Interceding for the exiles

Scripture: Isaiah 64

Title: Interceding for the exiles

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • The prophet prays for God to intervene
  • Because of who God is (not because of anything Judah has done)
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

Over the past couple of months we have been working through a series on the life of Abraham, in Genesis

–         This morning we take a break from Abraham to follow the Anglican lectionary readings for the first three Sundays in Advent

–         In case you’re wondering what a lectionary is, it’s simply a list of prescribed Bible readings for each day

–         And the Old Testament reading that is prescribed for today (the 3rd December 2017 – the first Sunday in Advent) is Isaiah 64

 

Isaiah was a prophet who lived around 700 years before Christ

–         In chapter 64 the prophet prays to God, on behalf of the people, saying…

 

Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.     We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people. 10 Your sacred cities have become a desert; even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins. 12 After all this, O Lord, will you hold yourself back?     Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us

 

Isaiah 64 is a prayer of intercession – it is one of the great prayers of the Bible

–         In this prayer the prophet asks God to intervene for the sake of his people, not because of anything the people have done, but because of who God is

 

The prophet prays for God to intervene:

In 1957 Dr Seuss wrote a book titled: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

–         It was later made into a film by Ron Howard, in the year 2000

 

The Grinch is a grumpy sort of character who hates Christmas – can’t stand it (sort of like Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge)

–         The Grinch lives in a self-imposed exile, in a cave, above the town of Whoville

–         The residents of Whoville simply love Christmas – can’t get enough of it

–         Consequently most of them don’t like the Grinch, they’re afraid of him

–         All except for Cindy Lou, a little girl who has compassion on the Grinch

–         Cindy is not afraid and actually shares some of the Grinch’s feelings that Christmas has become too commercialised

 

Cindy intercedes for the Grinch and manages to get him invited to their Christmas celebrations as the Cheermiester, or the special guest of honour

–         The Grinch hasn’t done anything to deserve this honour – but Cindy and the townsfolk aren’t doing it because of anything the Grinch has done.

–         They are helping the badly behaved Grinch because that is what he needs and that’s who they are

 

Intercession is a verb – it’s a doing word

–         To intercede means to intervene on behalf of another

–         Cindy Lou interceded for the exiled Grinch

–         She intervened on his behalf, asking the people of Whoville to help the Grinch because he couldn’t help himself

 

Isaiah 64 is a prayer of intercession

–         The prophet asks God to intervene to help the Jewish exiles because they can’t help themselves

 

Now in saying that Isaiah 64 is a prayer of intercession you need to know that it’s not the whole prayer – the prayer actually begins at chapter 63, verse 7

–         So Isaiah 64 is the second half of the prayer

–         The prophet starts his prayer by saying: I will tell of the kindness of the Lord…  His intercession begins with adoration and praise

 

The impassioned cry, O that you would tear the heavens and come down that mountains would tremble before you… comes somewhere near the centre of the prayer. We could say it is the heart of the prayer

 

The fact that the prophet is asking God to come down from heaven is significant

–         It reflects what the people are thinking – they don’t feel like God is with them. They feel like God is absent and ignoring them

 

This intercessory prayer is poetic. The mountains are a metaphor for imposing and oppressive obstacles [1]

–         The prophet wants God to come down from heaven in power to deal with all the challenges the people on earth face

–         He wants God to put heat on Israel’s enemies, As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil

 

So what are these mountains (or challenges) they face?

–         Well, there is the challenge of their present circumstances but there is also the challenge of their past sins

 

A large portion of the book of Isaiah hinges on the destruction of Jerusalem and the resulting Jewish exile

–         We could think of Isaiah in three parts, broadly speaking…

 

Chapters 1-39, deal with events before the exile in 586 BC

–         Prior to the exile the nation of Judah became increasingly corrupt to the point where God could no longer associate his name with Israel

–         As punishment for Judah’s sins God arranged for king Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem

–         Thousands were killed and many of the survivors were carried into exile

 

The second section of the book of Isaiah is chapters 40-55, which are mostly words of comfort & hope to the Jews during their exile in Babylonia

–         The conditions in exile weren’t too bad – the Jewish refugees were able to trade and do business and live relatively comfortable lives

–         But without their temple, without a centre of worship, the exiles were at risk of losing their identity and being assimilated into the cultural soup around them

–         They needed to be told that God still cared about them and that their exile wasn’t permanent – they would be able to return to Jerusalem one day

 

The third section of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, deals with the time after the exile when the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland

 

With this framework in mind Isaiah 64 is a prayer for the returning exiles

–         The Jewish exile lasted for 70 years – so the people of Judah were returning to a homeland they had never seen before and only heard about

–         Filled with hope at a fresh start the exiles returned to Jerusalem only to find their temple in ruins and their land occupied by others

 

The prophet describes this destruction in verses 10-11 where he says…

–         Your sacred cities have become a desert… Jerusalem a desolation.

