Advent Reflections (11-30-11)

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Nov 302011
 

Isaiah 64:1-9 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ November 30, 2011 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

* * * * * * *

Isaiah was writing to the people of Israel in one of the darkest times of their history.  Their homeland has been destroyed and they have been carted off as captives/exiles into Babylon.  Because of their sin and rebellion, because of their refusal to trust and worship God, God, who is a holy God and cannot simply look the other way at human sin, has allowed this punishment to happen to them.

They are being judged by God, but this judgment is not an end in itself.  For God intends the judgment of his people to ultimately lead to the purification and restoration of his people.  God’s judgment, in other words, is rooted in God’s love.

The passage we are about to read from Isaiah 64 is a prayer of hope.  It’s a prayer offered from people who recognize that, because of their sin, they are in desperate need of God’s deliverance.  They have no illusions.  They know they are stuck and they know the need God to come and save them.

I’ll be honest with you up front tonight, if you are a person who does not believe that, because of your sin, you are also in desperate need of God’s deliverance tonight…if you do not believe that then this prayer will likely have little or no meaning for you.  You might even find it bothersome or offensive.

However, if you are a person who has come to realize that your sin is so great that it has left you desperately in need of God’s deliverance and grace in life, then I encourage you to make this prayer your prayer.

The prayer begins…

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 *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!

Understand that the person who prays for God to tear open the heavens and come down, the person who prays that God would come near, is the person who recognizes that God is far away.

Let me ask you, is that ever your prayer?  Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever feel like God is not as close to you as you would like God to be?  Do you ever feel like God does not speak to you when you need God to speak to you?  Do you ever feel like God does not do what you really need God to do?   Are you, in any sense, waiting for God to act in your life?  Watching for God to show up?

Maybe you’ve been waiting so long that you’re about to give up on God.  Even so, maybe you still have enough faith to pray, as Isaiah prays here, “Lord, we need you to come.  Because we know that when you come, whatever enemies we face now will flee in your presence.  And, Lord, we have a lot of enemies that seek to overcome us.

Scarcity.  Fear.  Grief.  Sickness.  Cancer.  Guilt.  Deceit.  Pain.  Abandonment.  Loneliness.  Evil.  Sin.  None of these enemies can stand in the presence of God.  So come, Lord.  We know that if you do, these enemies will tremble in your presence.

How do we know?  We remember.  The prayer continues…


3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Isaiah remembers.  Specifically, Isaiah remembers when God came and met his people in Egypt.  They had been stuck for 400 years as slaves, but God showed up and when all was said and done the enemies of God’s people fled.

You know the story.  God delivered his people from the mighty Egyptians in marvelous and miraculous ways.  And then God met them on Mt. Sinai, met Moses face to face, and the mountain that day literally trembled at God’s presence.

Isaiah remembers.

We remember as well.  Don’t we?  In a few moments, in fact, we will gather around this table and we will remember.  We will remember that our God tore open the heavens that first Christmas and came down and when all was said and done, not even the enemy of death could not stand without trembling in his presence.

We remember, Lord, that you did awesome deeds we did not expect.  We remember, Lord, that you are our only hope.

The prayer continues…

4From 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.

Isaiah affirms that which we need to affirm tonight.  If you place the hope of salvation in anything else in life besides God, you will ultimately hope in vain.  God may not save when and how we want God to save, but God is, nonetheless, the only one who can save.

Politics cannot save us.  Medicine cannot save us.  Science and technology cannot save us.  The false gods of other religions cannot save us.  Our own efforts cannot save us.

The claim of Isaiah is that there is only one who can save us.  Only the Lord can save us.  Only God will work on behalf of those who wait in faith for him.

But why do we have to wait?  If God is our savior, our only hope, why is God so distant?  We have to wait, Isaiah reminds us, because we have driven God away.  The prayer continues.

5
But you were angry [Lord], and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.*
6 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.
7 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.

