December 8, 2002

Longing For The Lord To Come
Isaiah 63:15-64:8

We had a wonderful time with my brother and his family on Thanksgiving. They drove down from Manchester, New Hampshire, to spend the holidays with my parents and us. One of the reasons that I so much enjoy having my brother visit with us is that, for the first twenty-two years of my marriage, Barry never stepped foot in my house. It is not that we do not get along or anything. We have a very warm relationship, and my brother is an exceptionally likeable person.
Barry, however, is an extremely successful architect, and he also races Porsches for a hobby. Between his job and his hobby, he travels a great deal, travels that never quite landed him in Grantham! With each passing year, I grew increasingly frustrated when he failed to come. While I was always welcomed warmly in his home, I too wanted the opportunity to show him my house and to introduce him to my world. “I wish you would forget about your job and your car racing for just a few days,” I often thought, “and spend a little time with me and my family.” I wanted him to come so badly I could almost taste it—whatever such a visit might taste like!—but I never knew if or when he would come.
So it is with the prophet here in Isaiah 63-64. Disappointed and desperate, he too longs for a visit, not from his brother, but from God. What we read here, then, is one of the Old Testament’s more moving laments. It is a cry that reverberates with remarkable force, a petition that touches every one of our own hearts. Who among us has never cried to God, whether out loud or in the depths of our own souls, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
But what is it that gave rise to this moving request, this desire for a fresh demonstration of God’s power? To begin with, the prophet appears distraught over the condition of the wider world around him, a world that seems bent on doing the opposite of what God desires (63:18; 64:2, 11). Israel’s enemies have trampled down the sanctuary. They have burned the temple and many other places to the ground. Understand, of course, that the burning of the temple in Jerusalem was hardly the equivalent of a contemporary church building going up in smoke. What for us is merely a building was for them the very center of their religious practices. In destroying the temple, these enemies had brought about a profound sense of national despair and alienation.
The indication in 64:2, furthermore, is that the nations continue to carry on their evil business as usual, paying no attention whatever to either God or his servant Israel’s presence in the world. Isaiah 40-55 repeatedly suggests as much—the servant’s influence has had little effect on the peoples of the world. The nations remain arrogant, ruthless, and idolatrous (Isa. 10:8-10; 47:8; Hab. 1:5-11). As a result, Isaiah is distraught. He is concerned, on the one hand, for the nations themselves. They are, after all, in desperate need of a powerful Godly presence. On the other hand, he is concerned for the people of God who suffer severely at the hands of such enemies. In short, the prophet is weary of the troubles in the world, so weary that he cries out: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….”
Can you identify with such sentiments? You feel overcome at times by the evil and injustice that you hear about on the news. You grow increasingly saddened by what appears to you to be a total disregard of God and his ways. You weep as well for the many innocent people around the world who suffer so severely at the hands of ruthless leaders, and you thankfully have enough sensitivity left to even weep for those leaders themselves. “What a mess,” you conclude, and in desperation you cry out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” If you have ever felt that way, you can begin to identify with at least some of what has the prophet so upset here.
The prophet, furthermore, is unglued over the condition of Israel herself (63:10, 19; 64:6-7, 10-11). Years before, Israel had grieved God’s Holy Spirit and rebelled (63:10). In this rather unusual accusation—the Old Testament refers far less to grieving the Holy Spirit than does the New Testament—the people of Israel had resisted and rebuffed God’s working in their lives. But again, this is an accusation made against people who lived long ago, not the prophet’s own community. Unfortunately, as we read on, things are no better in his day.
The people of Israel, he mourns, are unclean (v. 6), crying out like a leper who is no longer fit for corporate fellowship and worship (Lev. 13:45). “Their righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth (v. 6),” he continues, referring to a garment stained by menstrual blood or some other bodily discharge. Such imagery conjures up in my mind occasions when I carried a dirty, soggy diaper to the diaper pale. “They are fading like a leaf (v. 6),” the prophet suggests, losing life rather than gaining it. And in spite of their despicable condition, the prophet announces to God, “there is no one who calls on your name (v. 7).”
