Rend the Heavens

Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah calls upon God to rend the heavens and come to earth to deliver his people, but there’s a problem. How can sinful people be prepared to meet a holy God?

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Every child looks forward to Christmas and as we begin the new church-year our lessons turn to the anticipation of Christ’s coming. John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Jesus, will be front and center, but the people coming to John weren’t expecting a silent night or visiting angels, they were expecting glory and judgement and deliverance from their enemies. We look for Christ’s return in much the same way and because there is judgement as well as great reward you may be awaiting his coming with some trepidation. There is no downside to a child’s expectation of presents in a stocking or under a tree, but today’s lesson from Isaiah reminds us that Christ’s return will have a big downside for some.

Isaiah begins:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down 
that the mountains would tremble before you!

Isaiah 64:1

Isaiah calls upon God to come and redeem his people, to vanquish their enemies. He calls upon Him to display he glory to the nations and fulfill his promises to Israel. Heaven will be torn asunder and the earth will quake before the coming Lord.

At first, Isaiah sees only his people’s salvation. It will be like the cavalry riding to the rescue with the bugle blaring. Like the Death Star exploding in space. The victory will be God’s. His people will be saved and all will live happily ever after.

Isaiah puts it this way:

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
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.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.

Isaiah 64:3-5

Then reality sets in.

God will come to rescue those who gladly do right and remember his ways, but the people to whom Isaiah has been preaching are not people of that sort; they worshipped idols and ignored the law of Moses. They did not walk in the ways of the Lord. 

And so, the next few verses reflect Isaiah’s concern for people:

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?
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.
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.

Isaiah 64:5-7

While Isaiah was growing up, God’s people had been two nations. One in the northern part of the land was called Israel. Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom called Judah. After he reached adulthood, Isaiah had seen the northern kingdom conquered, plundered, and its people removed to far-off lands because of their idolatry and sin. His own nation had the same problems and God had showed Isaiah that the end result would be that they too, would be conquered and plundered and removed from the land.

But God had also shown Isaiah that a remnant of the people would return, so that God’s great promises to Abraham and David could be fulfilled. Though they had sinned greatly, a savior would come from their descendants who would have a never-ending kingdom that would be the home of justice and peace.

The remnant did return as Isaiah foretold and although they no longer worshipped idols, they continued to sin against God and one another and Isaiah foresaw that many would not be among those who remembered God’s ways and gladly did what was right. They would be among those who would shrivel up like a leaf and be blown away after God gave them over to their sin.

Recognizing this dilemma, that God’s coming was earnestly to be desired, but that the people would not be ready, Isaiah pleads with God to have mercy on them.

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:8-9

And God did have mercy on many. He had planned a way to prepare his people, and people from other nations as well, for the day of wrath and deliverance that was to come. Furthermore, this plan is spoken of in Isaiah’s writings. God would send one who would receive the punishment for their sins, who would suffer, die, and rise so that they could receive life. 

Jesus, the Christ, was the one that God sent. That first Christmas, God arrived in our world and the heavens were opened, but not in wrath, rather heaven’s joy burst through to earth as the angels sang of his birth. The earth did not quake until he died and then it quaked again when he rose to give life to all who believe in him.

Jesus was God’s solution to Isaiah’s dilemma and John the Baptist prepared his way. Through him, God called the people of Jesus’ day to repentance much as Isaiah had generations before.

Now, I want you to understand that all of this is not just of historical interest, it also important to us! For you and I are waiting for Christ’s return. In that day the earth will be shaken beyond imagination, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will give no light. The stars will fall and the heaven’s will be rolled up like scroll and Christ will come in all his glory to judge the living and the dead.

You and I share Isaiah’s desire for the deliverance that day will bring. After that day there will be no more persecution, no more pandemics, no more natural disasters, and no more death.

But that day will also bring judgement. Because of that you and I share Isaiah’s concern over our sins and the sins of our people. It is still true that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” and that “No one calls on [God’s] name or strives to lay hold of” God. We long for the good things that day will bring, but are troubled by our sins and the punishment they deserve.

Though our sins remain, so does the work of God, accomplished through Jesus Christ. He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. The chastisement that brought us peace was upon him. He was stricken for our sins and the sins of all the peoples of the world, and in him all can find peace with God and deliverance from the wrath to come.

The baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, that John introduced, also remains; for Christ our Lord commanded that it continue to be used. It continues to prepare people for Christ’s coming by washing away their sins. Through the same baptism, Christ comes to them and they are united with him, becoming part of him and begin to share his Spirit.

All this has been done so that those who believe these promises may await the day of Christ’s return like a bride awaits her wedding day, rather than as a prisoner awaits his sentence.

The conclusion is straightforward. Christ is coming soon. Repent and believe the good news. Amen.

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