaism and later found a solid place in Christianity.

In the context of Advent, today’s passage reminds us of a number of things about hope in the Christian faith. First, it is grounded solely on the Lord’s mercy and grace. Even our best efforts of discipleship, of ‘doing right’ and ‘remembering the Lord’s ways’, will still leave us fading through our own limitations and blown by the wind. Our very best efforts will only serve to remind both God and ourselves that we are sinners. Secondly, we are in constant need of being remoulded or reworked by the one who is our ‘potter’, whose work we are. Thirdly, our hope even if solidly founded and worked out on God’s word, is never ours to claim and hold against the Lord. The Lord we follow, upon whom we call, and whom we await, is always the one who does deeds ‘we do not expect’ (v. 3).

And so we begin to prepare for Christmas and await the one who comes to us. We pray constantly for him to ‘tear open the heavens and come down’ into our world which, in its pain and hurt, forever needs the touch of heaven. But we know also that the one who will/does come will not do so simply at our call and in accord with our demands. His coming will be like a flaming fire, that kindles and boils, reshaping our lives and world into a ‘holy place’ (cf. 64:10-12) according to God’s mercy and love. Above all, his coming will not be what we expect, or have experienced, or can perceive (64:4). If our readings from Advent teach us one thing about waiting for the coming of the Lord, it is that such coming will be ever a surprise, ever new, ever unexpected. Advent readings teach us to look beyond even our own hopes. What newness in life, what new experience in faith, what new understanding, awaits us as we turn our minds and hearts to the coming of our Lord again this year?

Psalm 80

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