If you’re looking for somebody to put a pretty face on things, Isaiah is not your man.  Isaiah is a prophet.  And prophets speak the truth, even when the truth is difficult to swallow.

Isaiah makes clear, we are separated from God, waiting in desperation for salvation, because of our sin.  We have rebelled against God.  We are, all of us, unclean in God’s sight.  Even our righteous deeds, even our best efforts, Isaiah says, are like filthy cloths.  The literal translation here is menstrual rags.  Our best efforts, God’s Word tells us, are like used menstrual rags.

Nobody calls on God.  Nobody tries to take hold of God.  Everybody lives for himself or herself.  And so God, in his Holiness, has turned his face from us and left us to stew in our mess.

Of course, here’s the question.  Do you believe that Isaiah’s words describe your life, your condition?

The world would have you believe that they do not.  It’s really not as bad as all that, we’re told.  Nobody’s perfect, of course, but in spite of our faults, we really are good and beautiful people, filled with such fine intentions.  The human race, we’re told, should be celebrated in all of its splendor.  Everybody, or at least nearly everybody, should be applauded and affirmed just for who they are.  You are doing the best that you can, and that’s what counts.

This is the way the world talks about humanity.  This is, however, never the way the Bible talks about humanity.  Read it for yourself.  I can’t think of a single instance, New or Old Testament, where God’s Word celebrates the innate goodness of humanity.  I can’t think of a single instance.

The value of humanity, yes.  The Bible speaks often about our worth.  But not our goodness.  Instead, over and over and over again God, in his Word, makes clear to us that even our most righteous acts are like filthy rags.

The question, again, is do you believe that this describes your most righteous acts, your life, your condition?

My fear is that the world has done such a job on us that I could read you verse after verse of this truth repeated in scripture and still some of you would remain unconvinced.  No matter how many times God, through his Word, declares judgment on us as wretched sinners, some people, many people, will refuse to accept this truth about themselves.

Isaiah, by the grace of God, accepted it.  You may remember in Isaiah 6, he comes face to face with the glory of God and all he can say is, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Isaiah understand the rotten depth of his sin.

You should know that I am also learning, by the grace of God, to accept this to be true about myself.  You see, the more I come to know the holiness of God the more I become aware of the great sin in my own life.  I don’t need to go into detail with you this evening, but trust me when I tell you that, in spite of how it may appear at times, even my best efforts at righteousness are like filthy rags.  Apart from the grace of Christ, everything about me is tainted by sin.  Everything.

Apart from God grace, my life is like one of the leaves on these liquid amber trees which line Florin Road outside the church and turn stunning colors each fall.  My life may be full of brilliant color for a time, even beautiful to look at from the outside, but apart from Christ it is slowly dying on the vine and it will only be a matter of time before a stiff winter breeze comes along and sweeps it away forever.

What was true about Isaiah is, I’m coming to see, true about me.  Can you come to believe that these words describe your life as well?  Can you come to realize that you are stuck in your wretched sin and in desperate need of a savior?  This truth goes down hard, but when and if it goes down – listen to me – it is the very medicine we need and is, in fact, the first step towards deliverance.

Oswald Chambers was a pastor and teacher who lived long ago.  Recently I read these words of his,

We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God through our own efforts.  We must either receive it as a gift or do without it.  The greatest spiritual blessing we receive is when we come to the knowledge that we are destitute.  Until we get there, our Lord is powerless.  He can do nothing for us as long as we think we are sufficient in and of ourselves. We must enter into His kingdom through the door of destitution. As long as we are “rich,” particularly in the area of pride or independence, God can do nothing for us. It is only when we get hungry spiritually that we receive the Holy Spirit of God.

Jesus put it more succinctly, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

If and when we accept the fact that we are destitute in our sin, impoverished in our spiritual life, starved for righteousness, and left with no way to dig ourselves out, then we are finally in that desperate place where all we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

When we finally give up hoping in our own goodness, our own efforts, then and only then can we place our hope in God’s goodness.

