2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 63:16-64:12 Part 1

The sense of the absence of God has little depth except where God is expected to be present. Jesus' cry of dereliction from the cross—"My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"—is wrenching and dismaying precisely because God was supposed to be present for and to the one sent as Messiah.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible the basis for this expectation is the covenant relationship between God and the chosen people. In the act of covenanting, the people are called into historical existence, given a name, and assigned the vocation to serve God and be a light to the gentiles. Although God initiates the covenant, responsibilities within the relationship are reciprocal: The people have obligations to God, and God has obligations to the people. When there is no demonstration of divine power and deliverance in times of distress, inevitably one must ask, Which party has forsaken the covenant? Is it the people, or is it perhaps God?

In this passage, the writer agrees that the people have sinned and thereby offended God and broken the covenant, but suggests that God may be the author of the people's sin. "Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?" (63:17) "But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed." (64:5)

Attributing the source of sin to God may be a desperate defense for a people uncertain as to why they should be punished so much, but it also discloses a perennial problem in theology. Why did Adam and Eve sin, when all their needs were met? Is the presence of the Tempter in the Garden of Eden a symbol of the fact that some sinful inclination or invitation always presents itself to innocence—in Kierkegaard's words, that "sin posits itself"? If there is some prior inclination or invitation, can we conclude otherwise then that God is responsible for it? And if God ultimately is responsible for sin, why should human beings be blamed and punished?

An answer from the side of covenantal theology is that the people know clearly what the terms of the covenant are. If they violate them, they can blame no one else, and certainly not God. Yet the writer sees the people as shaped by God in some absolute sense: "We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand." (64:8) If God is not in fact the author of sin, is there not at least some divine complicity?

The fundamental issue in this passage is that of reconciling God with the people. The God who is supposed to be with and for the covenanted people is absent and remote, living on the top floor of a two-storied universe with no connecting staircase. What is worse, God has become the enemy. Where does the initiative lie for healing the relationship? In Hosea, God takes the initiative for recalling the erring people. In this passage, the initiative seems to lie with the wounded and vulnerable people, crying desperately for their distant and unhearing God to come and rescue them and reestablish the covenant relationship.

In Christus Victor (New York: Macmillan, 1969), Gustav AulÚn offered a three-fold typology of views of the atonement. In the classical or dramatic views Christ fights a victorious battle over the powers of the world. As a result, God reconciles the world to himself. The initiative is with God, and God is the reconciler. In the Latin view, an offering is made by Christ to satisfy the justice of an offended God. The initiative is from humankind in Christ, and God is the one who must be reconciled. The subjective view, which arises with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, argues for a change in human beings in response to the self-evident love of God.

We cannot fit the passage from Isaiah 63-64 directly into this typology, not least because of the absence of Christology. Superficially, it represents the first type, with its call for a victory over the enemies of God (that is, of the people). In basic respects, however, it suggests the second type. The initiative is not with God, and the angry God is the one to be reconciled.

But does that understanding represent the main orientation of both Old and New Testaments, which is that God graciously pursues those who have set themselves in opposition? It was "while we were enemies" that "we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son." (Rom 5:10) God is the initiator and the reconciler. The people are the ones who must be reconciled.

Further, one must raise the issue of prevenient grace, testified to in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, and powerfully present in the Wesleyan tradition. It is basic also to D.M. Baillie's classic, God Was in Christ (London: Faber and Faber, 1948). God comes before. The verses in Isaiah 63 preceding this passage celebrate the leadership of God, of the one who goes before the people. The idea therefore is present in the passage. The Wesleyan argument concerning prevenient grace is that the people could not know their situation rightly if God did not reveal it to them. They could not call upon God to rescue them had God not prompted them to do so. God is present even to the sense of the absence of God.

Theodore R. Weber

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