Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the First Wednesday of Advent (Ad te levavi), 12/4/2019. The text for the sermon was Isaiah 64:1-9.
He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.
And when he does, then you will get what you deserve. Maybe a new toy – maybe a lump of coal.
That version of St. Nicholas is a fiction. But there is some truth there – not about him, but about us.
That familiar little jingle preaches the religion of all men: that we are naturally inclined to ask for what we think we deserve. For ourselves and for others, we want what we have coming.
Contrast that with what Isaiah’s Christmas list.
Israel is surrounded by nations of the naughty, and the people themselves…they have not been particularly good either. All in all, they are deeply discouraged, and they ought to be.
Isaiah knows what the people deserve – what everybody deserves. But he dare not ask for it. Instead, Isaiah cries out for God to break through, and into their world.
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—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence! (verses 1-2)
Isaiah knows that nothing other than God’s direct intervention can break the power of the people’s sin and make them a witness to the nations instead of a laughingstock …
So he begs God to come and fix it, to fix them. He has to. Because if they could fix themselves, surely they would have done it by now. But they can’t.
He says it this way:
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
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.
There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. (verses 5-7)
Isaiah doesn’t hide the problem or sugarcoat it: the LORD meets those who joyfully work righteousness, who remember Him in His ways.
But our very best stuff is like a filthy rag. We are completely unable to do righteousness until God makes it possible. For no one calls upon His name to take hold of Him, and so He has hidden His face from us.
It’s a vicious cycle that brings us to the following realization: God is angry and justifiably so, but is He to remain angry? If so, the people can do nothing about it. They cannot somehow produce enough righteousness to mollify God, because they are helpless before their sin, as verses 6–7 show so graphically.
God will have to satisfy His righteous anger for Himself. No one else can do it.
He will have to rend the heavens. He will have to come down. He will have to be righteous for us and in our place. He will even have to be made unrighteous for us and in our place.
Everything Isaiah is asking for has come to us in the Child of Bethlehem, Whose coming we wait to celebrate yet again.
Like Israel and all the nations, you would not call upon Him, or take hold of Him. But this Child, without speech, with just gurgles and coos, He calls upon you, He takes hold of you, of your flesh and your blood. In Christ, the face of God, once hidden, is revealed.
If you know the Christmas story, you know that Isaiah could not have been disappointed at how gently it goes.
This Child is everything he ever hoped for; He is everything Israel ever hoped for; everything you ever hoped for. He is the very reason you can confidently ask for everything you don’t deserve.
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. (verses 8-9)
Luther sums it up this way:
So we are in the hand of God, and even though we are evil, He thrusts us into the lump, into a Babylonian captivity, until the clay has been worked through better so that it becomes more pleasing. Then it will become a new lump. It is as if [Isaiah] were saying: “The fact that You have trampled the clay will not harm us who are broken, if only You remain the Potter and will reshape us.” This is the task of a potter.
We could have been left broken and alone, with God’s face hidden from us. It would have been just and fair – everything we deserve. But He would not have it. It’s just not who He is.
That kind of Good News is what made someone like Santa Claus, the real one, so jolly that, according to tradition, he sacrificed his sizable inheritance so that poor local girls would not be sold into prostitution.
You might share that the next time you see this kindly saint, well known for extravagant charity, being turned into a cautionary tale to coerce good behavior out of kids.
The same goes for Jesus. He’s not making a list, tallying up your good deeds. He doesn’t wonder if you’ve been naughty or nice. He knows what Isaiah knows. And He’s coming anyway, from Heaven to Earth, rending the heavens, and coming down: Pure Gift, all for you.