What Kind of Friend is God?
I believe it was Philip Yancey who observed that if God is my friend then he’s always the kind of friend that I imagine myself as wanting to be.
If I imagine that I have the power of God and a friend is in trouble I would do what would be necessary to help that friend out. Need money? Healing? Rescue from violence?
Christians of course pray for these things, good things, and no answer seems to come.
Our contemporary skepticism sometimes seems to imagine that this is a new problem for believers, it is not. The Old Testament prophets deal in these questions all the time, not simply at a personal level but at a national level.
What Has Happened to the LORD’s Favor?
Last we talked about Israel’s story being the world’s story and our own story.
The foundational part of the Hebrew Scriptures was the Torah, the first 5 book. Those books contain what we know as “the mighty acts of God”. In them Israel’s identity is formed as God’s chosen people, his special possession by which the LORD will reveal himself to the nations and under the curse of death over the creation.
While believing egalitarian Americans consider individual “friendship with God” a foundational relationship Israel saw themselves as the LORD’s vassal. Such a relationship assumed that the LORD would look out for and protect Israel and in return Israel should serve, love and be obedient to the LORD.
Israel’s prophets majored on the breakdown of this relationship? Why was Israel weak, corrupt, violent and eventually subject to the abusive whims of greater nations that lived in her neighborhood? Was it Israel’s failure to keep up her end of the deal? Was God moody or negligent?
When Israel and Judah were swallowed up and carted off into exile and slavery once more the prophets wrestled with these ideas over and over and over again. This week we’ll look at some of that wrestling in Isaiah chapters 63 and 64.
Is it really better to have loved and lost?
What we see in chapter 63 is almost a doubting of Shakespeare’s observation that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. If Israel was just any old people then maybe her misfortunes would not be so emotionally hard to take. The magnitude of the past promises and blessings invite not just feelings of pain and loss at their present trauma but on top of that feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Again, if you imagine that God or Jesus are your friend, and now that you are in a terrible situation and are calling out to God why doesn’t he come to your rescue? You have not just the pain of your circumstance but the threat to a valued friendship on top of it!
I see this often with people who walk away from the Christian faith.
The argument that to abandon God because you suffer from painful circumstance gets you nothing is completely rational. Even if there is only a chance that maintaining the relationship could provide you with circumstantial relief why throw it away?
Imagine you are deeply in debt and you have a relationship with a very wealthy person who could eliminate your debt without even missing that amount of cash. Imagine you’ve made an appeal to that person for help and you haven’t heard back from them. Would you in time decide out of frustration you’d send a nasty note declaring that they are a horrible friend and you never want to see or hear from them again because they haven’t responded to your need? That might feel good emotionally, but a calmer, more rational adviser might recommend that you not burn that bridge.
This of course opens up another group of us, those that hold out hope that God is our friend, have secret feelings of abandonment and betrayal but decide that it’s better to not burn our bridges and so keep our feelings to ourselves, holding out hope that one day the effort we’ve put into the relationship might pay out.
It’s easy for us to see, however, that this is not the kind of relationship any of us really want to be a part of. It is a mercenary friendship, not one based on love.
Isaiah Wrestling with God
We see here that Israel’s relationship with God is complicated by the boldness of God’s past dealings with her. God’s love for her was overt, explicit and easy to see in the stories of Genesis and Exodus. Isaiah 63 starts here.
Isaiah 63:7–9 (NET)
63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the Lord,
of the Lord’s praiseworthy deeds.
I will tell about all the Lord did for us,
the many good things he did for the family of Israel,
because of his compassion and great faithfulness.
63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,
children who are not disloyal.”
He became their deliverer.
63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.
The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.
In his love and mercy he protected them;
he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.
The memory of God’s mighty work then haunts Isaiah.
Isaiah 63:15–16 (NET)
63:15 Look down from heaven and take notice,
from your holy, majestic palace!
Where are your zeal and power?
Do not hold back your tender compassion!
63:16 For you are our father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not recognize us.
You, Lord, are our father;
you have been called our protector from ancient times.
Questioning goes into a territory we might consider to be disrespectful. God, how could you let all of this happen?
Isaiah 63:17–19 (NET)
63:17 Why, Lord, do you make us stray from your ways,
and make our minds stubborn so that we do not obey you?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your inheritance!
63:18 For a short time your special nation possessed a land,
but then our adversaries knocked down your holy sanctuary.
63:19 We existed from ancient times,
but you did not rule over them,
they were not your subjects.
And then the renewed appeal for God’s direct intervention.
Isaiah 64:1–3 (NET)
64:1 (63:19b) If only you would tear apart the sky and come down!
The mountains would tremble before you!
64:2 (64:1) As when fire ignites dry wood,
or fire makes water boil,
let your adversaries know who you are,
and may the nations shake at your presence!
64:3 When you performed awesome deeds that took us by surprise,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
The Great Dividing Line of Secularity
“If only you would tear apart the sky and come down!” This is the cry of faith but it is one that is being challenged, stretched and tried. Maintaining this idea is no small thing.
Our present skepticism invites us to give up on this desire. Our secular has in some ways divided the church precisely along this line, those who imagine that God hears our prayers, can and sometimes does tear apart the sky to intervene on our behalf, and those who have concluded that this is a primitive fantasy that should be abandoned in favor of fixing things ourselves.
This has become the great dividing line of secularity. Whole hosts of beliefs rise or fall on this basic question.
