A reflection on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalm 80:1-7 & 17-19 for Advent Sunday, November 29, 2020.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSVA)
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved…
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Psalm 80:1-7 & 17-19 (NRSVA)
Advent means ‘beginning’.
Today, Advent Sunday, is the beginning of the church calendar. We begin our annual retelling of the story of God’s coming and intervention in our world.
Advent starts with a call to wait – with a prayer for God to begin. The story we live by begins with the initiative of God.
Of course, on a smaller scale, today marks the beginning of our preparation for the celebration of the incarnation. Today begins our lead-up to Christmas Day.
And so we begin to prepare to hear again the cosmic story of salvation and the incarnation by hearing the prayer of Isaiah. It is a prayer for God’s ‘coming’. A plea to the God who ‘works for those who wait for him.’
The language stands in stark contrast, however, to the humble story of Jesus’ advent. It calls for a violent tearing open of heaven, quaking mountains, kindled fire, and trembling nations. It is an appeal to the ‘God of Hosts’ – to the God of Armies.
Isaiah looks to a future intervention by appealing to a past one. The echoes of God descending upon Mount Sinai seem strong.
Yet this show of strength is far from the only way God intervenes. In the Christmas story we have a humble and quiet intervention. The Lord of Hosts is also the quiet whisperer.
As the prayer unfolds it becomes clear that Isaiah, while appealing for the people to ‘wait’ and ‘remember’ is also frustrated. God’s coming is not only needed for the ‘nations’.
It is also a needed for Israel.
This prayer confesses on the part of the nation. Isaiah speaks on behalf of the ‘we’ who have sinned.
The result of their failure, sadly, is a fading – ‘like a leaf’.
Yet there is a clear appeal to the grace and mercy of God here. A reminder, directed toward God, that we – broken as we are – remain ‘the work of your hand’. It is a reminder – to God – that this fading was never God’s plan. We fade – and we were created to flourish.
Such brokenness – and such dignity.
The refrain of Psalm 80 seems particularly fitting as a response to this predicament – a predicament we all find ourselves in:
‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.’
It summarises the hope of our needed salvation – the hope that God would intervene on our behalf.
And that is the story of salvation – and the story of Christmas.
What stands out to you in Isaiah’s prayer? What stands out to you in the Psalm? Why do you think you are drawn to these aspects of today’s readings?
What would it take for you to adopt more fully the storey of salvation – that we are both fading because of sin and made in the very image of God?
How do you think a daily praying the refrain in Psalm 80 – ‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.’ – might prepare you for hearing the story of God’s humble incarnation this Christmas?