The season of Advent is four Sundays before Christmas when Christians focus on the coming of Jesus in his birth at Bethlehem and again at the end of time. There is a strong connection between us waiting for Jesus and God’s Old Testament people waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah. They were also waiting and looking forward to the hope, peace, joy and love that the Messiah would bring. As we wait for the coming of Jesus the Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time, I thought it would be good to listen to the words of the Old Testament prophets for what they might be saying to us, thousands of years later.
These words from Isaiah 64:1-9 were written while the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon. About 587 years before Jesus’ birth, the Babylonians had conquered the Jewish nation, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and had taken the people to Babylon in captivity. This is also about the time when the stories of Daniel and his friends were set. The Jews were a people who had lost everything – their homeland, their worship and their freedom.
The Prophet calls for God to tear heaven open and come down to avenge his people for the wrongs that had been done to them (vv1,2). His hope is that God will execute justice on those who have taken the Jews into exile through a display of his power and might. Just like God did at the Exodus, he wants God to show his awesome deeds and strike terror in the hearts of those who were oppressing his people (v3). Then the mountains will tremble with the presence of God’s might and power like Mount Sinai did when God came down to give Moses the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 19:16-20). The Prophet argues that from the beginning of creation, God has always helped those who wait for him and who live in the way he wants (vv4,5a).
But then there is a dramatic shift in the Prophet’s words. If God ‘works for those who wait for him’ and welcomes ‘those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways’ (vv4b,5a), then the Prophet confesses that his people are not blameless. The Prophet offers a confession on behalf of his people, admitting that they are ‘infected and impure with sin,’ whose ‘righteous deeds’ are ‘nothing but filthy rags’ (v6 NLT). The Prophet recognises that they have failed to call on God’s name or look for his mercy, and this is why they are in exile (v7). Instead of just seeing the wrongs of the world around him, the Prophet recognises the wrongs within him.
This leads him to a new hope. The Prophet is hoping for a new relationship with God as their Father, and idea which is very rare in the Old Testament. His hope is that God would re-form his people like a potter forms the clay, and that God would forgive their sin and make his people right again with him (vv8,9). The new hope the Prophet has is that God would make the wrong things in him right again so that he could live in a new relationship with God as his child.
It is easy for us to see the presence of evil in the world and a lot of things that are wrong. We see people who are suffering from injustice and abuse, both internationally and more personally. Governments seem to be working more for their own benefit than for the benefit of the people who have voted them into office. Many people are living in the fear that we are losing our freedoms. With all of this going on, it would be easy for us to join in the prayer of the Prophet and ask God to tear heaven open, come down and put right the wrongs of the world through a display of power and strength.
What these words from the Prophet challenge us to do, however, is to recognise that we are also guilty of wrongs in our own life. It is easy to see what is wrong outside of us, but much more difficult to recognise the wrongs that exist within us. Like the Prophet, instead of looking for God to tear heaven open to destroy the wrongs ‘out there’, we need to acknowledge and confess the wrongs that live inside each of us.
Because when God opened heaven to come down, God didn’t do it through a display of earthly power and strength, punishing the wicked and destroying evil people. Instead, God came to us from heaven in humility and weakness in the birth of Jesus. If God was to destroy the wrongs of the world through might and power, then he would also need to destroy the wrongs in us in the same way. What can give us hope is that God comes down out of heaven as a person like us who understands our weakness and failures. Jesus joins us in our brokenness to walk with us, to suffer with us, but also to give us the promise of something better. Jesus begins to put what’s wrong in the world right again by beginning with us. He takes our sin on himself and gives us his righteousness through faith in him. Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God whom we can now know as our loving heavenly Dad. Jesus re-forms us and re-shapes us by the power of his Spirit to be people of hope so we can bring his hope to the world. The hope we can find as God opens heaven and comes down to us in the birth of Jesus is that he makes right what is wrong in us so we can live every day as his people in the world.
Part of the Advent message is that God will ‘burst from the heavens and come down’ (v1 NLT) again at the end of time to finally put all the wrongs things in the world right again through Jesus. Until that day we care called to live in the hope that God has already come from heaven to us in Jesus. The hope we have is that Jesus puts the wrong things in us right again. In that hope we can join him in putting the wrongs of this world right again.
More to think about:
- When you think about God bursting from the heavens and coming down to earth (v1), what would you normally expect that to look like?
- What does it say to you about the nature of God that when he comes down from heaven, he does it as a newborn baby rather than through a display of vengeance, power and might?
- Do you find it easier to identify what’s wrong with the world, or what’s wrong inside you? Why do you think you tend to do that?
- How does it feel for you to pray verses 5b to 7 as a prayer of confession? How can God’s forgiveness in Jesus give you hope for the future?
- How can the Prophet’s words about God being our ‘Father’ and our ‘potter’ be good news for us? How can a new relationship with God as our perfect Father and his promise to re-form us as a potter forms the clay give you a sense of hope?
- If there are people in your life who have wronged you, how might you be able bring hope into their lives by offering them the gift of forgiveness this Christmas?