“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains may 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!”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING FOR DON’T YOU? ‘There’s trouble, ‘trouble in River City,’ and Isaiah is imploring God to ‘come down’ and straighten things out. He wants God to ‘come down’ from ‘the heavens’ to set things right, to straighten things out.
Ever prayed a prayer like that? “Come down and straighten things out down here, God.” “Come down and put the fear of God in the terrorists and the drug dealers and the sex traffickers and the crooked politicians – that they may tremble at Your presence and repent and turn and stop.”
Or maybe for you, it’s much more personal than that. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, and heal my disease, cure my friend from her cancer, fix my marriage, get my kid off drugs, get my children to go back to church.”
There’s a sense of desperation in the prophet’s prayer. And maybe you have the same sense in yours. The prophet is asking God to do something DRAMATIC. Let them know that YOU SEE what they’re doing and that they’re not going to get away with it. Make them “TREMBLE AT YOUR PRESENCE.”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING FOR DON’T YOU? He’s asking for God to put the FEAR OF GOD into those evil and wicked people. And it’s not as if God is above doing that. God can preach with ‘fire and brimstone’ like nobody’s business.
In the days of Moses, God came down onto Mount Sinai and the mountain quaked and there was fire and thick clouds and loud trumpets and all the people were filled with fear and said, “We’ll do whatever you say.” That’s what the ‘fear of God’ does to a person.
And there was that time when the prophet Elijah prayed a prayer just like this one, (or maybe it was this one), and God came down from heaven in a bolt of fire that exploded the altar and everyone got the ‘fear of God’ put in them.
That’s what Isaiah’s asking for here. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…” Set something on fire, boil some water, shake the mountains. That’ll change people. That’ll fix things.
Isn’t that what we prayed for in our Collect for this first Sunday in Advent? “Stir up Your POWER, O Lord, AND COME, that we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your MIGHTY deliverance…”
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. But have you noticed that as we identify all those TARGETS for the Lord to COME DOWN ON, with His POWER and MIGHTY DELIVERANCE, it’s been ‘THEM,’ or ‘HIM’ or ‘HER, or ‘THOSE PEOPLE’?
• Not once have we identified ourselves as the target for God to drop His 30 megaton guided missile on.
• Not once have we identified ourselves as coconspirators in the mess that we are praying for God to REND THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN and fix.
But that’s just what the prophet does in this prayer. He catches us all with our finger pointed at the evil and wicked people OUT THERE and bends it back around until we’re pointing at ourselves.
“Behold you were angry, and WE sinned; and in OUR sins WE have been a long time, and shall WE be saved? They’re all ‘1st person pronouns.’ Not a ‘2nd person or 3rd person pronoun’ in the bunch. “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.”
YOU SEE WHAT THE PROPHET IS ASKING DON’T YOU? He’s asking God to “rend the heavens and come down” and put the fear of God into those evil doers and wicked people – and he’s painted a big, red, X right onto our own chest.
It’s only when we understand that the prophet is sending the coordinates for a divine missile strike up to God, and the coordinates he signals are the hearts of GOD’S OWN PEOPLE, that we can begin to understand what the prophet is asking for here.
I’d like to respond to all of this in three ways.
First, positively. What is most certainly true about the human predicament and dilemma is that there is most certainly no way out of it apart from the Lord God Himself coming down from heaven to make things right. The prophet is not asking God to give His people three points or five biblical principles or even 10 Laws, that if they will only follow them, it will fix their lives or their marriages or their children or this world.
“We have all become like one who is unclean…” It’s like grilling a great filet mignon perfectly and as you cut it open its done just the way you like it but then you see that there’s a worm in it. “And all or righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” There’s something rotten on the INSIDE that makes all of our best efforts to save ourselves a ridiculous delusion.
The Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazi’s for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. From his prison cell in Buchenwald, he wrote a series of letters that are some of the most poignant meditations on our utter dependence upon the Lord to rescue and deliver us. In one of his prison letters, Bonhoeffer writes this, “a prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
“We are completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” The season of Advent is all about focusing our thoughts, our prayers, our hope on the One who comes down from heaven to “open the door of freedom from the outside.” “Stir up Your POWER, O Lord, AND COME, that we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your MIGHTY deliverance…”
We cannot open the door from inside. As much as we may see the problem as MY FAULT that I have caused because of my sinful insistence that my way were wiser than God’s ways, I cannot escape them or overcome them.
This is Paul’s great confession to the Romans. “But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul’s thoughts and prayers and only hope is that someone would rend the heavens and come down and open the door from the outside – which is precisely what God has promised to do. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:23-25)
That leads to my second response which is negative. Isaiah prays for God to come down from heaven and fix things with a demonstration of His mighty power – “that the mountains might quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…” And maybe that’s also what we were thinking of when we prayed, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come down…”
We’re always tempted to think that ‘signs and wonders’ of God’s mighty power will cause people to repent and turn from their sin and believe in the Lord and walk in His ways. After 911 and other national disasters, they say that lots of people went to church, but in less than two months, things were right back to where they had been. Some take these as God’s warning to repent and turn and believe in the Lord Jesus. But then when things returned to normal again, its’ right back to the same old same old.
In fact, this is not the way that God answers Isaiah’s prayer or ours. In our gospel reading, we heard the Palm Sunday account of Jesus entering Jerusalem. This is how the almighty God comes down out of heaven to open the prison door and set you free – not in a fiery, earth quaking demonstration of His nuclear power that makes sinners quake in our boots and repent in the fear of the Lord. But He comes down from heaven in such a humble and lowly way – on a donkey, with the sound a hammer sticking nails that pierce His hands and feet, the sound of a ‘still, small voice,’ that prays, NOT for God to rend the heavens and come down – but, “Father, forgive them.”
For the truth is, it’s not God’s power that changes people and turns them from their sin to repent and receive His forgiveness that SETS THEM FREE to love and serve Him. It’s His love for us that makes that kind of change in us. His coming down from heaven, born of the virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried – for me, for my sins, for my guilt, for my forgiveness.
That God came down from heaven in such meekness and humility to open the prison door to set ME free, (1st person, singular pronoun), that I may be His own and live in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness;” that He has killed the worm in me by drowning it in His holy, precious blood in my Baptism, that’s what moves a sinner like ME to repent and turn from his sinful ways.
This is the Advent that we are continually being reminded of in every sermon that is preached and every baptism that is administered and Lord Supper that is served. Your God has rend the heaven come down to you with His Word of promise and life, and His Body and His Blood given and shed for you, and His death and His resurrection, not in demonstrations of power, but hidden in these lowly means of grace – to open the prison door and set you free.
And then lastly, the third response to Isaiah’s prayer is positive. For the day will come when the Lord does indeed “rend the heavens and come down” in all of the power and glory that is rightfully His. And every eye will see Him and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that this Jesus, who come to rescue this fallen world on a donkey, and by the cross and through the grave itself – is indeed the One who has rescued us from the threatening peril of our sins and saved us by His mighty deliverance.
Until then, we continue to pray, “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, we are your people.”