–         Our holy and glorious temple… has been burned with fire and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

–         After all they had been through the survivors were now facing the challenge of starting again and rebuilding from scratch with many mountains (or obstacles) to overcome and nothing left in the tank

 

To make matters worse they face the even larger challenge of the burden of their sins. From verses 5 & 6 we read…

–         When we continued to sin you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…

 

To be unclean is to be labelled a Grinch by the community

–         You see, in Jewish religion there are certain things that can make you ceremonially unclean, like touching a dead body, for example, or eating the wrong foods or having a skin disease

–         These things in themselves are not sinful but they do exclude the person (temporarily) from participating in worship

 

The prophet is saying we’ve become like the Grinch, like someone who is unclean, someone excluded from the worshiping community

–         And there’s nothing we can do to get back in

–         All our righteous acts are like dirty rags

 

You may have seen that ad on TV where the mum is wiping the kitchen bench with a piece of raw chicken – not very hygienic

–         The point of the ad is that using an old dish cloth to wipe down the bench just spreads the germs around – it makes things worse

–         What you need is a fresh new cloth (Dettol wipes or whatever it is they’re selling)

 

The prophet is saying, we’ve become like someone trying to keep the kitchen clean with a dirty cloth

–         We may as well be wiping the bench with a piece of raw chicken

–         Our righteous acts, our best intentions, are just spreading the sin around and making things worse

 

No wonder the people feel like God is absent and ignoring them

–         How could a holy God get near to an unclean (salmonella) people?

 

The breakdown in communication between God and his people finds expression in verse 7 where the prophet says…

–         No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins

 

‘To call on the name of the Lord’ means to pray

–         The prophet is praying on behalf of the people because the people themselves have given up trying to pray

–         They don’t believe God will listen to them because of their sins

 

It’s a Catch 22 situation

–         The only way we’re going to get through this is with God’s help (with Him coming down to save us)

–         But God isn’t going to help us because we’ve broken faith with Him – so what’s the point in praying. We’d just be wasting our breath. (That’s Grinch like thinking)

 

When I was training for ministry I spent three months one summer working as a chaplain in Greenlane Hospital

–         There was one ward I visited that specialised in caring for patients with throat and speech problems

–         Most of the people on that ward had difficulty talking, if they could talk at all – either they had lost their voice box because of cancer or they had been affected by a stroke

–         It was a challenging ward to visit – I had been trained to listen and understand but when the patients can’t talk it’s hard to do either

–         I felt powerless – like I had nothing to offer (which is probably something close to what the patients felt as well)

–         I guess God sometimes puts us in situations where we feel like we have nothing to offer because it makes us rely on Him, rather than our own competence

 

Anyway, I remember this one guy – an older gentleman who, in very broken English, managed to tell me that he had been in the war

–         He struggled with guilt over the people he had killed

–         For 60 years he had carried that guilt and now, when he finally gets a chance to make his confession to a padre, he can’t speak properly

–         I don’t think he had much longer to live

–         He needed me to be his intercessor, saying the words he couldn’t

–         In the end his tears made a truer confession than any words could have

–         I believe God understood his heart, even if I couldn’t grasp every word

 

Perhaps the Jewish exiles were a bit like the patients in that ward who couldn’t talk – they wanted to pray but were powerless to do so

–         They needed someone to intercede for them

–         That’s what intercessory prayer is – praying on behalf of those who can’t pray for themselves

 

Who do you know that needs God’s help but can’t pray for themselves?

–         Perhaps someone who used to be a believer but has now left the church in a kind of self-imposed exile

–         Perhaps someone who doesn’t know that God is gracious – they’ve done wrong and don’t feel like God will listen because of their sins

–         Perhaps an innocent unborn child or a baby

–         Perhaps someone who is so sick or depressed that they can’t find the energy or the hope to pray

–         Will you be their intercessor? Will you speak to God on their behalf?

 

Because of who God is:

The prophet asks God to help because of who God is, not because of anything Judah has done

In verses 4 & 5 the prophet describes something of God’s character when he says…

–         No ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.

