November 30, 2014
First Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
The trouble with following God is usually us, but we like to blame him. In this Sunday’s first reading Isaiah grapples with the annoyance of trying to be faithful to a perfectly faithful God. He is a God of powerful wrath and yet a loving father. He causes mountain earthquakes, yet patiently forms us like a potter shaping a vessel. The prophet can only make his petition for help on the basis of his relationship with God, yet as we’ll see, that relationship has some problems.
This reading comes toward the end of Isaiah in the so-called Book of Consolation (chap 40-66). Here the immediately preceding passages relate the Lord’s punishment of Edom and recall his mighty works of deliverance done through Moses. The prophet hopes for a new Moses-era, where the Lord will rescue his people, freeing them from oppressors. Our reading, then, is part of this longer plea (63:7–64:11) for God to act in the way he did at the time of the Exodus.
Finding a Basis for Asking
Let’s say you’re moving and need help to pack up your belongings into a moving van, who would you call? Your friends, of course. You wouldn’t ask that pesky neighbor with the mean dog whom you have never actually made eye-contact with. You would ask people with whom you already have a good relationship. The same principle applies in Isaiah’s asking God for help. He can only ask God because God is his father.
Father or ATM?
Notably, this is one of the only times in the Old Testament that God is prayed to as father (others: Jer 3:4; Sir 23:1, 4; 51:10). Jesus will emphasize the fatherhood of God in the New Testament era, so Isaiah’s father-directed prayer is an important precedent. At the beginning and end of our reading, Isaiah reminds the Lord, “you are our father” (see 63:16, 64:7). He starts and ends with the relationship that gives the rationale for asking for help. This can serve as a reminder for us: We shouldn’t view God as an ATM which dispenses cash and blessings. We must remember to begin with a relationship with him, a relationship of fatherhood and friendship, in which our asking for help comes as a natural part.
The prophet repeatedly juxtaposes God’s awesome acts of deliverance with our problematic moral weaknesses. He almost blames God for the people’s unfaithfulness: “why dost thou make us err from thy ways and harden our heart, so that we fear thee not?” (Isa 63:17 RSV) He connects the Lord’s anger with the people’s sinfulness, toying with a cause and effect relation, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (Isa 64:5 RSV) Rather than answering these difficult questions himself, the prophet lets them hang in the air, oozing with implications, hoping that the Lord will pick up the hint.
God’s Deeds vs. Our Deeds
While he gets close to blaming God, Isaiah steps back and acknowledges that the people for whom he pleads are sinful. He even says “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isa 64:6 RSV) He uses the language of ritual impurity which in the Old Covenant would prevent someone from approaching God, entering the Temple and coming near to worship. To emphasize exactly how unclean the people are, he uses the shocking and unsual term, beged ‘idim, which literally means “garment of menstruation,” bringing to mind all of the Levitical laws regarding ritual impurity (esp. Lev 15:19-30).
Prayer in the Midst of Sin
Sin makes a person impure, unclean, in both a moral and a ritual sense. Ritual impurity bars one from making offerings in the Temple, from official worship. Yet here, the prophet makes his petition in the midst of a state of uncleanness (recalling Isaiah 6:5 – “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips”). He acknowledges his unworthiness, his state of broken relationship with God. He even describes “our iniquities” as the wind carrying off our dried-up souls to who knows where (64:6). Yet in the midst of sinfulness and impurity, Isaiah makes his prayer to God. Despite his deeds, and the deeds of the whole people, he trusts. How could God deliver him from the oppression of sin if he could not pray while oppressed by it?
This is where our relationship with God always feels like double trouble. We repent and turn to him and try to live a holy life, yet find ourselves in the Confession line, but that is right where he wants us. We find ourselves in a constant life-and-death battle with sin and temptation, praying to God for deliverance in the midst of our impurity. It is a puzzling and perpetual problem. We want to be fully on “God’s side,” fully given over to him, fully surrendered, yet we find that on earth, sin always still has an irritating foothold in us. We can’t seem to completely shake it off no matter how we try. It would be tempting to face the situation in despair and give up. Many do. But Isaiah shows us that no matter how tight the tension gets between who we are and who God is, his power and our weakness, our desire and our action, we need have hearts big enough to take the tension and humbly recognize our need for rescue.
Isaiah calls to mind that God delivers the weak and oppressed: the slaves in Egypt, the exiles in Babylon. Even those who are “unclean” can call on him as “father” and can look at themselves as “thy servants, the tribes of thy heritage” (63:17). He knows that we are weak and he is a God who loves to rescue the oppressed from the oppressor. In Advent, we can take the time to recall his awesome deeds of mountain shaking law-giving at Sinai and look forward to his heaven-rending deliverance.