God coming down

Please read Isaiah 64: 1-12, I Corinthians 1 :3-9 and Mark 13:24-37 and then pray; O Lord, teach me to walk in your ways so that I may be ready for the great day of your coming, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Today we step into a new year – a new year of the Church’s liturgical calendar. This is a year which begins on the first Sunday of Advent and not on the first day of January. At the beginning of any new liturgical year, we immediately step into a specific season, and that of course is the season of Advent. The word advent, which comes from the Latin “adventus” simply means arrival or visit. Like Lent, Advent is a season of preparation for one the most significant religious days of the year. Advent is a period of preparation which includes four Sundays, given to us so that we might prepare for Christmas Day, and Christmas Day is the magnificent celebration or festival which marks and rejoices in the arrival or the advent of Jesus Christ, “who is God and Lord of all.” That phrase “who is God and Lord of all” is lifted out of the Christmas Carol “Once in royal David’s city” written by Cecil F. Alexander: This is a hymn that speaks of the lowly birth and arrival of a baby who was given the name Jesus, a name which means Saviour.

Advent helps and enables us to prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ into our world, but what so many people misunderstand and tragically fail to appreciate, is the identity and huge significance of the baby who was born in Bethlehem. I want to explore the advent of Jesus with the help of the prophet Isaiah’s passionate prophetic prayer (Isaiah 64) which is our main bible focus today, and with his wider prophecies concerning the advent of the Messiah. As you begin to engage with this prayerful cry of Isaiah, you notice a repeated emphasis at the heart of his bold request. Isaiah pleads wholeheartedly for one thing above all else – the coming down of Almighty God. (Isaiah 64: 1, 2 and 3)

His earnest prayer begins with a passion-filled outburst for God to tear apart the heavens – and come down. In verse 2, the prophet asks again for God to come down to make His name known to His enemies, and to cause the nations to sit up, quake and fear His holy and awesome presence. Isaiah then looks to the past and reminds God of how He came down earlier in Israelite history and unexpectedly performed awesome and powerful deeds. Isaiah is pleading for the coming down or the personal visitation of God on behalf of His people. The prophet yearns for God to come down once again and act powerfully to assist and save His people who are in exile.

Why the prayer? Why the desperation? Why this specific request? Because the disaster the nation is suffering both at home in Jerusalem and in exile in Babylon is just so devastating and humiliating that Isaiah feels driven to ask for God’s personal and direct intervention. The mess the nation is in can only be solved by a powerful intervention and move by God. (10-12) When you look at the state of the world and our own nation today – do you ever feel like asking God in prayer to come down and do something about all the evil and the devastation? When you consider all that is painfully unfolding around Israel at the present time, and the knife crime, violence, and hatred on our own streets; the economic mess and the unrelenting suffering of the poor, the moral catastrophe and decay stemming from the abandonment of God’s ways of righteousness and justice in our land – do you not want to turn with Isaiah and pray from the depths of your soul;

Oh God, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you.

Have we reached a point of need and desperation such that we are praying for God to personally come amongst us and demonstrate His power, righteousness, holiness, justice, and love? Do you still believe that the politicians can sort out the mess or are we beyond that? I know what I think and believe, but what do you think? Are you ready to pour over Isaiah 64 and pray these words on behalf of our nation and our world today? For me, this is the most relevant and urgent prayer for our time.

You might ask this question. Why are things as they are? Why does evil abound? Why is there so much suffering, pain, and devastation of human life and of our environment? Why is there such as sense of things “wasting away” and “shrivelling up?” (7) Isaiah answers that question. He points immediately to the cause of it all – human greed, arrogance, selfishness, sin, and pride-filled rebellion against God. What he saw and felt deep in his soul was the outcome of Israel deliberately turning its back on God and His ways, and then God responding by withdrawing His grace and turning His back on them. Israel had lost the face, the presence, and the help of God. God seemed a million miles away.

Read Isaiah 64: 5-7.

Isaiah believed that God alone could heal the people and the land, and therefore he pleads with God to personally come down in power and restore things. His praying is very much like that which we have in the great Psalms, such as Psalm 80 (todays Psalm). Read Psalm 80 v 1-3. Notice, this includes the request: Awaken your might; come and save us. The Psalmist also bids God – Come down with power.