When we quit hoping that God will save us because we are lovable we begin hoping that God will save us because God is love.

It is in this hope that Isaiah continues his prayer…

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Notice, there are no excuses.  Isaiah does not suggest that God owes us anything.  We are not justified in any way.  This is not what Isaiah prays.  What does Isaiah pray?  He simply reminds God, and maybe reminds himself in doing so, that in spite of how sin has changed us, God has not changed.  God is still our Creator.  God is still our Father.  God made us.  God shaped us.  God has given everything to us.  God loves us.

“So Lord,” Isaiah boldly prays, “You cannot just toss aside that unto which you have for all time lavished care and attention, and that into which you have put so much of yourself.  Lord, we are made by your hands, in your very image. Father, we are your children.  And so our hope, our only hope, is that your love for us is greater than our sin against you.”  This is Isaiah’s desperate prayer which we are invited to make our own.

I find it tragically amusing that there are so many people, even in the church, who insist that people are, at their core, full of goodness and beauty and that God loves us because we are, in fact, lovable.  But if God loves me because I am lovable, what’s so special about that?  Even I love people who are lovable.

And so, those people who insist on our goodness as the reason that God loves us, those people actually, without intending to do so, dramatically cheapen the love of God.

For, you see, if Isaiah is right, if it is true that you and me are wretched people, full of filthy sin and hatred towards God, and yet God, in spite of that fact, still loves us, loves us enough to tear open heaven and come down to die for us in the midst of our sin and hatred, if that is true, well then now we are talking about a love that is truly out of this world.  Now we are talking about a love that has the power to transform this world.

Nobody I know loves like that.

Amen.

 

 

Advent Reflections

Isaiah 64:1-9

 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ November 30, 2011 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

 

X X X X X X X

 

Isaiah was writing to the people of Israel in one of the darkest times of their history.  Their homeland has been destroyed and they have been carted off as captives/exiles into Babylon.  Because of their sin and rebellion, because of their refusal to trust and worship God, God, who is a holy God and cannot simply look the other way at human sin, has allowed this punishment to happen to them.  

 

They are being judged by God, but this judgment is not an end in itself.  For God intends the judgment of his people to ultimately lead to the purification and restoration of his people.  God’s judgment, in other words, is rooted in God’s love.

 

The passage we are about to read from Isaiah 64 is a prayer of hope.  It’s a prayer offered from people who recognize that, because of their sin, they are in desperate need of God’s deliverance.  They have no illusions.  They know they are stuck and they know the need God to come and save them.

 

I’ll be honest with you up front tonight, if you are a person who does not believe that, because of your sin, you are also in desperate need of God’s deliverance tonight…if you do not believe that then this prayer will likely have little or no meaning for you.  You might even find it bothersome or offensive.

 

However, if you are a person who has come to realize that your sin is so great that it has left you desperately in need of God’s deliverance and grace in life, then I encourage you to make this prayer your prayer. 

 

The prayer begins…

 

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 *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!

 

Understand that the person who prays for God to tear open the heavens and come down, the person who prays that God would come near, is the person who recognizes that God is far away. 

 

Let me ask you, is that ever your prayer?  Do you ever feel that way?  Do you ever feel like God is not as close to you as you would like God to be?  Do you ever feel like God does not speak to you when you need God to speak to you?  Do you ever feel like God does not do what you really need God to do?   Are you, in any sense, waiting for God to act in your life?  Watching for God to show up? 

 

Maybe you’ve been waiting so long that you’re about to give up on God.  Even so, maybe you still have enough faith to pray, as Isaiah prays here, “Lord, we need you to come.  Because we know that when you come, whatever enemies we face now will flee in your presence.  And, Lord, we have a lot of enemies that seek to overcome us. 

