From Appeal to Repentance
The people cry out “stir up your might and come to save us!”1 These words are directed to the God of Israel, the God who is the source of hope for his people, the God who is active for those who hope in him. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to that hope in our Old Testament reading for today: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”2 The same prayer is on our lips this First Sunday in Advent: “Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come, that by Your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved.” Oh that God would become actively involved in what is happening here and now! We can certainly relate to that today. We too appeal to God to come to where we are and make his presence known in justice and righteousness, to relieve us from our burdens and problems in this life. This year especially we enter into this familiar season of the Church year with a dark backdrop of all too unfamiliar and unsettling events that disrupt the normal patterns we have always counted on. We are longing for a return to a more certain and grounded present and future. But hasn’t this always been the hope of God’s people, even without a novel corona virus pandemic? They appeal to God knowing what he has done in the past, those times and places in the Holy Scriptures when God not only would reveal his glory but would speak to his people, when he would confront and put an end to evil, when he demonstrated his power, and when he would bring about his salvation.
God’s people, past and present, are looking for an interruption of history. They are looking for an intervention. Long ago God spoke to the assembly of Israel at Mt. Sinai, “out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice”3 Would that he would do that again! This is what Advent brings us, an interruption, an intervention. We enter this season of hopeful anticipation, watching and waiting for God to bring the intercession the world hopes for, “the hopes and dreams of the all years.” In His coming Christ Jesus fulfills the prayers of the prophets and all God’s people for all time. For He has come to take away your sins, to conquer evil and to bring salvation.
What kind of God does this? He is the God “who acts for those who wait for him.”4 What can God’s people know about him? They can know what he has revealed to them, and what they have experienced out of that revelation. The prophet Isaiah has no interest in mythologies, in stories about false gods and the abominable pagan ceremonies of the age that have turned people toward the darkness. Isaiah was brought into the presence of the Lord God Almighty and his lips were cleansed in order to bring God’s Word to the people. And so he praises the One True God: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you:”5 The sum total of all that Isaiah has received, that which God revealed to him and that which he has experienced first hand, is this: nothing else in the universe has the right to the name of God except the one God, the Holy One of Israel.
This is precisely the message of the Gospels, the message of the Good News handed down to the Church from the apostles. St. John writes about the revelation of the Son of God in the same way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life”6 What truly distinguishes our God is that he is for you, he is your Saviour, and He comes to you in person. He is the God who reveals himself to those who wait for him. That’s what Isaiah is all about, waiting for a God to reveal himself to a people; waiting for a Servant to come and deal a death blow to sin. Waiting for a Messiah to establish His kingdom forever.
But the prophet Isaiah is also clear-eyed and realistic about the state God’s people find themselves in. Along with waiting for God, along with trusting and hoping, there is the necessity to hearken to God’s word, to follow in the paths of righteousness he has made known to his people. In fact the prophet says, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness.”7 But what if that is not the case? What about those who aren’t righteous? Here lies the problem. We are not a blank sheets of paper upon which we can begin to write sums of confident trust and glad obedience. No, the sheet is so spotted and stained that there isn’t room to make a beginning. The stains are a result of sin: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”8 This is the time of year when all the leaves have gone, swept away by the wind, and where there was green life there is now only brown husk blowing around the yard. This is how sin works in the lives of people. In the absence of God’s righteousness we are no more than dried up leaves, blown this way and that by the wind, cut off from God and life. In that moment the mercy and comfort we seek seems far from us, and now we cry out, “you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”9
It seems we find ourselves caught in a vicious circle. God meets those who do righteousness, but we can’t do righteousness – unless God enables it. Yet Isaiah is not bringing a message of hopelessness in this waiting. We know what kind of God we have – we have already seen that he is the God who longs to save his people. The path is perfectly clear, a way that passes from a desperate appeal to God that he would intervene, to confession and repentance: “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?”10 The advent of our Lord is the emphatic “yes!” to the question “shall we be saved.” God revealed himself and his plan of salvation through Moses and the prophets. The promise was the Word, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.11 Jesus Christ is He who comes. He comes “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”12 He comes meek riding on a colt, and the people shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”13 Today He comes in like manner, not visible but still easy to recognize. He comes to His church as the Lord of the Gospel, whom we already knew even as little children. He comes in His Word, and in His Sacraments. We too cry “Blessed is He who comes,” and we too are turned in repentance toward the forgiveness and mercy that we have only in Him.
And so God’s people turn to him, they never cease to call upon him, trusting, hoping, waiting: “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”14 In Christ Jesus we have the assurance that God does not remember our iniquity, but has provided the means by which the guilt of our sins has passed on to the Lamb of God, who was slain to take away the sins of the world.
Isaiah speaks to us in this season of Advent, this time of penitential preparation, he speaks to us as those who are waiting for the grace and mercy of God to be revealed once again even as we have already received it by His Holy Word and Sacrament. Just like the people of Judah were waiting in Babylonia exile, so we wait for our final salvation when Christ comes again to take what is His. Throughout the ages the situation of God’s people remains the same. God’s people move from appeal to repentance. We live simultaneously as sinner and saint, as those who feel the weight of sin, as we have the burdens of life in this imperfect and broken world bearing down on us. Still we look to God in faith. In repentance we turn again to God and receive forgiveness as those redeemed by Our Lord, so that our sins no longer count against us.
Listen again to the prayer of the prophet: “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” This is a prayer of trust, a prayer of faith, a prayer of confidence that just as the Lord has acted in the past so he will act again. This year, which is marked by pandemic and uncertainty, enter into this time of Advent with quiet trust. With eyes and ears of faith, look to Jesus Christ, our king who is coming, righteous and having salvation. Come, Lord Jesus.