"Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down." Isaiah 64 begins as an earnest plea for God to show up and do something. It is a call for God to exercise his mighty power as he had done in the past. The next several verses continue on with similar language asking God to come down and make his name known to his adversaries. Isaiah assures us that God acts on behalf of the righteous, the ones who remember the ways of God. Up to this point, you can almost hear Isaiah's audience cheering Isaiah on. Perhaps they even shout out "Amen" a few times or whatever the ancient Israelite equivalent of that would be. Certainly, God's people would get excited as the prophet Isaiah begins to talk about God doing mighty things on their behalf once again just as he did at the Exodus.
But then this passage takes a sharp turn. In the second half of verse 5, we hear about God being angry because Israel has sinned. There is even doubt expressed as to whether or not Israel will be saved. Isaiah says that they have become unclean; so unclean in fact that even the deeds they consider to be righteous are like mentrual rags. The people wither like a leaf and are blown away by the wind.
The crowd that was just cheering Isaiah on has received a punch to the gut. The wind has been knocked out of their sails. Just moments earlier they had been excited and adament about God showing up in their presence so that God's righteousness might vindicate them. But now they have realized what's God's righteous presence will mean for them as well. They themselves are not without sin. Therefore, if God comes to them as they have asked, it will mean that their sin will have to be dealt with as well.
However, this fact does not cause Isaiah to rescind his appeal to God. He continues to earnestly seek God's coming but he does so with the recognition that it will involve judgment for he and his fellow Israelites as well. Therefore, Isaiah calls upon God as a father and asks him to deal with Israel's sin but to do it mercifully and not with anger beyond measure. He describes God as the one who shapes the clay which is Israel; meaning that God has the right to do whatever he pleases with Israel but also that this God would no more discard this sinful and flawed people than an artist would discard a work of art into which she has poured much time and energy. God will deal with Israel's sin but Isaiah believes that he will do it in a way that will not destroy but salvage the damaged vessel.
There could hardly be a more appropriate message for the Church as we begin the season of Advent. In this season, we remember Israel's long and expectant waiting for a messiah while also looking forward to the final establishment of Christ's kingdom upon his return to earth. We will talk much over the coming weeks about how we long for God's kingdom to come so that all the wrongs of our world might be righted. But even as we hope for that kingdom, we must be reminded that the Church will not be excluded from the light of God's presence which will expose all sin and unrighteousness. When that day comes, we too will find that many of the actions that we regarded as our most righteous and pious acts are actually more like filthy rags in God's sight and that we may well have neglected the weightier matters of God's law. Therefore, we must continually look back to that man, Jesus Christ, in which God did rend the heavens and come down among us and take on our flesh. The same Spirit which lived in him must also rend our world and dwell among us so that we might become more and more like him now as we anxiously await the arrival of his kingdom.