 

Scarcity.  Fear.  Grief.  Sickness.  Cancer.  Guilt.  Deceit.  Pain.  Abandonment.  Loneliness.  Evil.  Sin.  None of these enemies can stand in the presence of God.  So come, Lord.  We know that if you do, these enemies will tremble in your presence. 

 

How do we know?  We remember.  The prayer continues…


3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

 

Isaiah remembers.  Specifically, Isaiah remembers when God came and met his people in Egypt.  They had been stuck for 400 years as slaves, but God showed up and when all was said and done the enemies of God’s people fled. 

 

You know the story.  God delivered his people from the mighty Egyptians in marvelous and miraculous ways.  And then God met them on Mt. Sinai, met Moses face to face, and the mountain that day literally trembled at God’s presence.

 

Isaiah remembers.

 

We remember as well.  Don’t we?  In a few moments, in fact, we will gather around this table and we will remember.  We will remember that our God tore open the heavens that first Christmas and came down and when all was said and done, not even the enemy of death could not stand without trembling in his presence. 

 

We remember, Lord, that you did awesome deeds we did not expect.  We remember, Lord, that you are our only hope. 

 

The prayer continues…

 

4From 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.

 

Isaiah affirms that which we need to affirm tonight.  If you place the hope of salvation in anything else in life besides God, you will ultimately hope in vain.  God may not save when and how we want God to save, but God is, nonetheless, the only one who can save.

 

Politics cannot save us.  Medicine cannot save us.  Science and technology cannot save us.  The false gods of other religions cannot save us.  Our own efforts cannot save us. 

 

The claim of Isaiah is that there is only one who can save us.  Only the Lord can save us.  Only God will work on behalf of those who wait in faith for him.   

 

But why do we have to wait?  If God is our savior, our only hope, why is God so distant?  We have to wait, Isaiah reminds us, because we have driven God away.  The prayer continues.

5
But you were angry [Lord], and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.*
6 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.
7 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.

 

If you’re looking for somebody to put a pretty face on things, Isaiah is not your man.  Isaiah is a prophet.  And prophets speak the truth, even when the truth is difficult to swallow.

 

Isaiah makes clear, we are separated from God, waiting in desperation for salvation, because of our sin.  We have rebelled against God.  We are, all of us, unclean in God’s sight.  Even our righteous deeds, even our best efforts, Isaiah says, are like filthy cloths.  The literal translation here is menstrual rags.  Our best efforts, God’s Word tells us, are like used menstrual rags.

 

Nobody calls on God.  Nobody tries to take hold of God.  Everybody lives for himself or herself.  And so God, in his Holiness, has turned his face from us and left us to stew in our mess.

 

Of course, here’s the question.  Do you believe that Isaiah’s words describe your life, your condition? 

 

The world would have you believe that they do not.  It’s really not as bad as all that, we’re told.  Nobody’s perfect, of course, but in spite of our faults, we really are good and beautiful people, filled with such fine intentions.  The human race, we’re told, should be celebrated in all of its splendor.  Everybody, or at least nearly everybody, should be applauded and affirmed just for who they are.  You are doing the best that you can, and that’s what counts.  

 

This is the way the world talks about humanity.  This is, however, never the way the Bible talks about humanity.  Read it for yourself.  I can’t think of a single instance, New or Old Testament, where God’s Word celebrates the innate goodness of humanity.  I can’t think of a single instance. 

 

The value of humanity, yes.  The Bible speaks often about our worth.  But not our goodness.  Instead, over and over and over again God, in his Word, makes clear to us that even our most righteous acts are like filthy rags.

 

The question, again, is do you believe that this describes your most righteous acts, your life, your condition?

 

My fear is that the world has done such a job on us that I could read you verse after verse of this truth repeated in scripture and still some of you would remain unconvinced.  No matter how many times God, through his Word, declares judgment on us as wretched sinners, some people, many people, will refuse to accept this truth about themselves. 

