The story of God’s people has a particular plot line that repeats itself over and over again. It starts with Abraham and continues on till the time after the exile. The pattern is this: things are going badly, the people cry out to God, and God breaks in on the story and acts in power and grace.
For example, Abraham lived in an age and a society which ignored God and worshipped the sun and moon. The story of humanity was going terribly awry and God’s good creation looked to be a lost cause. But God interrupts the story and calls Abraham out of his sinful ways and appoints him as the means by which all humanity will be blessed – the means by which the story will get back on track and reach its intended end.
The one thing missing in the Abraham account is anyone crying out to God for help, but we see that over and over again in the subsequent history of God’s people – most famously in Egypt. The people were enslaved and suffering under the mighty arm of the Pharaoh, and so they cried out to God who heard them and sent Moses to lead them to freedom (Exodus 6:5)
We can also observe this pattern in the time of the judges of Israel, or in many of the psalms of David. So, when we arrive at the prophet Isaiah and read the following words, they should sound familiar.
“Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation…Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”Isaiah 63:15, 64:1
Things were bad in Israel. The people had utterly failed to be obedient to God and the promised blessings were in danger of being lost forever. Instead of being the light of the world, Israel was a black mark on a background of dark shadows.. Because of their rebellion, Israel was suffering the judgement of God in the form of invading nations who threatened to wipe out God’s people for good. It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse.
But there were still some in Israel who sought after God, and together with Isaiah they cried out to the Lord to once again enter into the story and set things right. First they prayed that God would indeed look down from heaven and see their suffering. God is in his “holy and beautiful habitacion” in the perfect sinlessness of heaven. He has no reason to involve himself in the wicked mess down on earth, but Isaiah knows that God is a merciful and compassionate God who has promised to never forsake his people. Isaiah knows God has come down from heaven before, and he prays God will do it again – “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
Did God listen?
It’s true that God brought his people back from exile in Babylon and re-established them in the Promised Land. It’s true that God guided the remnant in rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem. However, it wasn’t long before God’s people were once again experiencing the same old pattern of brokenness and disappointment. Many were scattered and living in foreign nations, and the ones who lived in the Promised Land were subject to a foreign power. Corruption and greed continued to plague the spiritual leaders, and apathy and hopelessness loomed on the horizon.
Would God rend the heavens and put things right once and for all? Or would he let our story continue to go off track and careen down into the dark abyss to be forgotten forever?
Then we read about the baptism of Jesus and how he was coming up out of the waters of the Jordan river when “he saw the heaven being torn open”. The Spirit of God was descending on Jesus and the Father spoke words of approval over him. Here was confirmation that through the person of Jesus, God was stepping into the story once again, but this time in a way he had never done before. God was taking on human flesh and entering into humanity’s brokenness and sin. He was going to rewrite and relive the history of God’s people and bring it to the glorious conclusion for which it was first written.
God was answering the prayer of Isaiah. Stirred by compassion for his people, God was rending the heavens and coming down to dwell among men and do something awesome that no-one expected. In his prayer, Isaiah comments that “in our sins we have been a long time” and then he asks a piercing question: “and shall we be saved?” At Jesus’ baptism, we find the beginning of the answer: Yes! God is with us and he will save us from our sin by making the payment for sin himself and stripping the Devil of all power against us. The end of the story is as certain as the resurrection of Jesus and we never again will cry out for God to hear us because we will dwell with him in righteousness. The conclusion of our story is as glorious as if heaven itself had come down and invaded earth.