A sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 by Nathan Nettleton
“God, why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?”
This prayer in Isaiah is the anguished cry of a desperate people. The time is long gone for polite prayers like “God make yourself known to us in the stillness of our hearts.” Times are desperate, the people have returned from exile in Babylon, their country is in ruins. They are homeless, persecuted, fatigued, feeling totally inadequate for the rebuilding job before them, and they’re surrounded by people who say, “So where’s this God of yours now?”
“God, why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?”
It’s easy for us to forget that the people of the Bible were so often frustrated by God’s apparent lack of activity. We sometimes tend to think of the people of the Bible as people whose faith knew no bounds, whose experience of God was close and uninterrupted. But the Bible is full of prayers like this, from early in the Genesis stories all the way to Jesus on the cross, crying “My God, why have you abandoned me?” The experience of God’s apparent absence is a frequent one, and those who tell you that you’re not allowed to express any doubt or frustration in God obviously haven’t been reading the same Bible.
It is a normal and frequent experience to find ourselves longing, even pleading for God to break into our world in a dramatic way and do something extraordinary to solve our situation and prove all the doubters wrong, only to be frustrated in our wish and to find God strangely silent and unobtrusive.
Now Isaiah is perhaps one of the biblical characters that most contributed to our idea of the readily accessible God. Early in the book we read of Isaiah’s dramatic experience of God calling him to be a prophet. In a dramatic visionary experience, he finds himself in the throne room of heaven being directly addressed by God and manhandled by angels and cherubim and seraphim.
But now that was a long time ago. Isaiah, now a much older man, is returning with the exiles and is as desperate as anyone for God to do something extraordinary, something dramatic and earth shattering. “Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down? Shake the mountains and make the nations tremble with fear.”
Something in me is always wanting God to shake the mountains, to speak in a voice like thunder, to appear in a blinding flash of light. It would make relating to God so much easier, and other people would be so much less dismissive. I could cooperate with God so much more easily if I always knew what God was saying and if I could always see how the Spirit was moving.
But in my experience, blinding flashes of light are rather scarce and visions of God’s throne room are even scarcer. God more often speaks in a still small whisper and moves silently through the shadows. Very often I’m not sure what God is saying at all and even when I think I am detecting the voice, there is still plenty of room for a suspicion that maybe I was just hearing the voice of my own thoughts.
So often we can interpret an experience one way or the other, but the words we put on it dictate how others view our experience, or view our sanity depending on their perspective. Try telling a prospective employer that God told you this was the job for you. Try even telling your friends that God healed you of your flu. They tend to look at you sideways and say, “Yeah, right.”
Even if you do have a really dramatic experience, the way it is told tends to over emphasise the colour and oomph, and others hearing you may get the impression that this is an everyday sort of thing for you, just like we got the impression that maybe Isaiah went to the throne room each morning for a daily briefing. But even for our biblical heroes that is not the way it is. When you read Luke’s account in Acts of the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, it’s all blinding lights and booming voices from heaven. When you read Paul’s own account of it in Galatians it is rather more subdued. Even in Acts there is an ambiguity about the experience that must have had people looking sideways at Paul, because although Paul heard the voice of Christ so clearly that his life was changed forever, those who were with him heard nothing.
Likewise when Jesus was baptised, he heard the voice of God saying “You are my beloved son,” but according to John others who stood there just heard thunder. Maybe it’s similar with some of God’s other dramatic actions in the Bible. What about when the Israelites made their dramatic escape from the pursuing Egyptian chariots, an event still celebrated annually by Jewish people as a miraculous deliverance by the hand of God? Perhaps the Egyptians didn’t notice God’s involvement at all, they just thought they got their chariots bogged after the recent heavy rains. Whether you see God’s hand or not is often a matter of perspective.
When ever we are tempted to feel inadequate about the scarcity of miraculous experience of God in our lives, we’d do well to remember Isaiah crying out in frustration at the ambiguous and unconvincing nature of God’s actions.
Whether we like it or not, God is not into saturation self-publicity campaigns. Despite the fact that we are constantly surrounded by, and immersed in the loving creative activity of God, the vast majority of it can be observed by atheists and explained in entirely different ways. To hear the whispering voice of God will usually require you to lean close to God and train your hearing carefully.
To expect to be able to hear the voice of God on demand when you want without practice is like expecting yourself to suddenly be able to pick out and appreciate the piccolo part in a Mozart Symphony when you normally only listen to AC/DC. Or expecting your nose to discern the subtle variations between an unwooded chardonay and the oak barrelled one when you normally drink diet coke by the slab.
Have you ever had that experience of walking out of a loud concert and finding it takes a few minutes before you can even hear the cars going past, let alone the rustle of leaves in the breeze? Or even walking into a dark room from the light and finding it takes five minutes or so before you can see properly? Sit quietly outside in one spot for half an hour, and take note of how much more you see and hear than you did in the first few minutes.
Take a walk through your favourite garden with a trained expert, a David Attenborough type, and you will quickly discover that there is far more going on there than you were ever aware of. If you put in the hours of observation and study that David Attenborough has, you could do it too, but not otherwise.
So too with learning to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and hear the voice of the risen Christ. Unless you are immersing yourself in the scriptures and establishing a rhythm of prayer in your life where you regularly set aside time to be quiet and do nothing but focus your heart and mind on Christ, then your experience of God probably won’t be much more significant than the occasional sighting of a lizard in the back yard. And even if you do dedicate yourself to that, don’t expect dramatic changes over night. David Attenborough didn’t get his experience of the natural world in a weekend, and that’s much more accessible to us.
So why is God so unwilling to disrupt the laws of the universe and tear the sky open and come down? Why does God whisper in the shadows, and wait to see if anyone’s listening, instead of writing a message in giant letters across the sky? Don’t we long for God to do that sort of thing so that all the people who’ve given us that quizzical look will say, “O Wow, you were right all the time”?
I don’t know. Maybe because Christ is not interested in bludgeoning us into a response. Maybe because the sort of response Christ most values is the uncoerced “Yes” of the person who is willing to exercise some trust and seek him out, rather than the reticent “O.K.” of the person who needs a piano dropped on them before they ever think to look up.
Maybe too because God is not willing to be some kind of trained house pet for us, who turns on the miracles on demand to satisfy our desire for everything to be easy and in your face. Maybe Christ wants to retain some mystery, some secrets, to see if you’re fair dinkum about the relationship before inviting you into the holy of holies.
As we begin this season of hope and expectation, we need to keep that in mind, that the realisation of our hopes will come in God’s way, and not usually in the overstated intervention we long for where any fool could say “Yep, that’s God all right.” And therefore the legitimate expectation we have that God will be active in our lives, needs to lead us to prayer and to preparation, so that when Christ comes we won’t be oblivious to it and just go on our mindless way. God will probably not make the mountains shake and the nations tremble, but the flutter of angel’s wings will be heard by those who listen.
When Christ comes, some people see nothing more than a helpless baby born to a refugee woman sheltering in a cow shed. Some of you will take the time to see what’s really going on.