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Saturday 19 June 2021


This reading which is set for the first Sunday in Advent reminds us that, contrary to the way we often celebrate it in our churches, Advent begins on a note of despair. We’re invited to reflect on the fact that all our plans, all our strategies for self-improvement, all our ideas to help us get out of the traps we’ve set for ourselves have come to nothing. We come to realise that we cannot save ourselves, and that without God’s intervention we are lost.


Isaiah 64:1-9

This reading which is set for the first Sunday in Advent reminds us that, contrary to the way we often celebrate it in our churches, Advent begins on a note of despair. We’re invited to reflect on the fact that all our plans, all our strategies for self-improvement, all our ideas to help us get out of the traps we’ve set for ourselves have come to nothing. We come to realise that we cannot save ourselves, and that without God’s intervention we are lost.

The poem that is our reading for today is a prayer to God by a people who are powerless and under oppression. It contains the two main features of genuine Advent hope - a deep sense of desperation about an out-of-control situation, and a bold and confidant trust in God who can intervene and bring peace and joy. For Isaiah, life without God is unbearable, but life with God can be completely transformed. This is the hope of the prayer.

The first four verses contain a plea, asking God to “come down” in splendour and with terror. The imagery that Isaiah uses gives the impression that God is remote in the heavens and cut off from the earth. In order to intervene in the earth God needs to use power and might to break through the firmament, the dividing line between the heavens and the earth. Isaiah wants God to come and assert an authority that will overrule earthly powers and the destructiveness of the nations. Israel longs for God to show the earth who’s in charge, because the nations have taken (or assumed) that power for themselves and think they can do what they want to abuse and oppress Israel.

In verse 3 the prayer links the hopes for the future to the deeds of the past. God has intervened before. The words “come down” echo the exodus (have a look at Exodus 3:8), and the quaking of the mountains reminds us of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-18). So the focus of the call to God to intervene is the memory of exodus and Sinai, liberation and covenant. The writer hopes that these foundational events in Israel’s history will be reenacted so that life can start again. This new life will only happen if God shows God’s self so decisively that there is no other explanation for what is going on. Verse 4 is a bit of a sweetener, perhaps intended to motivate God: in the whole history of the earth there has never been another god like you God - come and show us what you’ve got!

The mood changes in verse 5 and there is a confession of guilt (albeit not without excuses!). In verse 5 Isaiah acknowledges that Israel has sinned. In verse 6 Isaiah acknowledges that Israel is unclean. This word “unclean” means ritually unacceptable, so Isaiah is saying that Israel is not a community in which God’s presence is willing to touch down. There are two really strong images in this verse: Israel is like a filthy cloth, so impure and contaminated that no one would dare touch it, and also like a faded leaf, so light and vulnerable that it will be blown away into oblivion.

So verses 1-4 have been about an expectation and insistence on God coming, but verses 5-7 provide reasons why God cannot and will not come into contact with something so unclean. Israel’s failure to live in the covenant actually seems to prevent the intervention that it prays for. So somewhere in this mixture of hope and failure is the place in which faith waits for ‘the coming”. We’re mixtures of expectation and defeat. We cry out for help, but the truthfulness of our situation seems to block our best hope.

In verse 8 there is another change, beginning with the small but big word, “yet”. In Hebrew this is literally “and now”. It signifies a move from all that is past, all that we’ve heard about in verses 1-7, to this present moment. And in this verse, Yahweh is named for the first time in the prayer. It’s as though this intimate and personal address to God is really a silent plea to put behind all that has just been said and focus on the stronger reason why God should have reason to act. “You are our Father. You are our potter. We are all the work of your hand.” In these two images Israel affirms to God, “You made us; you own us; you are responsible for us; we belong to you.” We are your responsibility, your burden, your problem, your treasured possession. You have created us. You formed us. Israel has a claim upon God and does not need to struggle to make its own future. And God has an obligation to Israel. Despite all that Israel has done, God is not off the hook. Israel’s deep trust in God is matched by God’s deep obligation to Israel.

This is the basis of the passionate plea in verse 9. There are three imperatives to God: Don’t be terribly angry, don’t hold it against us forever, notice and remember that we are your people, we belong to you and you cannot disown us. We don’t have any other source of help. So the prayer for help that began so loudly in verse 1 ends up here with the feeling of needful intimacy. Ultimately, Advent focuses not on God’s massive power but on God’s family sense of solidarity. It is this family connection that often causes parents to do irrational caring things for wayward, beloved children.

 

For further reflection…

  • Read through the passage again a few times slowly. Which words or phrases stand out for you?
  • How does this passage influence the way you are thinking about the beginning of Advent this year?
  • How do you respond to the idea that Advent begins with a note of despair?
  • What is causing you to feel despair at the moment? Into what situations do you want to speak Isaiah’s prayer that God would come down and do something?
  • How do you respond to the idea that we are intimately connected with God, and that our trust in God is matched by God’s obligation to us?
  • Take notice of the images used in this poem to describe God and Israel. If you were writing this prayer today what images might you use for yourself and for God?
  • Ask that God would help you see answers to this prayer as you journey through Advent?