Christianity 201

December 7, 2017

Praying for God to Come Down. Or Not.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence. Isaiah 64:1

This may not be everyone’s favourite prayer. Some would find the presence of God to be a frightening experience and some would prefer God not exist at all so they need not worry about it. Some have deeply thought through positions of agnosticism or atheism. Many, however, land there having heard or seen slogans like “God probably does not exist, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”, and are quite happy to not give it much further thought. So please don’t talk religion, thank you. Why? Because people assume that if God exists, then they should worry. If God is alive and well, then while we are alive and well for now, all will not be well when we are no longer alive. There is a feeling that we would never be good enough, or could never be good enough to meet our Maker. So please don’t tear open the heavens and come down Lord!

However, there is a tone of confidence in Isaiah’s prayer which runs from Isaiah 63:15-64:12. Isaiah is confident that if God were more fully present, it would go well for His people. Is this confidence based on the goodness or righteousness of the people, or even his own? Far from it, in fact the prayer is full of honest confession:

6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you; Isaiah 64:6-7

Given the fact that God’s people have strayed far, praying for God to “tear open the heavens and come down” is sounding like a risky prayer to make indeed. Isaiah alludes to times in the past when God had “come down”:

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. Isaiah 64:3

The prayer for God to come down could be answered like the time God “came down” at the Exodus. While that went well for God’s people, it did not go well for the Egyptians with plagues and a sea that closed in on the Pharaoh’s army. Given the sinfulness of God’s people as confessed by Isaiah, perhaps this time the plagues will land on them?

So where does Isaiah’s confidence in God come from if not in the righteousness of the people? Why does he pray with anticipation of good things, and not plagues? This prayer for help is not made with an appeal to the justice of God, to rescue the righteous. That option is not open for God knows too much! Rather it is made with an appeal to the character of God and the relationship God chose to have with His people. Consider the following references in this prayer:

For you are our father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our father;
our Redeemer from of old is your name. Isaiah 63:16

Turn back for the sake of your servants,
for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage. Isaiah 63:17b

8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people. Isaiah 64:8-9 (emphases mine)

Isaiah prays with confidence because he knows the relationship God has with His people is like that of a father to a child. While God as a perfectly just judge can expect, in fact must expect, perfection, a father can have compassion and mercy toward an imperfect child. So how can God be both perfectly just and yet act “fatherly”? How can God be both judge and “Dad”? The answer is given in God’s response to Isaiah’s prayer.

There is an answer to this prayer, but instead of the prayer being answered with plagues and punishment, it is answered with the arrival of a baby and the beginning of a new kind of Exodus. While the plagues on Egypt resulted in the firstborn of the Egyptians experiencing death, in this Exodus it is God himself that goes through it, both as the grieving Father, and as the dying son. Only a holy and perfect offering could stand in the place of sinful person, taking the consequence of sin. Only God Himself could do that, and in Jesus He has done that. In Jesus God is the perfect judge, taking care of sin at the cross, while also being the good father, being compassionate and merciful toward His children.

For those who feel that they have wandered so far from God that they could never turn or return to Him, it has nothing to do with how far we have travelled away, and everything to do with how far God has travelled toward us. He answered Isaiah’s prayer and has come all the way from heaven to a cross on earth in Jesus, so that we could be reconciled to Him. Turning to God has nothing to do with impressing the judge with our own efforts, and everything to do with the love of a compassionate heavenly Father.

Maybe you don’t think of yourself as God’s child. An opportunity is before you:

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13

Our relationship with God does not begin with our goodness. It begins with His.

However, even if you recognize that you are a child of God, you may think of yourself as the wayward child, the messed-up child, the stressed-out child, the foolish child, the undeserving child, or even the stupid child. On the one hand these might be accurate descriptions and we have room to grow like everyone else. On the other hand, The Lord’s Table while being a reminder of many things, is also a reminder that there are other adjectives that can be used to describe you. You are the redeemed child, the reconciled child, the forgiven child, the embraced child, the loved child.

Although the presence of God can, and should, be scary to someone who has rejected the Lord’s invitation to a father/child relationship, a child of God can pray with confidence as Isaiah did: “tear open the heavens and come down”. Being in Christ we can pray with confidence the last recorded prayer of the Bible:

20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. Revelation 22:20-21 (emphasis mine)


All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Canadian Baptist pastor Clarke Dixon’s writing appears here most Thursdays; read more at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon