Thursday, April 02, 2009

God is Coming[1]

Isa 64:1-12

Belief in God comes in many shapes and sizes. I guess it always has. One of the most prevalent versions of “belief” in God is the one that looks for some obvious evidence of God’s reality, some tangible assurance of God’s presence. It’s the version of “belief” in God that Job’s three friends promoted—if God is present and pleased with us, then God will bless us with all good things. Of course, that’s all well and good as long as everything’s going our way. But if we run into hard times or experience loss or failure in any way, then that means that God is not pleased with us and has abandoned us!

It’s a view of God that reminds me of magic—or perhaps the Genie in Aladdin’s lamp! Good times, success, and prosperity mean that God is pleased with us and therefore is present and is blessing us. Hard times, disappointment, or tragedy mean that God is displeased with us and has abandoned us—or even worse, that God is punishing us.

Our text from the prophet Isaiah seems to sustain that version of “belief” in God. Like other prophets and psalmists, Isaiah seems to be giving voice to questions the Jewish people felt as a result of their experience in exile. Their time in exile led them to question God’s faithfulness, God’s presence, and God’s love for them. And yet, the central concept to their faith in God was that God loved them with a love that would never let them go. So their experience of defeat at the hand of their enemies and exile to a place far away from home created what we might call “cognitive dissonance.” They couldn’t see how it was possible that God would ever stop loving them, but they couldn’t understand their experience of exile in any other way than that God had abandoned them.[2]

And so Isaiah expresses the deep yearning of a people longing for God to come down from the heavens and once again demonstrate God’s powerful presence, as God had done in the days of the Exodus. Yet, I submit to you that is not an expression of faith, but one of anxiety.[3] The desire for some obvious proof or some tangible evidence is the opposite of faith. What’s more, it is not the usual pattern for the God of the Bible to provide such concrete demonstrations of God’s reality and presence. God is much more “hidden,” much more quiet. But that never means that God is absent.

In fact, the reason why I would say that the cry for God to “come down” and be revealed is the opposite of faith is because it misses one of the central truths of our faith: “he will never forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; cf. Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16). It’s the central truth about the God of the Bible: God is the one who is completely faithful.[4] It’s the “revelation” that came to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). That refrain echoes again and again throughout the Psalms and prophets. One of the psalmists puts it this way: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10).

This is not a hypothetical premise; it’s not just wishful thinking or some elaborate means of avoiding the hard truths of life. The conviction of God’s faithfulness emerges from the experience of God’s steadfast love in the midst of all the changes of life.[5] It’s a conviction based on the experience that God never gives up on relationships, that God continually works to make everything and everyone right again.

As Paul reminds us, God is the one who is faithful. God always has been faithful, and God always will be faithful. As Paul tells us, God is faithful to see us through to the final end—whatever that may look like. Jesus reminds us that we do not know and we cannot know exactly what that end will look like. The Bible gives us some clues: promises like “I will wipe away every tear” (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 21:4), and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least” (Jer. 31:34), and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares” (Isa. 2:4), and “I am making the whole of creation new” (Rev. 21:5). What we can know is this: God “will never fail you nor forsake you.”

The season of advent is a time for us to remember what God has done, and what God has not yet done. It is a time of waiting—not the mad rush toward “Christmas” in our society. Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we are always waiting for God to come. Yet in the OT, the term “wait” is a word of faith. To “wait” for the Lord refers over and over again to trusting God’s steadfast and faithful love.[6]

This time of waiting during advent is when we learn that God is faithful. That’s when we learn that God is the coming one—God is the one who is always coming to us; approaching us, moving toward us, drawing us; God is always “coming.” No matter what happens in this life, we can remember that God is never farther away from us than a father teaching a toddler to walk (Hosea 11:3), or a mother gently nursing an infant (Isaiah 49:15). God is always as close to us as the air we are breathing.[7] Wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.[8] Wherever we go, whatever may befall us, God will never forsake us.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/30/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] cf. Psalms 44, 89. See also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 525: Israel “has been isolated to such an extent as to question whether in truth it ever was under God’s care and sovereignty.”

[3] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 398 points to the questions in Isaiah 64:12 (“After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”) as an example of their anxiety.

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 106, 117, 119.

[6] Ps. 27:14; 31:24; 37:7, 9; 62:1, 5; 130:5; James L. Mays, Psalms, 407 (on Ps. 130).

[7]Jürgen Moltmann Trinity and the Kingdom, 39, 104-5; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 161. See further, Paul Tillich, “Spiritual Presence,” in The Eternal Now, 86-87.

[8] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.

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