- Did Jesus rise from the dead in a physical, tangible, public way or is it a metaphor for something or was it a private mystical experience?
- Will Jesus come again to the earth in a historical, tangible, public fashion or is this a metaphor for something else?
- Did God come in a unique way in Jesus of Nazareth?
Before we get self-righteous by belonging to a Christian church that embraces the Apostles Creed with anti-secular relish we should consider how convenient it is to straddle this line especially in the face of those who are very non-secular in their belief and behavior but in our opinion spectacularly inconsistent and sometimes even foolish in their embrace of God’s breaking in. For some God is always breaking in and the in-breaking doesn’t necessarily need to be coherent, moral or reasonable.
Many of us see the chaos among those for whom God is always breaking in and opt for skeptical rationality when the breaking in just seems to be a cover for human mischief and unconscious or manipulative desire but are ready to hop over the line again when someone says “imagining God’s direct intervention is silly superstition which has been thoroughly discredited with science and the enlightenment.”
Advent desire is all about the revelation of our God in real time and space to address the sorrow, brokenness and death of our world (the age of decay) and the anticipated remedy of all our crippling losses.
Structure in the Text
Alec Moyter sees a structure in this section of Isaiah.
A1 The Lord’s heavenly house: his compassions restrained (15–16)
B1 We are your people though it does not seem like it (17–19)
C1 The nations would tremble before you were you but to show your face (64:1–3)
D The unique Lord: active for those who hope in him, but what of those who ignore his wrath? (4–5)
C2 It is we who wilt because of our sin, and you have hidden your face (6–7)
B2 We are your people: please consider it! (8–9)
A2 The Lord’s earthly house in ruins: will he restrain himself? (10–12)
Motyer, J. A. (1996). The prophecy of Isaiah: an introduction & commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
The lectionary gives us verses 1-9 but we should consider the broader selection. Within this structure there is emphasis at its center, vs. 4-5 but also progression through verse 12.
In Exodus at the rebellion of the Golden Calf and Numbers at the rebellion caused by the unfaithful report of the ten fearful spies Moses engages the LORD in an argument similar to this one. This whole section serves multiple tasks at once:
- It is a prayer to God to publicly act, obviously, openly, in real time and space to rescue his people from the injustice of the strong
- It gives a call to the people to not give up on their faith that God is able, willing and ready to intervene on their behalf even if all circumstance invites them to abandon hope (verse 4-5)
- It is a confession of faith that the prophet on behalf of the faithful will finally surrender to the will of their God, trusting him as their father (63:16, 64:8) to accomplish with them what he deems best.
Advent’s Internal Conflicts
The clear call for the LORD to “tear apart the sky and come down” is made by us in our fear and pain. In this emotional state we imagine that we are innocent and our adversary guilty. Our hearts naturally isolate 64:1 in our self-righteousness indulging in a revenge fantasy that culminates in the slaughter of our adversaries.
A more sober assessment of our complicity in the chaos around us might suggest we pause on the “PLEASE ACT NOW” demand. Those ideas are also in this section although our fearful and hungry hearts are not as quick to grab onto them. If God does act now how do we know we will be on vindicated side of his judgment?
Jesus’ Entry in Advent
While Jesus points to John the Baptist as his herald, John’s advent desire clearly followed Isaiah. John saw God rend the skies in Jesus’ baptism. John and others expected the kinds of mighty warrior acts that Isaiah 63:1-6 express with his robe bright red with the blood of his enemies, trampling out the grapes of wrath
Isaiah 63:3 (NET)
63:3 “I have stomped grapes in the winepress all by myself;
no one from the nations joined me.
I stomped on them in my anger;
I trampled them down in my rage.
Their juice splashed on my garments,
and stained all my clothes.
John held so strongly to this vision that he was confused by the actual working out of Jesus’ ministry. Where was the violence? Where was the blood of the adversary and enemies of God? Where was the restored fortunes of Israel against Rome and all of her collaborators?
This was Jesus’ answer
Matthew 11:4–6 (NET)
4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see:5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
But what of the robes stained in blood? The cup of divine wrath that the suffering of this world surely demands of its abusers and aggressors? This is the cup that Jesus drinks.
Was Advent Exhausted in Jesus?
The rest of the New Testament asserts that the request for God to rend the skies will finally one day realized, that Jesus will return as victor, justice will be done, not just for Israel but for all and that our rebellion and the age of decay will be laid to rest. The force of Isaiah’s three fold message endures as it flows through the story of Jesus.
- With Isaiah we call on God to act! The world cries out for relief from the burden we have placed on the earth and its people. Oh that God would send remedy soon, for many of us are at our breaking points.
- With Isaiah we encourage each other to not give up hope. While in our secular age it is easy to dismiss this as wishful thinking or pretty metaphor, as a community we will continue to maintain the Christian story as rehearsed in the Apostle’s creed. We believe that Jesus heard our call, not just to deliver us from our enemies but to do the harder work of delivering us from ourselves. We await his return. We long for it. We believe in it.
- In the mean time because of the resurrection we can in gratitude surrender ourselves to God. He is the potter, we are the clay. We saw that in Jesus even though he was crushed and the world considered him beaten in the resurrection he reigns and in his new flesh beyond decay he embodies the life of the age to come. We follow his path, trusting in God’s wisdom, not in a mercenary way, but in a sacrificial one.