Isaiah 64: A Surprising God


The “Francesca” violin, created by Antonio Stradivari, 1694. Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

About eleven years ago, world famous violinist Joshua Bell put on blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap and took his Stradivarius to a D.C. Metro station. As any good busker does, he threw some seed money in the case and started playing.

Over a thousand people streamed by as he played for 45 minutes. Twenty-eight people threw some money in the case. Only seven stopped to listen. One person recognized him—and gave him twenty of the $52.17 he made that day. Three nights before, he played to a sold out crowd at  Boston Symphony Hall, where basic tickets cost $100.

The ancient Israelites, they wanted the spectacular concert hall experience. Just like music-lovers expected Joshua Bell to be accompanied by expensive tickets and well-dressed patrons and spotlights, the Israelites expected God to come with torn heavens and quaking mountains and fire.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

But for the Israelites, the heavens were not opening. The mountains were not quaking. In fact, things were pretty bad and God seemed to be in hiding.

We don’t know the details of the Israelite’s anguish—why, exactly, they wanted God to tear open the heavens–but I wonder if some of their concerns weren’t the same as ours: inadequate health care; excessive homelessness; food shortages for the poor; environmental degradation; impoverished neighborhoods; cultural clashes; religious intolerance—all fueled by leaders who only cared about maintaining power and lining their own pockets.

O, that God would tear open the heavens and come down!

But for the Israelites, God was not showing up. At least not in the way they expected—with earthquakes and fire and a spectacular show to prove to the nations that Israel had been right all along.

It seems, though, that those who know God intimately would understand that God is not most fully or deeply known in grand natural phenomenon. For Elijah, after all, God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire—but in the still small voice.

Those who know God intimately would know that God does not hide the Divine face from those who are in pain. In fact, through the prophet Hosea, God says, “I led [my people] with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Perhaps the writer of Isaiah 64, in the midst of calling on God to tear open the heavens, remembers these other images of Divine encounter. Because suddenly, in verse eight, we have an oddly intimate and earthy metaphor of God as the potter and us as the clay.

So, will God come crashing down to save us? Or is God already here, in the mess of it all, gently shaping and prodding?

As the writer of Isaiah 64 says, God does awesome deeds that we do not expect. God’s presence is eternal and faithful and utterly surprising. So I cannot tell you when or how God will show up in your life or in this world.

I can tell you that our God does not hide from our pain and suffering. But maybe God whispers in our ear rather than thundering from the clouds. Maybe God reveals the path piece by piece rather than shining a blinding light. Maybe God unsettles our hearts rather than shaking the earth.

Maybe we serve a God who puts on jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap rather than a tuxedo; a God who carefully tunes the most exquisite violin in the filthiest subway station and plays holy music for us all—whether we listen or not.

This post is excerpted and adapted from a sermon preached at Peace Mennonite Church on December 3, 2017.

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