Reading: Isaiah 64.1-9
Have you ever been in the situation like this? Someone has just rung you up, asking you if they can borrow something from you. You reply that it will be no trouble at all. After all, you were looking at it just a few days ago and know exactly where it is. Your friend will call by in half an hour, so you go to the spot where you know it is, except... where has it gone? Has someone shifted it? or put a newspaper on it? did I just imagine having it? have I myself, perhaps, put it down somewhere else?...

A desperate search begins. After searching in all the likely places, we begin looking in all the unlikely places. Somehow a deep longing settles down on us. Hopeless, yet hopeful. Our focus is on this one promised object. For the moment our other priorities are set aside. Nothing else seems important. A simple request has turned into a major task and we will do anything - even if it is everything! - to fulfil that request...

Has that ever happened to you? Are there other ways in which you have experienced that deep deep longing? that sense of urgency, that passionate search ... ?

Longing for God

In his book, Finding God, Larry Crabb writes, "We find God to the degree that we want to find him. Until our passion for finding God exceeds all other passions, and until we long to know him as our Lord and friend more than to use him to get what we want (the way a spoiled child uses a rich father), we will not find him as deeply as he longs to be found. He will not reveal himself to us in those wonderful glimpses of his love or in that quiet reassurance that he is with us.

"God wants to let us find him. Especially when years of living as a Christian have seemingly brought us no closer to him, God delights to be discovered. He is not playing hard to get. Something about the way we are and who he is makes it necessary for us to want him more than we want anyone or anything else before we can find him. 'You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord' (Jer.29.13-14)" (Finding God, p. 167).

Larry Crabb is talking about a longing much deeper than the longing of a child for Christmas. The Psalmist was in the depths of despair and put it this way, "I wait eagerly for the Lord's help... I wait for the Lord more eagerly than watchmen wait for the dawn - than watchmen wait for the dawn" (Ps. 130.5-6).

Our Bible reading for today is Isaiah 64.1-9. The prophet is expressing a deep longing for God in the midst of troubled times. He would like to see the Lord active in the dramatic ways of the past - "Why don't you tear the sky apart and come down? The mountains would see you and shake with fear. They would tremble like water boiling over a hot fire. Come and reveal your power to your enemies, and make the nations tremble at your presence! There was a time when you came and did terrifying things that we did not expect; the mountains saw you and shook with fear. No one has ever seen or heard of a God like you, who does such deeds for those who put their hope in him" (vv. 1-4).

Isaiah (and, I suspect, the people) would welcome some such demonstration of divine power - if you were in a tight spot, wouldn't you welcome just that kind of divine intervention on your behalf?

True, v.4 puts a condition on it, "for those who put their hope in him." But then, when we are in a spot, isn't God our only, or at least our final, hope?

However, v.5 goes on, "You welcome those who find joy in doing what is right, those who remember how you want them to live." Even when we feel we have remembered how we are meant to live, can we always say we have found joy in doing what is right? In Jesus' time the Pharisees were very meticulous at keeping the Law. Do you think they found joy in doing what is right? Somehow I don't imagine them very joyful people at all!

But Isaiah continues, "You were angry with us, but we went on sinning; in spite of your great anger we have continued to do wrong since ancient times. All of us have been sinful; even our best actions are filthy through and through" (vv.5b,6a). So, according to Isaiah, it is not just that we haven't had joy in doing right, for even our best actions (when we have tried to do the right thing) have been marred, spoilt by wrong attitudes and motives. (In Hebrew, it literally means that "all our righteousnesses (our many forms of doing right) are like rags stained with blood"). We recall Isaiah's experience of the glory of the Lord recorded in chapter 6. He said, "There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful. And yet, with my own eyes, I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (6.6). Or we reflect on Paul's record about himself, "I don't do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do" (Rom.7.19).

Yet God's grace and help are there for all who seek him. Isaiah continues, 'No one turns to you in prayer; no one goes to you for help. You have hidden yourself from us and have abandoned us because of our sins" (Is. 6.7).

The slogan says, "If God seems a million miles away, guess who moved?" Isaiah has already recorded the gracious offer of God to settle the matter with them, "You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as white as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool" (1.18), and, "Turn to the Lord and pray to him, now that he is near. Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the Lord our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive" (55.6-7), In 64.5 the prophet is saying that people are not in fact turning to the Lord.

The Potter's hands

"But you are our Father, Lord. We are like clay, and you are like the potter. You created us, so do not be too angry with us or hold our sins against us for ever. We are your people; be merciful to us" (vv.8-9). The prophet is pleading with the Lord on two counts - we are the Lord's people and we are the Lord's creation - please be kind to us.

A visitor to the shop of a famous potter was puzzled by one operation which seemed to have little purpose. The workman was beating a lump of clay with a large mallet. It looked as if nothing was happening, and so the one who was taking the tour finally asked, "Sir, why are you doing that?" "Just wait and watch the results; then you'll understand," was the reply.

He heeded the advice and soon noted that the top of the mass began to quiver and swell as little bumps formed on its surface. "Now you can see the need for the pounding," said the man. "I could never shape the clay into a worthwhile vessel if these bubbles remained in it, so I must gradually work them out."

Yes, the Lord is the potter. Through a whole series of circumstances he works on us - to remove from us, not only the guilt, but the reality of sin.

What is the deepest longing of our heart? Do we want the Lord to "tear the sky apart and come down"? to step in and do something about this tangled world, to make our own circumstances closer to our ideal? Or do we want God to pound us and mould us and shape us according to his will?

At the end of his book, Larry Crabb writes, "It is right to think hard about life, to probe into the complexities of your relationship with yourself and others. But you must conduct these adventures of thought in the same spirit as children explore their grandfather's old, rambling house. Seemingly endless closets and crevices and corners in the attic dare children to leave the well-lit living room where grandfather sits; but that living room is headquarters, and the children are careful to keep the way back clearly in mind.

"Many Christians today have courageously ventured into the dark regions of the soul but have forgotten the way back to the room where the eternal Father gathers his children onto his lap and reads stories to them by the fireplace. They feel very grownup when they talk about sexual abuse and multiple personality disorders. The almost rebellious excitement that comes from moving farther away from the living room makes them feel superior to those who are still relaxing by the cosy fire, listening to childish tales about walls falling down and stones from a slingshot killing a giant...

"Most of us are crawling about in a stuffy attic, trying to explain life, demanding to be right, doing our best to relieve pain, and wondering where God is. It is time to find our way back to the living room and into the Father's arms, where we can listen to his Spirit tell the story of Christ" (Finding God, pp. 209,213).

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 1 December 1996
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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