There are times when I can totally resonate with verse one. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” Sometimes as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I can feel so lost and so alone in this broken and damaged world. It seems as though I am crying out the message of God’s love and gift of salvation into a world that has long ago lost any interest in anything that resembles the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It used to be that people of no faith in God would at least pretend to be respectful of ministers. We were fortunate that way, we once escaped most of the terrible abuse that the rest of you get hurled at you almost on a daily basis. But now, even our time has come. Nowadays, people are very religious about their disbelief, some of them even rabidly evangelistic.
And so verse one really speaks to me. Come on, God, show up. Rip open the heavens and be present with your people. We need you now more than ever. I especially like the part where the prophet says in verse two, “…make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” There we have it. Show up, God, make the mountains quake, and while you’re at it put the fear of God into our enemies and everyone else. Make everyone tremble at your power and presence. We need a big show of God around here.
The prophet even remembers a time when God did just that. Even though it was many years before he was born, the prophet remembers the Exodus. He remembers that when the law was given, that God came down to Mount Sinai to meet with Moses. And when God did that, the mountain shook and quaked in God’s presence. He remembers the very surprising deeds that God accomplished in bringing about the plagues against Egypt, and how when those plagues came about, the people of Egypt trembled at the terrible and dreadful power of God.
But now, at least in the prophet’s mind, it has been a very long time since God has acted in such a powerful and miraculous way, and the prophet is yearning, from the very depths of his heart for a fresh exhibition of God’s power. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” And he cries out that prayer with all of the arbor and all of the fervency that he can muster.
But the prophet is also aware of something that stands solidly in the way of the fulfillment of his prayer. It is his own sin and the sin of his people. He is beginning to realize that he and his people have wandered far from God, and that they have violated his commandments, and that their sin has carried them far away from a right relationship with God. And as he ponders this, the prophet says something that is a little bit curious. He says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.” Hmm…it sounds a little bit like the prophet is trying to place some of the blame on God for his own sinfulness. God, if you had been around, we wouldn’t have fallen so easily into sin. God, if you hadn’t gone into hiding, and been more loving and less angry, maybe we would have been more faithful. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And it just might be, that in his passionate plea for God to show up, that the prophet is trying to place a bit of the blame on God. It is a rather popular excuse, after all. In the years of my ministry, I have had several people explain away their obvious sinful behaviors by telling me that this is something that God either brought into their lives to make them happy, or that God actually led them into this sinful behavior. That’s poppycock, of course, but as human beings, we are always looking for someplace else to place the blame for our sinful behaviors, and God is as good a target as any. Our old friend Adam taught us this lesson very well. When God questioned Adam about his sin, Adam quickly pointed the finger at God: It was the woman! The one you gave me! Its your fault!
The prophet quickly realizes, however, that the blame does not lie with God, and we need to get straight on this as quickly as the prophet did. The perceived absence of God neither leads us into sin, nor does it excuse our sin. And as soon as the prophet realizes his error, he goes into a full state of confession.
Traditionally, Lent is a time intentionally set aside for personal and corporate confession of sin. But Advent is also a very appropriate time for us to make ourselves aware of how far we may, in fact, have wandered from God. It is, after all, the time of the year when we remember that God did, miraculously and gloriously tear open the heavens and come down to be present with us in the person of Jesus Christ. And Advent is also the time when we eagerly anticipate that day when God will once again tear open the heavens and come down, so that we can be forever present with him.
In his prayer of confession, the prophet acknowledges that it is his own sin that carries him away from the presence of God, and that it is his own sin that separates him from a right relationship with God, and he is very graphic about it. He says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” I’ll not detail that imagery in the sermon this morning, but some of you with good imaginations can probably cipher it out. But the point of the prophet is that all of our outward religiosity matters not one whit when we harbor unconfessed sin. Our outward acts of faith are meaningless to God when there is uncleanliness and filth within.
The prophet compares unconfessed sin in our lives to leaves on a tree in the fall that have faded and are then blown away by the wind, far from the source which was once their life. And while the tree has no control over what happens to its leaves, the prophet makes it clear that it is our sin that blows us far and away from the source of our life.
When sin abounds, the inevitable result is that nobody pays any attention to God. I don’t know of a better description of our culture than that. The prophet says, “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” When spiritual eyes are blinded by persistent sin, there is no vision of God, and hence, there is no need of God. When we create our own systems of morality or immorality, God becomes completely irrelevant. When the prophet says that we have been delivered into the hand of our iniquity, that is exactly what he has in mind. It is our sin that controls us.
The prophet, however, is not about to give up. He is stunned by his own sin, and stunned by the sin of his people. He still yearns for that moment when God will tear open the heavens and come down. And so he pleads for forgiveness. And in his plea, he begs for God to remember the relationship that God had established with his people long ago. He reminds God that he is the Father and that we are his children. The implication is, that when all is lost, when sin has carried us away, that our only recourse is to throw ourselves at the feet of a merciful God. And so the prophet confesses that while he and his people have forgotten God, he does not want God to forget them. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
But before the nations will tremble at the presence of God, God’s people have got to tremble first.