Advent 1

Preached: November 30, 2014

Rend the Heavens, O Lord
Isaiah 63:16b, 17; 64:1-8

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts for the advent of our King is Isaiah 63 and 64.

You, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 63:16b, 17; 64:1-8 NIV11)

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

“Rend the heavens and come down, Lord.” Have you flung that plea heavenward from the pit of your stomach? We see evil fill the world around us. God's truths are trampled even by many claiming to be Christian churches. Immorality parades as love, codifying itself in our laws and infiltrating our schools. New wars, attacks, and diseases terrorize the world. Unrest and riots in our own country hit closer to home. Ukraine, ISIS, Ferguson, Ebola, Nigeria are just new faces for old problems. Why doesn't our Lord just end it all?

Our own personal suffering can ignite those feelings as well. A painful disease, a sour relationship, deadening grief, overwhelming stress and apprehension, loss of purpose and meaning in life, the depths of heartbreak and desperation—how easily these ignite those feelings! Why doesn't the Lord end it all, at least for me? “Rend the heavens, O Lord, and come down. Take me out of this life.”

The prophet Isaiah feels the anxiety and despair that would overwhelm the people of Judah. He lived around 700 B.C., but he speaks prophetically of the time that was coming. Babylon under Nebuchadnezzer would take the people of Judah into exile. In 586 B.C. the Lord's temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. Then how well the exiles could take up these words of Isaiah as their own prayer as they struggled with heartbreak and despair at the triumph of God's enemies!

“Rend the heavens, O Lord, and come down” is our prayer as well, dear Christian friends. It's not a shout of defiance, shaking our fists at the powerful and well-off in this world. It's not a hopeless cry of exasperation that's given up and just wants to die. Rather we pray: “Rend the heavens, O Lord, for you are our Redeemer and you are our Hope.” That's our theme and parts.

A. For you are our Redeemer

“Rend the heavens, O Lord,” the prophet prayed. Now there is some righteous anger in that prayer, that anger that hates what God hates and that deeply desires for God’s name to be glorified and God’s enemies to be destroyed. We hear it in the words, “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!” (Isaiah 64:2 NIV11).

But there is no room for self-righteous anger in that prayer. In fact the prophet realizes how much he and his people deserve God's anger. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV11). In fact, the people had turned away from the Lord so often and had abused his patient grace that the Lord handed them over to their own evil ways. The prophet pleads, “Why, LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we do not revere you?” (Isaiah 63:17 NIV11).

How often do we neglect God's mercy, dear friends, and abuse his patience? How often do we turn our backs on his way to pursue our own agendas? How often do we fail to take his word to heart even if we show up on a Sunday morning? We deserve for the Lord to take his word and sacraments away from us. We deserve for him to harden our hearts in our own self-chosen ways.

Even our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Our best is polluted by our sinful desires, contaminated by our selfishness, and stained by our pride. Even our greatest accomplishments are swept away by the winds of time. Yes, our bodies and our legacy wither away like a leaf. It all dries up and crumbles to dust. We cannot appeal to any act, effort, or attempt on our part.

But take note. Take note of what Isaiah prays: “You, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.” (Isaiah 63:16NIV11). Our sin sold us as slaves. But the Lord, our God, redeemed us. He himself paid the full price. We contributed nothing. How could we? Even our best, our most righteous acts, were filthy rags, totally worthless in and of themselves. Even if we perfectly did our duty all the time with pure, unadulterated motives, we would still be completely undeserving. For you see, perfect obedience would only meet the original requirement. It certainly wouldn't merit anything extra. How unworthy we are!

But the Lord, our God, redeemed you and me. He redeemed us not because of who we are. We had no innate value. He redeemed us because of who he is. He ransomed us. He paid the price to set us free. He stopped at no cost to himself. No price was too much. The Father gave his most precious Treasure. He gave up his Son to redeem sinners, to redeem you and me. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4,5 NIV84).

Yes, the Lord did rend the heavens, but not with power and judgment. He rent the heavens and came down as a little child, a tiny baby born of a virgin. The Son rent the heavens and became one of us. He became one of us to take our place as our ransom, to redeem us with his holy, precious blood, to redeem us by suffering our punishment and dying our death.

The Son rent the heavens and redeemed you and me to bring us into his Father's family. He became one of us; he became our Brother. Through Baptism you have been washed clean of sin’s filth and reborn into the Father’s family. Through faith you are clothed with Jesus Christ and his righteousness. His clothes have no mark, no stain, no defect. In Jesus your filthy rags have been taken away. They have been exchanged for the white robe of his righteousness. Your sins forgiven. Your ransom paid.

So, dear Christian, when you pray: “Rend the heavens, O Lord,” pray as a redeemed child of God. Pray with the humility that confesses that your filthiness, and pray with the confidence that clings only to the Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. You have been bought at a price, for the Son has redeemed you. And he has brought you into the Father’s family. So as you pray, pray with hope.

B. For you are our Hope

“Rend the heavens, O Lord, for you are our Hope,” we pray. Our hope is built on what the Lord has already accomplished for us.

For the people of Isaiah's day and later during the exile, they could remember how the Lord delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. They could remember how he came down in fire and smoke and storm on Mt. Sinai to give them his law and make his covenant with them to be his people. Were these some of the thoughts in Isaiah's heart as he prayed, “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you” (Isaiah 64:3 NIV11)?

But our hope is built on even greater, more awesome deeds of our God, deeds that no one could have ever discovered or imagined. The prophet writes, “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4 NIV11). What is it that is so far beyond our eyes and ears that no mind could conceive it? What is that his people waited for in expectant hope? The New Testament answers.

The Apostle Paul refers to these verse as he writes, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, it is written, 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit … This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:8-10, 13 NIV84).

Our hope is built on the fulfillment of what our awesome God has already done. The Lord of glory, the eternal Son of the Father, came and died for us, crucified for our sins. Every Christmas we celebrate the wonder of his coming. Every Good Friday we marvel at his death for us. Only the Scriptures, the Spirit's written words, reveal this to us. No eye could see it, unless the Spirit removes our blindness. No ear hear it nor mind conceive it.

But now that the Spirit has revealed it and opened our eyes and ears, what hope! The Lord our God rent the heavens to die for us. Now that he has redeemed us, won't he rend the heavens again to take us to be with him? That’s his promise. And his faithful. So what hope, what sure, certain, unfailing hope!

So keep watch and be ready. Don't let the troubles of this world or the hardships of your life destroy your hope. Rather send your hope deeper and deeper into his word so that no storm of life will uproot your faith. Keep watch and be ready. Jesus will rend the heavens, coming in his glory with his holy angels. He will put on end to this wicked world and all who do evil. And for us who are God's redeemed children through faith in Jesus, for us who have been diligently waiting with eager hope, he will make everything new. With our hearts fixed on Jesus, we pray “Rend the heavens, O Lord, for you are our Redeemer and you are our Hope.” Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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