Text: Isaiah 64:1-9 W 1st Sunday in Advent
In the name of him who is coming to save us, dear friends in Christ: I have a confession to make: when it comes to household projects and repairs that require anything more than the most rudimentary level of skill or expertise, I have proven on more occasions than I care to remember that I’m not much of a handyman. Oh, I can do a few things: you know, some very basic plumbing, replace a worn out light switch or door handle – little projects like that; but anything beyond, well, let’s just say that it’s best that I don’t attempt it. Now, I thank the Lord that he has given me the wisdom to recognize this in most cases (that, or he’s given me the bitter experience by which I’ve learned the lesson the hard way). So now, usually, when considering a job that needs to be done right from the start I know enough to call a professional. It only makes sense. The job will be done quicker, more efficiently, and a whole lot better than I could possibly do. And hey, that’s what our doctrine of vocation is all about. The world just works better when everyone does their own job and doesn’t try to do everyone else’s.
So, like I said, I’m grateful that the Lord has given me the sense to know when not to attempt to fix something that’s out of my limited range—most of the time anyway. You see, it still happens once in a while, I’ll look a job over, consider what I think will be involved, and say to myself, “I ought to be able to handle this all by myself.” Fool that I am. In almost every case what follows – after hours of fruitless frustration and at least a half dozen extra trips to the hardware store, first to get the things I didn’t know I needed when I started and then to get things to repair what I call the “collateral damage”, that is, the things I accidentally broke or destroyed in the process of attempting to fix whatever it was that needed fixing; and then too, likely, I’ll need an additional trip to a pharmacy to pick up a few medical supplies with which to treat and dress the wounds I clumsily inflicted upon myself while trying to be “Mr. Handyman” – after all that, I end up calling a professional anyway, who, invariably, upon surveying both the damage I caused through my ineptitude and my lame attempts to cover it up, will say with a smug and patronizing smile, “So, you tried to fix it yourself, did you?” Yes, so in addition to all the wasted effort, frustration, unnecessary expense, and bodily injury, I have to drink deeply from the cup of humiliation too. You’d think that at least I’d have the joy of knowing how much mirth and laughter I was bringing to peoples’ lives when the professional repairman returns to his shop and shares the story of my incompetence with his colleagues; but no, for some reason this thought only makes me feel worse. And the worst part is knowing that it all could have been avoided if only I hadn’t been so foolish as to think that I could do the job myself.
And perhaps you can relate to what I’m saying here. I mean, even if you are more capable than I am concerning such things, it’s likely that on more than one occasion you’ve attempted to do a job that you weren’t equipped to handle on your own. The reason for that is we all tend to overestimate our abilities and then, as they say, bite off more than we can chew. That’s why too most of us have lying around in various places a number of unfinished projects – jobs we threw ourselves into with enthusiasm at first and then at some critical point realized, “This is a lot more than I bargained for; I don’t have the time or knowledge or ability or whatever it takes to finish it.” And I think we could throw into the same general category the projects we started and actually did finish, so to speak, but only in a jury rigged, cobbled together, “this’ll make do” sort of way. I suspect that most of you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If so, then let me suggest that just as we have a habit of naively taking on more than we can handle when it comes to those “do it yourself” jobs that turn out to be “I really need professional help” jobs, the same is true when it comes to fixing in our lives the things that are broken in matters of the spirit, matters of the heart, and matters of relationships – both our relationship with the Lord and our relationships with other people. We do precisely the same thing. We try to fix things that are far beyond our abilities; and if there’s a difference it’s this: we’re even more likely to do it.
There are several reasons for this. One is the deceptive nature of sin. It always disguises itself as a smaller problem than it really is – at least in the eyes of the person who’s involved in it. That’s why it’s always easier to see someone else’s sin than your own. So right from the start we’re nearly blind when it comes to self-diagnostics. What appears to be a big problem to everyone else – or would appear to be if we weren’t so good at hiding it – doesn’t seem to be such a big deal to ourselves. And hey, if we can convince ourselves that it isn’t that broken, why then, it doesn’t need fixing that badly, does it? Or we tell ourselves it’s such a small problem that we can fix it whenever we want; but since it’s not pressing, what’s the rush? We’ll get to it one day. And so our sinful habits, addictions, jealousies, angers, grudges, and whatever else have you are allowed to grow unrestrained. In turn they harm our relationships, first with the Lord, of course; but also with the people we say we love and others. They create unhealthy tensions, irritations, and push us apart from people. But still, we manage to get by, cobbling together fragments of relationships that, while lacking the deep personal intimacy we all want and need, are at least tolerable – or least they seem to be for a while. Somehow they don’t improve over time; they just keep getting worse. But we dare not admit that because over the top of everything else is our stubborn sense of pride. Even when we know we’ve got a full fledged crisis brewing, we still don’t want to admit that we can’t fix what’s broken. It’s one thing for me to call a plumber when the basement’s full of water or the hot water heater explodes; but quite another to admit that I can’t fix what’s wrong on the personal side of my life, or the fact that one of my relationships is on the verge of exploding into an ugly mess. I’m supposed to be the master of such things. Why, to admit that I need help would be to admit that I’m not in control, that I’m not the expert, that I just can’t do it.