 

This speaks of the goodness of God’s character, the justice of God

–         And it also suggests the problem for Judah – it is precisely because the people have not done right and have forgotten God’s ways that they feel like God won’t listen when they pray     

–         If Yahweh were a pagan god like Marduk or Baal the people might think they could bribe him or manipulate him with sacrifices

–         But the Lord God Almighty isn’t like the gods of other nations – he is free – he won’t be bribed or manipulated

–         God does good because He is good

 

Verse 8 holds more promise though…

–         We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

 

I remember when I was kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, watching a potter form a bowl out of clay

–         There was this alley way off Ward street in Hamilton which (in the 1970’s) was home to a collection of artisans

–         It’s probably a mall or a carpark building now but back then you could actually watch people doing their art, making their crafts

–         I think my mother must have been shopping for shoes, or something else that held no interest for me, but that didn’t matter – I was transfixed, happy to simply watch the potter expertly shape the clay on his wheel

–         Every now and then he would look up at me and smile

–         He was completely silent – didn’t say a word, just let his hands do the talking. I remember wishing I could be as clever and skilful as him

 

We are the clay, you are the potter

–         This is an image of creation where God is the creator and the people of God are his handiwork

–         For the Jewish exiles, returning to Jerusalem was an act of creation

–         The exiles are like a lump of clay – they are in a state of chaos

–         They have no form or shape or function – no useful purpose in Babylon

–         And like a lump of clay they are completely helpless

–         There is nothing they can do to shape themselves – they are entirely dependent on God, the potter, to remake them as a nation

 

Why does a potter work with clay to create something?

–         Because he is a potter and that’s what potters do

–         Why should God reform and remake the exiles into a new nation?

–         Because he is the creator and that’s what the creator does

 

Verse 8 contains another image of God…

–         Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. 

 

To say that God is a Father to the people of Judah means that God is the one who brought the Jewish people into existence

–         The nation of Israel exists because God created them

–         But there is more to being a Father than simply conceiving

–         God has been a Father to Israel in the sense that he has raised them and protected them and provided for them and taught them and cared for them

–         All the positive things a father does for their children

 

The prophet is essentially saying to God: ‘as a Father how can you bear to turn your back on us?’ Or as he puts it in verse 12…

After all this, O Lord, will you hold yourself back?     Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

That’s how the prayer ends, left hanging with an unanswered question…

 

In thinking of the image of God as a Father, I’m reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son

–         What did the father do when he saw his wayward son returning home in the distance?

–         Did he hold himself back? Did he keep silent and turn a cold shoulder?

–         No – of course not. The loving Father (a picture of God) ran out to meet his son. He showered love and honour and acceptance on his boy saying,

‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’  [2]

God’s judgment (his punishment) is not beyond measure – it is limited

–         The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases

–         His mercies are new every morning

 

Conclusion:

We’ve heard how Isaiah 64 is a prayer of intercession – a prayer for God to intervene

–         The people are powerless to save themselves

–         Their behaviour has been so bad that they have given up praying – they can’t believe that God, in his justice, would listen to them

–         But the prophet knows God’s grace, as well as his justice, and he intercedes for the people

–         The prophet asks God to help because of who God is, not because of anything the people have done

You may be wondering, why did the Anglicans prescribe Isaiah 64 as a reading for Advent – what on earth has any of this got to do with Christmas?

–         Good question

Isaiah 64 is a prayer that is answered in the person of Jesus

–         The prophet had asked for God to tear open the heavens and come down to help them

–         500 years or so later, in Mark chapter 1, at Jesus’ baptism, we read…

–         And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove

–         Jesus is the divine intervention that the prophet had asked for

–         He came to conquer the mountains of sin & death – to restore the relationship between humanity and God

–         Jesus became an intercessor for us

Isaiah 64 is an Advent reading because the coming of Jesus answers the prophet’s prayer

 

Questions for discussion & reflection:

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    What is the prophet doing in Isaiah 64?

–         What does it mean to intercede?

3.)    What are the ‘mountains’ of verses 1 & 3 a metaphor of?

–         What mountains are you facing at present?

4.)    Who was Isaiah 64 originally written for?

–         Who might it apply to today?

5.)    Why did the people not lay hold of God in prayer?

–         How is your prayer life at the moment? Do you feel able to talk to God freely?

–         Who do you know that is not able to pray for themselves?

6.)    On what basis does the prophet ask God to help the people?

7.)    Discuss the image of the potter and the clay.

–         What light does this image shed on the situation of the returning exiles?

–         What light does it shed on your situation?

8.)    What does it mean that God is a Father?

9.)    How does Jesus answer the prophet’s prayer?

Take some time this week to pray (intercede) for those who are not able to pray for themselves

 

https://soundcloud.com/tawabaptist/3-dec-2017-interceding-for-the-exiles

[1] Refer John Watts, Word Commentary on Isaiah, page 335.

[2] Luke 15:22-23

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