[Based on Isaiah 64:1-9]
As we make preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we remember that for ages the church has prayed: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!” It is a prayer for the Ascension in reverse. It is a prayer that the transcendence of God might make itself known in the immanence of God. It is a prayer for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 14: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again . . .!” It is the Advent prayer of Christians during their life-long pilgrimage through the recurring cycle of the Church Year.
Such a petition – for the epiphany of deity – is not unique to Christianity. It was also the plea of ancient Judaism centuries before it became the mantra of the Church. However, in those days it took a slightly different form. In our Old Testament lectionary text for this week we encounter such a petition – replete with mixed motives.
In Isaiah 64 the plea carries with it contradictory reasons for desiring the advent of the divine. At first, the demander’s invitation is wrathful (verses 1-2).
To paraphrase: I wish you would tear away the holy hindrances that keep your Presence from us, and make yourself known – right here, right, now, right in our midst! Come like a fire that disintegrates everything in its pathway. Come like a fire that makes water bubble and boil and become a vanishing vapor. Do this in a manner that makes your adversaries tremble and the nations quake. COME AND GET THEM!
[There is an allusion in verse three to God’s Exodus epiphany on the quaking mountain – the cataclysmic, multi-sensory scene of the Ten Commandments being delivered to Moses.]
But by the end of the lectionary passage, the invitation becomes a merciful plea . . . a remarkable reversal in the demeanor of the demander.
To paraphrase: But despite everything, you are the First Fashioner who has formed us from the dust of the earth. It was by the handiwork of your fingers that we were shaped in accordance with your will. So please don’t be too upset with us, O Divine Creator. And we plead with you not to hold our transgressions against us, all the way into eternity. We humbly beseech you to remember that we are the beloved, the work of your hands. COME AND SAVE US!
In summary, Isaiah’s plea starts out with wanting God to burst into the present as The Vengeful One, but he ends up wanting God to come as The Merciful One who has ceased keeping track of our wrongs, and tempered any long-held hostilities toward us.
In between these two differing reasons for desiring the coming of God, there is a complaint that God has been absent from the scene for far too long (verse 4). This complaint then turns to blame.
To paraphrase: “After all, our sin is due to your being upset with us; and you know that we wouldn’t have gone astray if you hadn’t hid yourself from us” (verse 5b). It actually feels like you’ve concealed your presence from us and in so doing just handed us over to our own propensities for wickedness” (verse 7b). IT”S ALL YOUR FAULT, GOD!
At first they wanted God to appear in their midst and reign down wrath on those who were undeserving of God’s grace. But in retrospect, it occurs to them (and via them, to us) that “all of us are the undeserving.”
So in this Advent season what is the motivation for our seeking the fresh appearance of Christ? – to make sure all those other folk and situations get punished by an A.W.O.L., even-the-score kind of God? – or is it make sure that WE (all of us) get made over afresh, and graced by this God of presence, goodness and benevolence?
It is the latter which is the underscored sentiment again and again and again in Psalm 80:3, 7, and 19. “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
It is the sentiment of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians in chapter 1, verse 8-9. “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
But never ever imagine that you can figure out or pre-determine the time and place of this intervention. All you can do is: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Keep Awake!” (Mark 13:33, 37). Prayerfulness, perceptiveness and unpretentiousness – those are the personal disciplines of preparation we are to nurture throughout this Advent season 2008.