A while back a certain church body launched an advertising campaign to stir up interest and maybe attract some new members. And what they did was to put up a series of billboards in and around some of the major cities they were targeting. On these billboards were messages allegedly from God. And some of them, I have to admit, were kind of cute – even if they did lean heavily toward the legalistic side. Among the messages was this: “I missed you last Sunday; but the invitation’s still open. Next week let’s meet at my place. And bring the kids. Signed, God”. That one wasn’t too bad. Here are some others: “If you keep on taking my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour last longer.” “Ha! You think it’s hot here?” “What part of ‘Thou shalt not …’ did you not understand?” And this: “Have you read my #1 bestseller? You’d better. There will be a test.” All of them were signed “God”.
And I suppose that each one made its point; but there was one in particular that struck me. It said, “Don’t make me come down there.” It was the sort of warning you might expect a parent to shout down the basement steps to where, from the sound of it, the kids are misbehaving. The indication is that if the ruckus continues, the parent will come down to sort things out and be none too happy about it. Figuratively speaking, if that needs to happen, heads will roll. So, whatever the problem is, they had better knock it off and learn to play nicely together.
But this is where this supposed message from God misses the point entirely. It suggests that we ought to be able to solve our problems all by ourselves. It feeds right into the great delusion we suffer from: that we can fix it. If only could just elect the right people to office, or if we could all just try harder to get along, or if, with John Lennon, we could simply imagine a better world, or, as this particular billboard message suggested, if we could just straighten up, fly right, and follow the Ten Commandments, why then everything would work out fine and God wouldn’t have to come down.
Nothing could be further from the truth. And this is what the prophet Isaiah is saying so loudly and plainly in today’s Old Testament lesson. We don’t need a God seated way up there in the highest heaven, or standing at the top of Jacob’s golden staircase shouting down instructions. We need him to rend the heavens and come down. Nothing short of divine intervention will do the job. We need the Lord to come down with his great wisdom and power to work mighty miracles of salvation for us. We need this because what’s broken is you. What’s broken is me. We have a sin problem that is killing us and poisoning every relationship we have. And every attempt we make on our end to fix it ourselves is cosmetic at best; but usually doesn’t even accomplish that. Usually we just make things worse and break something else.
Isaiah looked over the mess the
And there were other times in
As it happens, there were several times during the lifetime of Isaiah when the Lord did just that: in response to his people’s need he came down and in ways no one could have anticipated he rescued them from what seemed to be impossible situations. I won’t tell of them all because, as it turns out, they only accomplished short term fixes. As soon as the immediate problem was resolved, the people thought, “Thanks very much, Lord, we appreciate all your help; but we can manage it from here. We don’t need you down here anymore.” Not surprisingly, within a few years things would go back to being as bad as ever because the people were trying to handle their problems all by themselves.
But all these “comings down” of the
Lord were shadows and prophetic pictures of a greater descent the Lord had
planned. It’s the one we’re looking
forward to celebrating at Christmas, when God came down lower than he ever had
before and did something totally unexpected:
the Word of God once handed down at Sinai became a man born in a
Of course, we know he didn’t stay there. On the third day he rose from the dead and returned to be with us – with us down here. And though he’s since risen into heaven, we shouldn’t think of him as being gone back up there out of reach. No. You see, first he sent down his own Holy Spirit to be with and in us. And through the faith he works in us by his Spirit he allows us to experience his continued coming down: his coming down to us right now in his Word and in his Sacraments. Through these means he takes up residence in our flesh – right inside us – and here he is ready, willing, and able to fix what’s sinful and broken in our lives if only, if only we would stop trying to do it ourselves and turn the job over to him.
That is what’s happening right now: Jesus Christ is down here among us. He is calling us to repentance, speaking his forgiveness, and filling us with his Spirit to guide us in his way. You might think of his Word and Sacraments as the hands by which he’s collecting the broken pot shards that we are, grinding us to dust, applying water to reform the clay, and reshaping us into what he would have us be. And I know from personal and pastoral experience that with these “hands” he is able to work his wonders in unexpected ways. I’ve seen sinful habits and addictions overcome. I’ve seen hopelessly broken relationships restored. And so have some of you. And we will continue to see it in our lives and in the lives of others as he continues to shape us. What we will be when he comes down again in glory and finishes his work has not yet been revealed; but what he’s doing with us now in this life as we allow him to fix what’s broken is very much is part of making us into what we will ultimately become.
So let’s let him do it. Let’s stop trying to do it ourselves. Let’s call upon him to come down and open our hearts and our minds to receive him and let the Professional do his work. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!