“O God that you would rend the heavens and come down.” (Isaiah 64:1)
These are the words of Isaiah, the prophet laureate of Advent. We hang on his words this time every year, waiting for the arrival of the promised Savior. And no one casts that vision quite like Isaiah. But here in chapter 64 of his book, he breaks from the familiar tones of expectant hope and instead pours out a lament.
To “rend a garment” in ancient Jewish culture was a sign of deep despair and mourning, an outward physical representation of what was taking place in the soul. In this lament Isaiah draws on this imagery as he pleads for God to mourn with us, to ‘rend the heavens’ like a garment. Look at the chaos of the world, Lord, and grieve alongside us.
But Isaiah asks for more. Don’t just grieve over what is wrong, come down and set it right. Don’t just share our pain, be active in healing it. We know you are working behind the scenes, directing the play. But we need you to step onto center stage and take the lead role.
And this, of course, is exactly what God does. God answers this prayer through the scandalous mystery of The Incarnation. God becomes human.
Of course Jesus is fully God. We wholeheartedly proclaim his divinity and worship him for it. But Jesus is also fully human. And, perhaps there is more mystery here than we realize, he becomes a very particular kind of human. In the Old Testament, God repeatedly makes covenant with the Jewish people. At the dawn of the New Testament, he becomes one of them.
We understand that Jesus was born for all people, but perhaps sometimes we forget that Jesus was born into a specific race of people, into a long cultural heritage and history. He carried distinct physical features (the tone of his skin, the color of his eyes, inherited family traits) that identified him with that people and he always fully embraced that identity. He was born into a race of people who had experienced hundreds of years of slavery, a trial they could never forget. He was born into a race of people who knew what it meant to be conquered by force. Repeatedly they were violently attacked and carried away from their homeland and into exile.
At the time of his birth, his people were living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. The very dust beneath their feet had been promised to them by God Himself. Yet Caesar, in all of his might, claimed it as his own and instituted a reign of systematic injustice. Taxes, laws, enforcement tactics—Jesus’ people were at the mercy of the system. From the very first glance of his face and skin, from the very first sounds of his accent, from the things that he ate and the ways that he worshipped, it was undeniably clear that Jesus was firmly located and numbered among the oppressed. And that is exactly where he wanted to be. And that is exactly where we still find him.
The mystery of the Incarnation will always baffle and amaze anyone who is even half-awake. But perhaps it’s this particular part of the mystery that is asking to be explored in days like these.
This Advent season, we find ourselves in the throes of turmoil again. Tensions over race and injustice are exposed with every news cycle. The plight of refugees is reduced to divisive political debate. Reports of terrorism and human trafficking and senseless violence dominate our screens. Catastrophe has become common place.
What can the Church do? It seems as if there is no hope. But that is precisely the one thing we do have. We light a wreath of candles as an act of defiance against the darkness. We raise our voices and cry out with the prophet Isaiah, O Lord that you would rend the heavens and come down. And we look for him where he has always been found— With us in the thick of oppression and chaos, located among the broken and outcast and exiled. Like a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a small shock of green growing out of the wasteland. Rooted where you least expect him. Where is God in times like these? With us.
This is the time for the Church to proclaim the anthem of Advent, the disruptive genius of God With Us. With us in our pain, our tragedy, our longing. With us to empower premeditated love, even in the face of fear. With us to form his people into a living protest against the way things are, and a prophetic vision of what should and one day will be.
He is with us as we wait for Advent all over again, watching and hoping for the return of our long-expected Jesus. When he will once again rend the heavens and come down.
“This is the time of year we must sink down into the ancient story of God’s people and remember what it means to hope. We walk with them on the desert road. We ache and thrill with the Prophets. We sing along with the Poets. We wait with anticipation for Jesus to step into the story. We could never get to him. Our only hope is that he comes to us. And in the fullness of time, the plot takes a scandalous turn that we dared not even imagine. The Creator steps into the story, and takes on the lead role. The Author becomes the Protagonist.”
Get Matt and Josh LeRoy’s Protagonist: Stepping into the Story of Advent from our store here. It’s a daily Advent devotional in which you’ll learn what it means for the author to step into the story He’s written. Join with thousands of people in the Daily Text community who have already followed along with this study.