In the forefront of Isaiah’s mind is the fact that God has done this before in the nation’s history – and in particular Isaiah is thinking about the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. On that sacred mountain God came down and there was amongst other things trembling, fear, fire and smoke, terrific thunder, and lighting. Isaiah has in mind the events recorded in Exodus 19 and desperately wants God to do a repeat performance on behalf of his beleaguered people. (Read Exodus 19: 16-19) Now read again Isaiah 64:1-3 and see the connection which the prophet is clearly making.

What we have in Exodus 19 is what theologians and bible scholars refer to as a theophany. What is that? A theophany is an appearance of God, an intense manifestation of the presence of God that is accompanied by an extraordinary visual display – and in Exodus 19 we have one of the greatest and most memorable theophanies in the OT. There are others which we cannot consider here, but this was one of the most notable theophanies during “ancient times.” (4) Isaiah yearned for God to come down again in such a manner, and make known his power and his great name.

Isaiah was a prophet who spoke the word of the Lord with power and insight. And during this season of advent, you are very likely to hear his words again and again – words that look forward not to a theophany but to an incarnation. God not only coming down, but God coming down and taking on flesh, bones and blood, a human body, and a human nature.

Isaiah is the prophet who speaks more than any other about “a forerunner” to the great Deliverer who would come amongst his people. We read this from Isaiah 40 v 1-5. We all recognise who these words refer to (John the Baptist) – but then consider these words from Isaiah 9 v 2-7. Who is this child to be born? Who this son who will enter the world? Who is the One who will be Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God? Who will be this Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace? Whose government will be eternally peaceful? Who will reign on David’s throne with such perfect justice and righteousness? Isaiah speaks of Messiah – the One to come. Isaiah prophecies the Mighty God coming down among us. Elsewhere, he prophecies about “a virgin who will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) What does that mean? It means “God with us.” It means God come down to live upon the earth. It means the eternal Word becoming flesh and living in our world. (John 1: 1-3, 14) Can you remember the details of the words spoken to Joseph by the Lord through a dream? (Read Matthew 1: 20-23)

This was to be no theophany, but the incarnation. God himself coming down to live, struggle, suffer and die amongst us in the person of His Son Jesus the Christ. Advent points to the arrival of God himself, and at Christmas we celebrate the historical fact and wonder of the incarnation. Our Christmas Carols which we love to sing bear out this glorious fact. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see – hail incarnate deity.” “He came down to earth from heaven – who is God and Lord of all.” “Love came down at Christmas – Love all lovely, Love Divine. When Isaiah prayed for God to come down – did he ever imagine that this would happen in this manner of the incarnation of the Son of God over six hundred years after he uttered his desperate plea?

Whilst some appear to struggle to even acknowledge and believe in God, Christians the world over, celebrate with deep joy and gratitude the fact that God not only created and sustains the world, but God in Jesus visited it, and even died for it. God has dwelt among us. I share again the quotation I shared with you in this month’s Chronicle, words written by the Christian scholar and writer Jim Packer;

It is here in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of Christian revelation lie. The Word was made flesh (John 1:14). God became man; the divine son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.

To allow tinsel, trees, toys, and trimmings to distract us from what is the heart of Christmas is tragic. Christmas is about Immanual – God with us – being born as one of us – and choosing to be born in the humblest and barest of circumstances. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets! Indeed, the apostle John who was one of Jesus’s most privileged disciples reflected long and hard about the reality of the incarnation. It never ceased to utterly amaze and astound him. Likewise, the incarnation should amaze and astound us too! Does it? Does it cause you to worship and to wonder and marvel at the grace and condescension of God? John and others tell us why he came, why he entered this dark, violent, and volatile world. Remember how Isaiah in his prayer had pleaded that God might make known Himself, His power, and His ways to the nations. This is why Jesus came according to John, because after John tells us that the Word became flesh, he goes on to say this;

From the fullness of his grace, we have all received one blessing after another. For the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:16-18)

Jesus came to make God known. Jesus came to show us what God is like. Jesus came to show us the grace and truth of God. To his disciples he said; Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9) Jesus came to make known His Father’s purity, perfection, love, and grace. If you want to really know what God is like and how much God cares and loves us – look at Jesus who is God in the flesh. And Jesus did not merely come to make God and his ways and character known to us, he came that we might be reconciled to God, that we might have our sins forgiven and removed, that we might know and enjoy God personally and experience eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

God’s Son entered the world that he might die for the world, that those who come to him and trust in him may know eternal life. Back to Isaiah who spoke of One who would become a Servant and who would be “pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” The Servant of the Lord took the punishment on the cross that could bring us peace with God, for the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6). So, there was always to be a binding connection between Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. He became flesh, one of us and one with us, so that He might die for us, in our place, for our sin. As one hymn writer puts it; In flesh he came to die in pain on Calvary’s tree.

