Tear Open the Heavens
Do you ever feel tired and discouraged — wondering what in the world we are doing, what God is doing, where God is? Hoping for some sort of direction or action from God? That’s not uncommon for people of God, especially this time of year. Not only do we miss loved ones, but the days are shorter. It’s darker and colder. It would be nice to have some light. The Scriptures are full of people who live in darkness and in the waiting — wondering, questioning, troubled, hoping God will act. Noah was in the rain and darkness a long time. Abraham and Sarah wandered without a home or a child for decades. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for generations, watching their children be massacred at times. But as we know, God has always acted — that’s where all these songs and stories come from. The songs and stories are beautiful. They transport us to another time when others were waiting as we are — and the New Testament authors show us that we are supposed to live in their stories as if it is a picture of our own lives.
During this season of reflecting on the first advent (or coming) of Christ — as we sit in the midst of a long nearly two years, in the colder and darker days — I want to look at a prayer in Isaiah 63-64 and to see how God answers it in Mark’s Gospel so our hope can be fortified to look to the second advent of Christ our Lord. (Credit to Richard Hays for his analysis of this text in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels which inspired this sermon)
Isaiah: A Plea for God to Come
Isaiah 63-64 are written as a prayer from the perspective of the remnant of Judah. Judah once thrived, but they rebelled against God — refusing to trust him — so God sent Babylon to decimate them and their land. Isaiah has written this prayer from the perspective of these future exiles who sit in the rubble wondering what will come of the promises God made to his people. Let’s walk through this emotional prayer together.
Isaiah 63:7-14 — Where Is God? As Isaiah speaks from the perspective of people in exile, he recounts God’s steadfast love to his people in the past when his angel and even his Spirit led Israel out of Egypt and through the waters and through the wilderness. God was visibly, tangibly with his people and gave them rest. But, they look back and ask now — where is this God who did these mighty works? So, they continue with questions and laments in 63:15-19.
Isaiah 63:15-19 — Where Is Your Zeal? They are wandering from God’s ways feeling as though God himself has hardened their hearts. Based on verse 16, they appear to say that their own fathers — Abraham and Israel (Jacob) — would not recognize them now as their children. They are not a faithful people. They are not a blessed people. They appear to have no remnant of God’s presence among them. Verse 18: the sanctuary is decimated. Verse 15: God is all the way up in his holy habitation in heaven — so where is God’s zeal and compassion? Does he feel nothing for them? So, they plead with God to act in 64:1-5a.
Isaiah 64:1-5a — Rend the Heavens and Come Down. Verse 3: Isaiah remembers how God rescued Israel from Egypt and then came down from the heavens onto Mount Sinai in a raging inferno of fire and smoke. Verse 4: he affirms that no one has ever heard or seen a God who acts for his people like Yahweh. This is the God of all those stories of mythical proportions, yet he is in heaven. And to Isaiah the clouded heavens feel like this impassible barrier between God has his people. So, in verse 1, he pleads: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Don’t stay in your sanctuary any longer, don’t let the heavens keep you from us, tear up this barrier, act and make your adversaries and the nations tremble at your presence. They conclude by lamenting their sins and calling on God to forget their iniquities in 64:5b-12.
Isaiah 64:5b-12 —Will You Restrain Yourself? Isaiah does not pin this all on God; rather, he is disturbed by the uncleanness of his people. Even their righteous deeds are bloody and ugly. God has hidden his face, so no own wakes up to call on God’s name. And so he begs: God, you are our potter and we are the clay (mold us!). God, don’t be angry forever. Look at how your land has become a wilderness and your beautiful house a desolation. Will you restrain yourself? Will you keep silent?
We won’t look at it, but God replies in chapter 65: I’ve been holding my hands out to you all day, but you are a bunch of rebels who have not been returning to me.
But this is not the only place in Isaiah where the prophet longs for God’s coming:
- Isaiah 7 - Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel (God with us).
- Isaiah 9 - The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; … For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; … And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
- Isaiah 40 - “Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. … A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. … Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, … Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Behold, the Lord God will come with might.
- Is. 52:7–8, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion.”
We could summarize the cry of Isaiah in the word of a song: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Mark: The Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God
But, now, Mark says in 1:1-2 that he is proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God, according to Isaiah the prophet. The gospel of Caesar’s birth and ascendency to the throne was proclaimed in those days — the whole world had fallen into disorder and chaos, but Caesar Augustus (and other Caesars after him) was born Son of God, a gift from the gods to put all things right. But, again, Mark, writes of the gospel of Jesus Son of God — and after citing Isaiah 40, he’s not done proclaiming this gospel according to Isaiah’s prophecy. As prophesied, John comes to prepare the way for Yahweh, baptizing and proclaiming in the desert that one is coming who will baptize, immerse his people with the Holy Spirit. Notice what happens when Jesus comes to be baptized by John in Mark 1:9-11.
