Advent reflections: God’s intervention

Dec 4, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Over the next four weeks I’m going to post reflections on key themes for Advent and Christmas. They’ll be based mostly on past sermons, so they’ll be evangelistic and/or devotional rather than scholarly or journalistic. The first one is too late for the First Sunday of Advent but hopefully I’ll catch up before the Second Sunday.

Isaiah 64: the prophet’s impassioned plea for God to intervene, sort out the world’s problems and come to the aid of his people.

  1. God’s intervention demanded

Every one could see that the people of God were in trouble: “Zion is a wasteland; Jerusalem is a desolation” (v10) is a compact and arresting visual image of hearth, home and geographical focus of faith damaged beyond recognition. Humanly speaking, it seems that all is lost. How these verses must resonate with Christians fleeing from their homes and destroyed churches in some parts of the world today. In the affluent West we do not face the same visual evidence of defeat and loss. But those with eyes to see know that while we may not face economic collapse or violent attack, there are concerns about the sustainability of the world’s environment, there is moral and spiritual breakdown in the nation, while numbers attending church continue to fall and there is confusion about what it teaches.

Who is to blame? The prophet is clear that the cause of the desolation is losing the ability to relate to God and one another. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…no-one calls on your name…you have hidden your face from us, and have given us over to our sins” (v6-7). So while sin, that internal attitude of rebellion against our creator, is the cause of our spiritual problems in church and nation, blaming others is a symptom, not a solution. The prophet continues to identify and analyse the issues in society which result from sin, but he does not point the finger at others and absolve himself, rather he includes himself as needing to repent.

The prophet recognizes that as the underlying problem is the mis-orientation of the human heart, resulting in God’s judgement. The desperate need is not for economic or political solutions, or programmes of self-improvement, but forgiveness, and spiritual and moral transformation in response to divine ‘ad-vention’ and intervention. We are powerless to make ourselves acceptable to God, and to change our hearts. “How can we be saved?” the prophet asks in anguish in verse 5. He pleads: “do not remember our sins forever”, but forgiveness alone, the removal of the sentence of punishment and the cleansing of conscience, is only one aspect of the salvation that is needed. We need God to visit in person: “Come down to make your name known to your enemies” (v2).

  1. God’s intervention defined

Who is God, and where is he, that a man can ask him to come down? At Christmas we sing “he came down to earth from heaven” – what does this mean? Is it like science fiction – something coming from another planet? Isaiah sees that there is the visible world in which we live and see and touch, and the invisible world, which is spiritual. God is spirit and can’t be seen – he lives in the invisible, but very real, spiritual realm. How can we describe what and where this is? Perhaps an analogy might be when two people fall in love. The mutual combination of emotions does not literally come “from above”, but all around; and yet invisible, so it’s like a million miles away for those who don’t have it. But this analogy can be misleading. The unseen spiritual realm is not simply a metaphor for human emotions. The Trinitarian God, angels, satan and demons exist and operate before, after and outside the realm of human psychology, as well as within it.

So when Isaiah cries “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down”, he is not showing a primitive understanding of astronomy as if he thought God was somewhere in space. Nor are we free to ‘demythologize’ and psychologise his cosmology, and say what Isaiah really meant was “wouldn’t it be great if we could all love one another as if an arrow came from above, and feel hope not hate”. Rather he’s pleading with God, who really exists outside time and human thought and feeling, “break through into our world! Tear open the barrier between this world that we see and the unseen heaven where you live – and let some of your heavenly power come and help us!”

God’s intervention delayed

Isaiah seems a little frustrated with God’s apparent lack of activity. He yearns for the Lord to do something with power to change the situation, showing himself like fire from the sky, or perhaps an earthquake. He remembers stories of what God did in the past like in the days of Elijah, when God demonstrated his divine authority and love for his people with overwhelming force and undeniable miracles. Similar thoughts come to us today. Either “why does God allow evil people to prosper – why doesn’t he just destroy them?” or perhaps more positively – “why doesn’t God do some amazing miracles so everyone believes in him?”

Authentic faith in the Bible is not portrayed as a fatalistic acceptance that whatever will be will be, or a cool, detached, cerebral understanding of God’s character with no expectation of change. The prophet knows that God has acted in the past and does sometimes today with supernatural power. God answers prayer, and seems to respond to our desperate yearning for salvation rather than our self-righteousness and indifference. But there is a risk in asking for God to bring judgement in the form of blessing the righteous and destroying evil, because all have sinned and deserve judgement. And as we plead with God to act in power there is no guarantee that people will believe and humbly submit to and follow Jesus if they see miracles – even with Jesus himself this did not always happen.

The prophet yearns for God’s intervention, but there is a delay, leading to a serious questioning. Is God going to sit back and not do anything as if he doesn’t care? Or will he act? Will he keep silent? Or will he speak? Will he continue to punish? Or will he forgive?

  1. God’s Intervention displayed

The answer to these questions comes in three ways. Firstly, an affirmation of God’s total commitment to his people: “no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him…you Lord are our Father”. Secondly, the next chapter (65) shows God responding, saying he has been there all along, holding out his hands to “an obstinate people” who have turned their backs on him in a number of ways. Thirdly, a promise to create a new Jerusalem, in fact a new heaven and earth (65:17-18). God is going to intervene in human history in a final way, eliminating evil, gathering up his forgiven people, and ruling visibly over an eternal domain of peace.


Of course as Christians we have seen clearly what Isaiah only glimpsed: the birth, death, resurrection and ascension to divine glory of Jesus the Messiah. We know that God’s response to the anguished pleas of his people for his visitation, intervention, judgement, salvation was not angelic armies or earthquakes, but the baby in the manger, and then the man on the cross.

But Isaiah teaches us not to go straight to Christmas (let alone bypass Christmas and go straight to Easter), but to dwell for a while in Advent, observing the desolations of the world around us, and our own sin, pleading with God to come down; remembering his holy character and the reality of judgement before resting in the truths of the incarnation in Bethlehem and the final Appearance in the future.

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