Text Study for Isaiah 64:1-9

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I wonder if the audience for this prophetic word was suffering from exile-fatigue. We’re past the promises of Second Isaiah (although we’ll hear some of those encouraging words next week). The remnant has been returned to Judah, and the rebuilding has been underway for a while. The writer of Third Isaiah prays in the midst of the Persian colonial dominance of Judah and the lackluster restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. The excitement over being rescued is past. The novelty of returning has faded. Now it seems to just be one damned thing after another with no real end in sight.

The people perhaps are tired of muddling through, apparently on their own. “Look down from heaven and see from your holy habitation,” the prophet quotes them in Isaiah 63:15-16. “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” Gone, apparently, is the experience of God’s warm embrace for the exiles longing to return home. Is there anything worse than thinking you’ve been left on your own? “We have long been like those whom you do not rule,” they complain in 63:19, “like those not called by your name.” Lord, you are treating us no better than the un-chosen pagans among whom we have lived.

The supplicants are, perhaps, looking for the Lord in the wrong place. The text reminds me of an old joke (takes one to know one, right?). A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.(https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/04/11/better-light/).

These are the ones who pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The prayer in our reading today is for a direct intervention from God, a rending of the heavens and a divine confrontation with the powers that oppress God’s people. We Christians believe that this prayer is answered most directly in the baptism of Jesus, but that’s a conversation a few months away. The text here invites us to wait with hope for this intervention and in the meantime to confess and repent our part in the brokenness of our world.

It’s a pretty whiny and somewhat self-deluded prayer, I think. Perhaps the prophet repeats all of this poetry of self-pity to help the people hear just how pathetic they sound. In verses 5 through 7, they blame God for their condition. If only the Lord had not been so peeved, then they might have stayed on the straight and narrow. Even now, if the Lord would just calm down a bit, things will get better. In verses 10-11 the supplicants protest that they have suffered enough. The temple is still a pile of ashes, and Jerusalem is desolate. “After all this,” they plead, “Will you restrain yourself, O Lord?” Can’t you just let bygones be bygones?

It’s important to read the Lord’s response in chapter 65. The Lord is having none of it. The Lord was ready to respond, but no one came looking. They searched under the lamppost where they thought the light was better. The people made sacrifices to other deities. They consulted the dead in tombs and spirits in dark corners. They ate unclean food and told the Lord to stay away since they were already too holy for such company! (verse 5). In 64:12, the petitioners plead for the Lord to speak up. In 65:6, they get their wish. It’s always best to be careful what you ask for! “I will not keep silent,” the Lord responds, “but I will repay…

I think that perhaps Kristin Wendland is a bit too optimistic about this text as she writes on workingpreacher.org (2014), “The gospel reading assigned for Advent 1A includes the refrain to keep awake so that one will not miss the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33). The reading from Isaiah assures us,” she continues, “that God will be recognizable when God comes. For we have experienced God before.” The prophet includes a mention of God’s past great deeds in verses 2 and 3. But it seems that such signs of power are lacking now. God comes “Through signs of power,” Wendland continues, “but also as one who does not remember iniquity forever but turns to look with forgiveness — at all of us.”

That is certainly the punch line of the prayer in 64:9. But it is uttered by people who engage in revisionist history rather than repentance. We can look to God’s coming with hope but only if we are willing to look at ourselves honestly. It is only then that we can pray for healing. This text has that Janus-character which should be part of our Advent discipline (it is, after all, our Christian new year!). We look forward to God’s great intervention for the sake of all Creation. And we look inward at our own brokenness, how “we have all become like one who is unclean…

Corrine Carvalho writes on workingpreacher.org (2017), “Reading this passage at the beginning of Advent reminds us that we are not in control and that our relationship with God needs healing. Our sin too often manifests in our attempts to keep God in a box that we can manage, taming God’s power, but the poem reminds us that God cannot be contained. And thank goodness for that,” she concludes, “because that means that God’s grace can also not be contained or circumscribed.”

We cannot force the divine calendar or agenda. But we can make ourselves joyfully ready for the invasion of God’s grace and mercy. “At the beginning of Advent, then,” Carvalho declares,

this poem asks us to surrender. Stop fighting to be good or better. Stop worrying about being more righteous or enlightened. Stop thinking we alone can make Christmas special. Stop rushing past the hard lessons. After all, “We all fade like a leaf.” That is, until God claims us as sacred clay.

Stop rushing past the hard lessons – there’s a word for us in this moment. The temptation to write a revisionist history for ourselves, for our side, for our ideas, will be intense. We all will be tempted to rush past the hard lessons and fabricate easy ones. We are all terribly tempted to become legends in our own minds and then to blame God for not recognizing this sooner. Here at the beginning of Advent, we are called to wait. Not because waiting is a good in itself – it may or may not be. Instead, we wait for our past to catch up to us and for the power of the Spirit it takes to tell the truth about that past. Only then can we be freed for life in the future.

Resources

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253

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