Here are the orphaned people of God spilling loads of water in the wilderness and repenting and the encouragement of this strange man who looks curiously like Elijah of old. And as they shuffle in and out of the water hoping in and preparing for the return of God, one man — Jesus of Nazareth — is baptized. Then, he looks up — and you with him — and suddenly, Mark says, the heavens were being torn open, and God the Spirit comes down like a dove and descends on Jesus. Then the Father’s voice booms from heaven. There is much we could focus on here — the anointing of Jesus as the true, Spirit-led king or the declaration that Jesus is finally the Son who actually pleases God. But, see what Isaiah would have seen.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” In Jesus, God did precisely that. God ripped through the barrier separating himself from man, anointed the Son with his Spirit, and God came embodied to make right what sin and darkness had broken and corrupted. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morning.”
Remember that the books of the Bible are very carefully crafted literature. Mark opens his Gospel here with how he intends to close it. Jesus goes out and shows himself to truly be Son of God — he has the authority of God’s voice to cure diseases, calm seas, transform hearts, and send the demons of Satan running. God himself has invaded the territory of Satan the strong man, has bound him, and is plundering his goods (Mark 3:27). But, in Mark, Jesus quickly begins speaking of how he must go to Jerusalem where he will be rejected, condemned, and executed. He will give his life as a ransom for many. And that’s what happens. The priests condemn him in a mock-trial, hand him over to the Romans, and he is nailed on the cross.
But notice what happens when Jesus breathes his last in 15:38. The same word is used here. The heavens are torn open at the beginning when Jesus is baptized, and now the veil is torn open at the end when he breathes his last. And what is that curtain? It is the barrier separating God from his people. Behind the veil was the most holy place which represented the very throne room of God where priests could not go except once per year. Perhaps we are intended to see that veil, in the words of one author, as “the Levitical counterpart to the heavens,” (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord, L. Michael Morales). As Isaiah saw that the heavens separated God from his people and he longed for them to be torn, they were torn at Jesus’ baptism and now, like it, the curtain is torn when Jesus breathes his last. And though the centurion could not see this happen, we are immediately told in 15:39 that Isaiah’s hope has come true — a centurion, one from the Gentile nations, is trembling at the presence of God. God has ripped open the barrier to come to us and so that we may access him.
Some days we feel like the people from Isaiah’s prayer.
- We look at the strength and arrogance of the enemies of God’s people and shudder.
- We look upon our own sins and the sleepy state of God’s people and weep.
- We recall the accounts of God’s activity in the past and we wonder where that God is, we wonder at God’s apparent lack of zeal to act for his people and his name, we hope he will come as the Potter to his clay.
In light of this, consider what we have seen in Isaiah and Mark.
1. Consider, God holds out his hands. God’s reply to this plea for him to come is basically, “It’s a two-way street.” I have been holding my hands out but you are asleep and unclean and not returning to me. The end of Isaiah is designed as a chiasm and in the parallel passage in Isaiah 59 God replies: my hand is not so short that it cannot save, but your sins have separated you from your God. In our good times of excesses, let us not be distracted by our pleasures to the grim reality of God’s unfinished promises. And in our darkness, weariness, discouragement, there is the need to consider that there may be a need for us to go out like the people did to John the Baptist and repent wholesale of our distraction and sin. He’s holding out his hands all day long to people who aren’t looking for him.
2. Consider, God ripped open the heavens and the veil. What I love about Christmas season is that when it is colder and darker, people hang Christmas lights. If we will have eyes to see the ancient tradition, we can be reminded that for thousands of years the weary world waited in darkness, but when the night was half spent, the true light of the world came to dispel the darkness. The heavens were ripped open, God’s Spirit came down; the curtain was opened, and the way to the most holy place was opened. God is signaling to us that the time of our separation finally nearing its end — he is coming to us, and until then we can go to him to receive help. I don’t know if you feel what I feel, but Scripture says we receive God’s Spirit when we are baptized, and I think from now on when I witness a baptism, I am going to feel like the heavens are being ripped open all over again for God’s Spirit to come and invade Satan’s dark territory with a little more light.
3. The Lord will come from heaven again. We are not to look back at God’s first coming in Jesus as a single occurrence, but this ultimately builds hope in the day when the heavens will be ripped wide open on the last day and when he will descend for our salvation — to change us, execute wrath on our enemies, to lay bare the earth, the unleash his Spirit to make all things new, to gather us to himself, and to set his presence among us fully and finally forever.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.