1Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.
8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
This past week I was flipping through Netflix as I often do when it’s getting late and I’m giving Jet his bottle, and I saw the movie based on the book, The Case for Christ. So, over a couple nights I watched it. It’s the story of Lee Strobel’s quest to prove Christianity false. He read the Bible. He read books about the Bible. He went to presentations. He held interviews with professionals in all sorts of fields: psychiatry, medicine, theology, linguistics, archaeology, and on. He was a raging atheist who was expecting to prove his wife’s new-found faith wrong. Do you know what happened to Lee? All his investigating, his interviews, his reading, and research led him to a very surprising, unexpected conclusion: it’s all real. Christ, his death and resurrection, the Bible, the faith, the church, all of it is real. He went from a man on a mission to bring down Christianity, to a man with a mission to bring Christianity to all.
Now, I’m not going to say you have to queue it up on Netflix tonight. I’m not going to say you have to look up Lee Strobel and all his books. In fact, the doctrine he preaches and writes, isn’t always what you will read in the Bible. But I will say this, God does not operate according to our expectations. Lee Strobel expected to prove Jesus and the Bible wrong, but what really happened was so much different.
That is also something Isaiah noticed during his years as a prophet in Judah. The people of Judah and Israel thought they knew what would happen. They were God’s people, descendants of Abraham, chosen as heirs of God’s kingdom. They took that as a license to do whatever they wanted to do, because God would always be on their side. If you told them that God would allow the Assyrian empire to ransack the north and carry Israel away form their homeland as exiles of war, they would have laughed it off. “Never! We are God’s people. He would never do something like that.”
Well, during Isaiah’s 60 years as prophet that is exactly what happened. Israel in the north was leveled, never to return as a nation. The people living in the south, in Judah, were supposed to get the hint that God takes his Word and his people seriously. He loves like the gracious and all-powerful Father he is, but even a loving father has to discipline and rebuke and train his child.
Isaiah had the job of warning the people of Judah that they too would suffer God’s discipline if they did not take God’s message and his grace seriously. If Judah did not listen, the nation of Babylon would rise up and do the same things that happened in the north. Judah would be carried off into Babylonian captivity. But that would not last forever. God would get his message across to the people and continue to keep his promise of the coming Savior. In fact, the Savior would come and rescue people from sin and hell. He would set up a kingdom that never ends. God’s people, all true believers, would enjoy this promised deliverance for eternity in heaven. It’s as if God was telling all the people in Judah, through the prophet Isaiah’s message, to expect the unexpected. And then, everything happened exactly the way God had said. The people in Judah didn’t expect it at all, and yet it was the stunning reality for them.
Expectation vs. Reality is the new worship series for Advent. As I was looking through the assigned Scriptures lessons for the next few weeks, I kept thinking of the expectations we have and how reality is often such a striking contrast. It’s kind of like the people of Israel and Judah during Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet. What are the expectations and then what really happens can be so far apart.
This week in our Scripture readings, the topic is Christ’s coming. It’s not his coming as a baby in Bethlehem but his coming at the End of Time. If you think about that is not an odd place to start our preparation for Christmas. To enjoy why Jesus came the first time, you have to see where it leads.
Jesus came from heaven once before so that God’s promise would be fulfilled and heaven would be opened. God did what no one expected. He actually took on human flesh for us so that people could have heavenly bodies forever with him. That’s the final goal. That’s where Christmas leads.
So, is that where your focus is right now? Is that where your eager expectations are aiming? I don’t know if that is how we operate at this time of year. There is so much going on, so much to get ready for the next 21 days. (Yes! That’s all you have.) And look how much we do to get ready for that? People expect so much out of Christmas every year, and the reality is it can never provide what people really need. We can try and try and try as much as we want, but even a really great Christmas celebration this year can’t fix what’s wrong.
Isaiah writes, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. All our best efforts can’t change the facts of what is going on in my heart and yours. When the focus is on the present, or all the presents, then we aren’t ready for what’s coming, for who’s coming.
And we fall into this trap all the time. We get wrapped up with all the earthly stuff, because we expect that the End is far off. Instead of alert, ready, and watchful for Christ to come back, we are alert, ready, and watchful for the next big deal, for the next party invitation, for the family members to arrive.
It’s like the people of Israel and the people of Judah. We focus on ourselves. That kind of preparation leads away from our God. And that kind of self-centered life that leaves Jesus on the back burner leads Isaiah to ask for us, Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? When you think that our Lord is not vital in your life every day, every hour, every breath, then is it a surprise that he seems distant? When you put him second or third or 15 down the priority list, what do you expect the relationship will be like? Not the best.
That should make us expect something terrible at the End of time. For people who do not put God first, can we really expect God to come for us? It would make a whole lot more sense for Jesus to come against us, for him to destroy us.
Brothers and sisters listen to what Isaiah says. When you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. God did not do what we expect. Yes, there was trembling, but it was the enemies of God. Satan didn’t stand a chance. Sin, death, and hell were not a match for Christ when he came down the first time. He is the Redeemer, the rescuer, the deliverer. He did not crush us, but the serpent’s head. That is the reality that exists for you. Your sins are gone from your record. Every time you have let the earthy stuff distract you, every time our Lord has been pushed to the back burner, every time we have not lived up to God’s holy expectations, every time has been washed away. We are cleansed. We are children of the Most High God. Isaiah puts it this way. You, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
God’s reality for us is better than anything we could ever expect. Heaven is our home. Christ made the full payment for us when he came down the first time. Now, he is preparing the places in paradise for you and me and all believers. He’s getting ready for his return.
So, we should, too. Getting ready for that is a little different than the all the stuff you’re seeing lately. It’s not filling up on all sorts of treats, it’s filling up on God’s Word. It’s not putting up strings of lights, it’s putting up your light of faith. It’s not giving presents, it’s giving the gospel of Jesus. It’s not sending invitations for parties, it’s sending invitations to worship. The Christmas stuff is not sinful, but it can be if it doesn’t leave you any room to prepare for Christ.
All that stuff is very easy to understand. We see it. We hear it. It comes. It goes. We expect it every year. But the reality that God has provided for us goes way beyond expectations. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
This time of year, it’s good to talk about the End. It’s where Christmas always leads us. Through Christ, God tells us to expect the unexpected. Sinners are forgiven. Heaven is open. Our place in paradise is purchased and ready. Christ is coming to take us there. Be ready. Be alert. As Jesus says, “Watch!” And as you prepare, use these ancient words from Isaiah as your prayer: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down. Amen.