In short, the community lies in ruins. Ashes and desolation have replaced holiness and beauty. Life and vitality have faded in the face of disinterest and disdain. As a result, the prophet cries out in anguish, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” “Come down and shake us out of the doldrums. Remove the dust and cob webs from our own hearts and minds.” “Help us”—you can begin to feel his pain—“Help us, O Lord, to get serious with you!”
I suspect that many of us can relate to these concerns as well. Like the prophet, you can perhaps recall dreadful episodes in history when the church failed to live up to its God-given calling. You can make accusations against former generations--the Church lost its way in the Middle Ages and became a self-serving, power-wielding institution. The Church horrifically wiped out thousands upon thousands of people during the Crusades. The Church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer angrily points out, failed to take a stand when the Nazis carried out their evil deeds. Yes, you and I can accuse the Church of days gone by.
But then, again like the prophet, we realize that the community of faith in our own day often fails to do much better. Our concerns have no doubt been heightened in recent months given the seemingly unending accounts of corruption and immorality among certain religious leaders. You have surely wondered at times about the church’s agenda, where it is going and what it is really seeking to accomplish. You struggle because you honestly believe that there must be more—more vitality, more enthusiasm, more commitment, more intimacy, more prayer. Don’t you sometimes long for more? Don’t you want to cry out with the prophet, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”? “Come down, O Lord, and revive your people.”
These things—these deep concerns—are apparent in our text, aren’t they? As we read, we cannot help but notice that the prophet is distraught over the condition of the world. We cannot miss that he is in anguish over the welfare of his own people. But there is more. As we gaze into the heart of the prophet, we see that he is wearied by his own condition (64:6-7). This text, as I mentioned earlier, is actually a lament, not a gloating prediction of disaster. It is a cry for help, not a condemning finger. It is a prayer for divine intervention and assistance—“Lord, please break our chains”—not a Jonah-like longing for disaster to come upon everyone whom he dislikes. Importantly, then, the prophet repeatedly speaks of “we” and “our.” “We have become like one who is unclean.” “Our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” “We all fade like a leaf.” “No one calls on your name.” In this lament, the prophet makes no attempt to distance himself from those around him. He demonstrates no inclination whatever to simply point the blame at others.
On the contrary, “I’m unclean,” he shouts. Sure, the world often looks as though it is totally off-track. Yes, the community of faith at times seems directionless, lifeless, and even chaotic. But in reality, the prophet realizes, I am a part of it. So, with resounding intensity, he cries once again, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” “And when you do shake the very foundations of the earth, begin with me, for I stand in deepest need.”
You have no doubt felt that way before, too. I certainly have. You take personal inventory of your life, and you come up wanting. You know what God asks of you, and it often seems as though you give far less. The joy is gone. The issues and struggles feel overwhelming. You begin wondering where the passion and zeal are. You find yourself sitting down at the end of the day, feeling empty. It is as though everything is out of whack. “Lord,” you want to cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” “Come down and restore my passion. Come down and rekindle my first love. Come down and help me overcome this nagging difficulty. Come down and remove this loneliness. Lord, please, tear open the heavens and come down.”

After some twenty-two years of longing for my brother to pay us a visit, he finally came for the first time just a few years ago. I can hardly begin to describe the excitement that I felt that day. I showed him our place, introduced him to a few friends, and in general just enjoyed his company. It was a very special day, to say the least.

Israel waited for what must have often seemed like a long time, too. The prophet’s cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” surely sounded from the lips of countless others as well. “Lord, please come down.” And do you know what? He did. God took on flesh, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Not to destroy the evil nations and ruthless leaders of the earth, but to redeem them. Not to angrily discard his at times unfaithful people, but to transform and empower them. Not to throw you and me on a waste pile, but to offer each and everyone of us genuine and lasting hope. Have you ever cried out, “Lord, tear open the heavens and come down?” He already has. If you listen carefully, you can begin to hear the sounds of the baby in Bethlehem. Do you continue to cry, “Lord, please come down and help me and these people all around me?” He will. Again and again.