Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rend the Heavens and Come Down...

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 64: 1-2)

When I read this passage of scripture, I was immediately put in mind of a quote from a movie called The Prophecy. In one scene, the character Thomas Daggett makes the following statement: “Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” Now, one could write an entire paper describing the theological inaccuracies of the movie The Prophecy. That is not something which I wish to undertake at this time. Mr. Daggett’s skewed analysis of scripture aside for a moment; I did have a similar feeling to his upon reading these words of Isaiah. With his description of the coming of the Lord, with the rending of the heavens, and the quaking of the mountains, and fire kindling brushwood, and fire causing waters to boil, I wondered to myself in a moment of candor, “would I really want to see the coming of the Lord?” It sounds terrifying.

You see, the thing that really bothered me was what Isaiah writes in verse six of chapter 64:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all strayed like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities (Isaiah 64:6-7 ).

Isaiah says that we have all become like one who is unclean. That “we” means all people, including myself. In this chapter Isaiah longs for the coming of the Lord so that he can make his name known to his adversaries, and so that the nations, “might tremble at your presence!” Holy Scripture tells us, however, that we are by our very nature the Lord’s adversaries.[1] Our sinful nature separates us from God.[2] More than that, Scripture teaches that there is nothing that we can do on our own to remedy this condition. Would it not be we who were terrified by the rending of the Heavens when the Lord comes? Would it not be we who tremble at his presence?

The psalmist writes, “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”[3] This state of sinfulness from birth, which we commonly refer to as original sin, is the total corruption of our human nature, which we have inherited from Adam through our parents. Original sin has brought guilt and condemnation to all people.[4] It has left mankind without true fear and love of God.[5] We are spiritually bind and dead creatures; the enemies of God.[6] Because of this total corruption of our human nature, we are incapable of pleasing God and we are also disinclined to even try to do so.[7] Consequently, original sin manifests itself as the commission of actual sins.[8] St. Paul describes these sins in general terms in his letter to the Galatians:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like (Galatians 5:19).

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about the nature of sin. It didn’t start out that way, though. What we were actually talking about was the depravity of human nature; what makes one person able to live with themselves after committing some heinous act while another would torn apart by guilt. My theory was that, since God has built into us a conscience whose voice we can always hear, the less we listen to it, the less we will actually be able to hear it. At some point, if we ignore that voice long enough, we will grow deaf to it completely. After that point, such a person would be a cold-blooded psychopath; that person would have completely indulged the desires of their flesh. My friend wasn’t completely sure that he understood what I was saying.

He couldn’t understand how someone could steal something from another person and still sleep at night. Stealing, in his eyes, was one of the worst things one person could do to another. On the other hand, it was a trivial matter to him for someone to have sex with many women while that person was in a long-term relationship with, but not married to, another woman. He explained, “It isn’t adultery for a man to have sex with other women in that situation. Not if he’s not married.” When I explained to him that yes, this indeed was adultery, he was at first indignant. I then explained to him what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount concerning adultery[9], and he acquiesced. After a moment’s reflection, he said, “If that’s the case, we’re all in trouble.”

You see, the God who declared stealing sinful, also declared adultery sinful. He is also the one who defined what is stealing and what is adultery, and he wrote those definitions on our hearts. Therefore, if we break one of his commandments, we are guilty of breaking them all. We don’t get to pick and choose our own individual morality. The fact that we all recognize the existence of our own conscience proves that to us, even though we may not like to admit it, and particularly when we seek to justify our actions that go against it. There is an absolute morality. God is the one who has set that bar. Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, all of mankind has been unable to measure up to that bar. My friend said more than he knew; left in that state we are all, most definitely, in trouble.

Christians, however, do not have to fear the Judgment Day. If it were up to us to make our sinfulness right, the Day of the Lord would most certainly be a terrifying thing. The Lord has told us in Holy Scripture, that no one is righteous, not even one. He has told us that our righteousness, our good works, no matter how wonderful they may seem to us, are nothing but filth. To stand in front of the judgment seat of Christ on the Last Day, clothed in the works of our own righteousness would be the same as if one arrived for his audience with the Queen of England clothed in the rags of a homeless person off the street.

God knew this. He knew this ahead of time, and he accounted for it. God resolved before the foundation of the world that those whom he would save, he would save by his grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.[10] In the fullness of his time, the Father sent the Son, true God, begotten from all eternity, to come to earth to his people. He did not come, however, rending the heavens, as Isaiah here describes. He came in humble fashion as a man, having set aside his divine power and glory, and was born to a virgin in a stable by God’s mysterious power. At the right time He would be born of a virgin – true man also, yet born without the stain sin. He came down from heaven, Immanuel – which means “God, with us” – and he lived a perfect life doing what we could not do, keeping God’s moral law. And, again at the appointed time, he gave up his life for all of mankind, as a sacrifice to atone for our sins; three days later he exhibited his power over sin, death, and Satan by once again taking up his life and rising from the dead. This is the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke and for whom the faithful Jews were waiting. This was the first coming of Immanuel, “God, with us.” Though this first coming did not resemble Isaiah’s dream of an exhibition of God’s power and glory in order to subdue all of God’s enemies, he did, nevertheless, subdue them. Shortly before going to his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus declared, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”[11]

Since Jesus made atonement for all the sins of all mankind, that means that he is now responsible for them. When we stand before the judgment seat on the Last Day, Jesus will take responsibility for the lives of those who profess his name. Christians don’t need to fear their own death, or the Judgment Day – the day when Jesus will come with glory and “rending the heavens”, because He has already won the victory. “On the Last Day,” Martin Luther writes in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, “He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.”

I can’t say that I look forward with joy to The Day of the Lord, at least in one sense, because my finite human mind cannot grasp the concept of God “rending the heavens,” and the unknown details of this cause me apprehension. I do not, however, fear its coming because Jesus has promised me that my sins are forgiven and that he will give me eternal life. Again, in the words of Luther:

He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

End Notes

[1] Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:3

[2] 1 Corinthians 2:14

[3] Psalm 51:5

[4] Romans 5:19

[5] Genesis 8:21

[6] Ephesians 2:1

[7] Romans 8:7

[8] Matthew 7:17

[9] Matthew 5:27-28

[10] Matthew 13:34-35; Ephesians 1: 4-6

[11] John 12:31