A Prayer for Hope
It has been said that humans can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, and about eight minutes without air, but that we cannot survive even one second without hope. I disagree with that statement. There are people who have been living without hope for years – if you can call that living.
When you have no hope, you still get up in the morning, you still go to work or school, you still enjoy a hot meal, and you still, on occasion, smile or laugh. But underneath this façade of going through the motions there lies a deep sense of despair. Your situation is unbearably painful and you cannot envision a future in which things will change.
The passage we will study on the first Sunday of Advent (December 3) is Isaiah 64:1-9. This passage was written to give hope to those who feel hopeless.
Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah who ministered from approximately 745-695 B.C. In his preaching, Isaiah confronted the people over their sinful rebellion against God and warned them of the painful exile that would result from their rebellion. He also told them that, though God would discipline his people, he would not forsake them but would one day restore them to their homeland. Isaiah 64 is the second part of a longer prayer (63:15-64:12) in which Isaiah models the way the exiled people would need to pray to God during their exile. It is a prayer for people who feel no hope.
What do we learn from Isaiah’s prayer?
First, we learn that the answer to hopelessness is not simply an improvement in our circumstances. What we really need is not better health, increased income, restored relationships, or any other external change. What we really need is God. We need God to show up. In verses 1-2, Isaiah cries out for God to make his presence known: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!” Isaiah knew that if God were to make his presence known to his people, the external problems created by their exile would quickly be resolved. If you are feeling hopeless, cry out for God to make his presence known to you. Ask God to show up.
Secondly, Isaiah’s prayer teaches us that hope for the future can be kindled by looking to the past. In verses 3-5a, he reminds himself of God’s past faithfulness to his people by saying: “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” How many stories from the Bible can you recall in which people faced hopeless situations and yet, after waiting for God, they learned that he is faithful? How many times have you learned this lesson in your own life? Look back to these past examples of God’s faithfulness and allow the Holy Spirit to use these memories to restore your sense of hope. Many others have stood where you now stand. They saw God do amazing things for them. You will, too.
Finally, Isaiah’s prayer teaches us to pray for hope expectantly. Expect God to answer. In verses 5b-7, the prophet readily admits that Israel’s suffering was caused by their own sin. They have betrayed the Lord and they do not deserve his mercy. If this is the case, why does Isaiah even bother to pray? Because he knows who God is. God is our Father. We are his people. We are all the work of his hands (vv. 8-9). In other words, he knows that God has formed a covenant with his people and that, no matter how much they may have disappointed him, God will not forsake them. God will respond to their cry for mercy. Isaiah expects this to happen.
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem allows us to pray with an even greater sense of expectancy than Isaiah had. We have seen that God really did “rend the heavens and come down.” He did not come down, however, to make the mountains tremble. He came down to die on the cross in our place. He came to restore us to himself. Having witnessed this kind of amazing love from our God, how can we pray with anything less than hope?