Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

The First Sunday in Advent (November 30, 2008)
“Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down” (Isaiah 64:1-9)

“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!” The people of the northern kingdom of Israel have been taken captive and taken off into exile in far off lands. Now, invading armies are marching toward the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem will eventually fall. Thousands will be taken captive and shipped off to Babylon. The prophet Isaiah cries out for deliverance: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down! Come down from heaven, O Lord! Tear open the curtain of the skies and come to your people to save them!”

Why did God allow all of this to come upon His people? Isaiah makes it clear in the latter part of today’s reading: “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.” Their hearts had grown hard towards God. Their sin without repentance caused God to be angry. Their sin was defiling, like a leper who is forced to live outside the camp as an outcast. Their sin was destructive, like a leaf which is swept away and rots when it no longer is attached to the branch which gave it nourishment. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, for a holy God cannot put up with unholiness.

But Isaiah cries out, “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.” In spite of the sin of the people of Israel, God still graciously acted. There were many times before when he had “[rent] the heavens and [came] down.” God came down to Noah and told him to build an ark and saved him and his family through the flood. God came down to Abraham and Sarah and gave them a child even though they were well past childbearing years. God came down and caused Joseph to become a ruler in Egypt so that when the famine in Palestine was severe, his father Jacob and his brothers traveled to Egypt and were saved. Then, after years of slavery, God came down and spoke to Moses in a burning bush, calling him to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt. With the chariots of the Egyptian army breathing down their neck, God came down and drew aside the waters of the Red Sea so the people could walk through on dry land. God came down and led the people through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God came down and gave Moses his holy law on Mt. Sinai. And the mountain quaked at his presence.

Many times before the Lord had torn heaven open and come down and acted on behalf of his people. Now, Isaiah’s cry once more is for God to be the Redeemer that he has always been for his people. Isaiah speaks on behalf of those who already are captive or soon will be, saying, “We are in captivity! We are in exile! We are in danger! We are sinful! We need a Redeemer!”

And all they could do was wait. As the prophet said, “From of old ... no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” All other gods are made of stone or metal. All other gods are inventions of man’s imagination. But the Lord Almighty – Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – he has acted. He acts for those who wait for him. He keeps his promises. His Word is true. Even though it seems as if things are hopeless, God promises to act.

This is what Advent is all about. Waiting. Expectation. Looking forward to God keeping his promises.

Are you waiting for God right now? Are you waiting for him to do something in your life? To change your circumstances? To heal you? To soothe your weary conscience? Does it seem as though God is absent? Like Isaiah, do you cry out that God has “hidden [His] face from [you]”? Is there a barrier between you and God? Do you find it difficult to pray? Does it seem like your relationship with him is not as it should be? Are you “held captive” to sin in your life?

Wait no more. God has already acted on your behalf. God rent the heavens and came down when the Son of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

The birth of Jesus Christ was no ordinary birth. It had cosmic significance. Just before our text, Isaiah calls God our “Redeemer from of old.” Jesus Christ is our “Redeemer from of old.” The events in the lives of the people of Israel, the sacrifices and the temple worship, all were foreshadowings of the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of mankind. The plan of salvation in Christ was decided upon even before the world was created. In His wonderful love for us, God “chose us [in Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him,” Paul wrote in Ephesians (1:4). And in Revelation 13, Jesus is called “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” (13:8 NIV)

To human eyes, Jesus was only a man. But in reality, he was True God and True Man. To human eyes, Christ’s death was the death of a common criminal. But in reality, his death set us free from our captivity to sin, as the innocent Son of God died in our place, bearing our sins in his body on the tree of the cross. Baptized into Christ’s Holy Name and trusting in his death and resurrection, you and I are brought back from the exile we were in when our sins separated us from God, when we were strangers to God’s promises and apart from Christ.

“It is finished,” Jesus said as He died on the cross. He did it all for our salvation. We are “Easter People” ... those who rejoice in the fact that Christ is also our Risen Savior. Yet we still wait as “Advent people.”

We are waiting for the day when once again we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, when God rent the heavens and came down as the Babe of Bethlehem.

We eagerly wait for our Lord’s Advent today, when God rends the heavens and comes down in his Holy Supper, where Christ really and truly comes to us with his body and blood and seals to us the forgiveness of our sins.

We wait for Him, we eagerly trust in him, to act in our lives today in whatever difficult circumstances we may find ourselves.

The comedian Woody Allen is an atheist. In his movie Love and Death, Allen says , “If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.” Of course, that is blasphemy. But isn’t that the way we sometimes think about God, when we look at our day to day life? God doesn’t quite measure up to our own expectations.

Instead, we need to listen to Isaiah’s inspired words today. God has promised to act “for those who wait for Him.” But don’t expect him to act the way you want Him to. Don’t think of him as an underachiever. As Isaiah said before, He acts in ways we do not expect. He does “awesome things that we did not look for.”

Our text from Isaiah ends like this: “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. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” This reminds us to be ready, too, at Christ’s Second Advent. This time, He will “rend the heavens and come down” in Judgment on the Last Day. (And you thought you had heard enough about the Last Day over the last few Sundays! Well, in the season of Advent, we look forward to the Last Day, also.) Nevertheless, we don’t need to be afraid of that day, because Christ is our “Redeemer from of old.” In Christ, God the Father does not remember our iniquity. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:34) The death of our Savior Jesus has saved us from eternal death and the wrath to come on that Last Day.

I did some pottery when I was in college. I also taught a ceramics class when I was a student teacher. I loved getting my hands in the clay, molding it and shaping it as I wanted. I made plenty of mistakes while working on the potter’s wheel, and many a creation had to be mushed together to start over again. But when I got the clay to look exactly as I wanted, I would let it dry out, then fire it in the kiln. After that I would dip it in the liquid glaze mixture, and fire it one more time in the kiln, so that it had a beautiful, decorative surface. Only then was it fit to be proudly displayed as work of art, or to be used as an attractive functional piece to eat out of, drink out of, put flowers in, or whatever.

Our Heavenly Father is also the Master Potter. Unlike me, He never makes mistakes. But like an expert potter, he molds us and shapes us in ways that we do not expect, and forms us into the creations He wants us to be. Like a piece of pottery, we too must be fired in the kiln of heavenly discipline which the Father lovingly dispenses. But when we have gone through those fiery trials in our life, we come out as a beautiful vessel, fit to be displayed as an example of divine craftsmanship, and fit to be useful for God in His Kingdom, as we wait expectantly for our Redeemer from of old to rend the heavens and come down.


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