 

Isaiah, by the grace of God, accepted it.  You may remember in Isaiah 6, he comes face to face with the glory of God and all he can say is, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Isaiah understand the rotten depth of his sin.

 

You should know that I am also learning, by the grace of God, to accept this to be true about myself.  You see, the more I come to know the holiness of God the more I become aware of the great sin in my own life.  I don’t need to go into detail with you this evening, but trust me when I tell you that, in spite of how it may appear at times, even my best efforts at righteousness are like filthy rags.  Apart from the grace of Christ, everything about me is tainted by sin.  Everything. 

 

Apart from God grace, my life is like one of the leaves on these liquid amber trees which line Florin Road outside the church and turn stunning colors each fall.  My life may be full of brilliant color for a time, even beautiful to look at from the outside, but apart from Christ it is slowly dying on the vine and it will only be a matter of time before a stiff winter breeze comes along and sweeps it away forever. 

 

What was true about Isaiah is, I’m coming to see, true about me.  Can you come to believe that these words describe your life as well?  Can you come to realize that you are stuck in your wretched sin and in desperate need of a savior?  This truth goes down hard, but when and if it goes down – listen to me – it is the very medicine we need and is, in fact, the first step towards deliverance. 

 

Oswald Chambers was a pastor and teacher who lived long ago.  Recently I read these words of his,

 

We have to realize that we cannot earn or win anything from God through our own efforts.  We must either receive it as a gift or do without it.  The greatest spiritual blessing we receive is when we come to the knowledge that we are destitute.  Until we get there, our Lord is powerless.  He can do nothing for us as long as we think we are sufficient in and of ourselves. We must enter into His kingdom through the door of destitution. As long as we are “rich,” particularly in the area of pride or independence, God can do nothing for us. It is only when we get hungry spiritually that we receive the Holy Spirit of God.

 

Jesus put it more succinctly, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

 

If and when we accept the fact that we are destitute in our sin, impoverished in our spiritual life, starved for righteousness, and left with no way to dig ourselves out, then we are finally in that desperate place where all we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of God. 

 

When we finally give up hoping in our own goodness, our own efforts, then and only then can we place our hope in God’s goodness. 

 

When we quit hoping that God will save us because we are lovable we begin hoping that God will save us because God is love. 

 

It is in this hope that Isaiah continues his prayer…

 

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Notice, there are no excuses.  Isaiah does not suggest that God owes us anything.  We are not justified in any way.  This is not what Isaiah prays.  What does Isaiah pray?  He simply reminds God, and maybe reminds himself in doing so, that in spite of how sin has changed us, God has not changed.  God is still our Creator.  God is still our Father.  God made us.  God shaped us.  God has given everything to us.  God loves us. 

 

“So Lord,” Isaiah boldly prays, “You cannot just toss aside that unto which you have for all time lavished care and attention, and that into which you have put so much of yourself.  Lord, we are made by your hands, in your very image. Father, we are your children.  And so our hope, our only hope, is that your love for us is greater than our sin against you.”  This is Isaiah’s desperate prayer which we are invited to make our own.

 

I find it tragically amusing that there are so many people, even in the church, who insist that people are, at their core, full of goodness and beauty and that God loves us because we are, in fact, lovable.  But if God loves me because I am lovable, what’s so special about that?  Even I love people who are lovable. 

 

And so, those people who insist on our goodness as the reason that God loves us, those people actually, without intending to do so, dramatically cheapen the love of God.

 

For, you see, if Isaiah is right, if it is true that you and me are wretched people, full of filthy sin and hatred towards God, and yet God, in spite of that fact, still loves us, loves us enough to tear open heaven and come down to die for us in the midst of our sin and hatred, if that is true, well then now we are talking about a love that is truly out of this world.  Now we are talking about a love that has the power to transform this world. 

 

Nobody I know loves like that. 

 

Amen.