Is that the end of the story, or is there more to the advent season? After Jesus died and triumphantly rose again on the third day, destroying the power of death and opening the gate to eternal life, he promised two incredibly important things. Firstly, he promised he would send the Holy Spirit to those who believed in him, and he promised that once the gospel of God’s saving love and grace had been taken to all nations through the power of the Spirit, He would come back again a second time. And so, the gospel, the bible, promises the coming down of God again.

Firstly, there was the coming down of God at Pentecost upon a waiting group of disciples in an upper room. There was the sound of a violent wind and down came the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire resting upon the heads of each disciple. God came down to equip and empower his people to take the gospel to the ends of the earth – and that is what the Church has been seeking to do for over 2000 years. During that time and especially during seasons when the Church has become compromised, languid, weak, and ineffective, God has revisited His people (in response to waiting prayer) in reviving power on many occasions, and is doing so today in various parts of the world. God comes down by the power of His Spirit and sets alight His people with new power and passion for the gospel. And when the likes of you and I today pray that prayer contained in Isaiah 64, we are in effect praying for revival amongst God’s people in our time. We must pray for that because we desperately need it. We need to be revived and restored just as Israel did in Isaiah’s time and we want God’s great name to be known and honoured among the people of our spiritually weary and desolate land. Your kingdom come, O God!

But there is also this very important and vital additional key element to advent and to the whole gospel – the element of the second advent of Jesus. On the first Sunday of advent, the selected N T readings for this day always speak boldly not about the first advent of Jesus in Bethlehem, but his second advent which will take place at the climax of world history and the end of this age. Jesus solemnly promised that He would return, not in humility as he did in Bethlehem, but with great power and glory. Speaking about himself, Jesus said;

At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Mark 13: 26-27)

Just as the OT prophesied the first advent of Messiah and he eventually came down breaking into history, becoming its most dominating personality, so the NT again and again promises and teaches the truth of his second advent which will end history as we know it. This will see Jesus coming down again to judge the world in righteousness and truth, and to bring in the fullness of His kingdom. Hebrews 9: 27 declares;

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people, and he will appear a SECOND time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (see also 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18)

This is what we now need to be ready and prepared for – the second advent of Christ the Lord. We prepare for it in several crucial ways. This is what we are especially called to do on Advent 1!

We recognise the gifts that God has given to each of us and we diligently use them for the rest of our lives to further his love and purposes in the world. As Paul teaches the Corinthian Church; Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. (1 Corinthians 1:7). We all must endeavour to use the gifts God has given us. Waiting for Christ involves serving Christ and using the talents he has given us and not burying them as the fearful and lazy servant did in the parable where Jesus spoke of his return. (Matthew: 25:14f) Are you faithfully exercising the gifts God has given you? You must do this until he comes.

Secondly, we pursue personal holiness with an unrelenting personal commitment and passion. We “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) We aim and pray to be conformed to the image and character of Jesus our Lord, thus playing our part to reveal Jesus to the world around us here and now. We are children of God and should live as such, “putting on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4: 22-24) We should aim to live as though Christ died yesterday, rose again today, and is returning tomorrow. Be holy as I am holy says the Lord! Until He comes!

Thirdly, we should aim to live each day with a watching and waiting mentality and attitude – we live alert in the knowledge that Jesus could return at any moment like a thief in the night – and we must be ready. We believe in the second coming of Christ and live in the light of its reality and prospect. Jesus said, “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on your guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch! (Mark 13: 32-33, 37) Make sure you have oil in your lamp. (Matthew 25: 1-13) Do not be spiritually negligent in any way – observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper regularly “until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)

Finally remember and hold on tightly to the fact that God is faithful. His promises never fail. Just as His promises were fulfilled through the first advent of Christ, so His promises will be fulfilled when Jesus comes a second and final time. Be encouraged by Paul’s uplifting words to the Corinthians; He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

May God keep us all watchful and alert as we serve him and wait for His Son to appear again with power and in great glory. Come thou long expected Jesus! Come down we pray. Amen!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (3.12.23)