Text study for Isaiah 64:1-9
Lectionary text for Advent 1, Nov. 27, 2011
Have you seen the billboards beside the interstates that purport to be messages from God?
I’m on the road a lot and I see a lot of those signs; they always make me laugh and sometimes they make me think.
I saw one in east Tennessee that went like this:
DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE! — GOD.
The writer of our text from Isaiah would like that, I think. Though it is likely that he would be thinking, WHY DON’T YOU COME ON DOWN ALREADY, WHAT’S KEEPING YOU?
This text is part of a lament, an argumentative prayer, in which the prophet struggles with God over the fact that God has not been heard from in a while and things aren’t going so well for God’s people in the midst of God’s absence.
The NRSV (and the RSV and the KJV) translates Isaiah 64:1 as something of a sighing request:
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
The Revised English Bible frames it as a question and makes the prophet’s complaint much clearer:
“Why do you not tear asunder the heavens and come down?”
The first part of our text has a tone of wondering and smoldering anger that God has left and abandoned the people.
This accusatory theme barely lets up in verses 5 through 7 where, although the prophet admits that the people have sinned, turned from God and are in trouble because of it, he also lays the blame for this sinfulness squarely in God’s lap for having gone away and left them to their own devices.
It’s like the old Mark Twain joke about the man who killed his parents and then pleaded for mercy from the court because he was an orphan.
A change in tone
Then, at the beginning of verse 8, one word changes the tone and the meaning of the entire text.
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand.”
The Hebrew here is variously translated “yet,” “but,” “however,” “nevertheless.”
After making a serious and passionate case that things are really, really, bad and that God is, honestly, just as much to blame as the folk; the prophet speaks a word of hope and promise: “Yet, you are our Father.”
This word of hope and promise is rooted in an awareness of the mighty acts of God that have come before and in trust that God will act again.
The season of Advent
Advent is the season of “yet,” of “but,” of “however,” of “nevertheless.”
Advent is a time when we stare into the face of the present data of the world’s sorry state and dare to believe that God still cares and God still plans to do something about it.
Advent is a time when we wrestle with and confess the reality that we in the church all too often live out of a practical atheism, in which we say with our lips that we believe in God, but we say with our lives that we really believe, really put our trust, in armies, governments and savings accounts.
Advent is a time when we wait for the Lord to come, and while we wait, we seek to become people who gladly do right, who remember God and God’s ways.
Advent is a time when we do, indeed, wait for God to come down here, but it is not a fearful waiting, for it is promised that when God comes, our iniquity, our sin, our sorrow will be remembered no more.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.
- What does it mean to be “clay in the hands of the potter?”
- What are you waiting for this Advent?
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, he has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.