“Us versus Them” and O Rex Gentium:
An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 64:1-2
(Isaiah 64, Psalm 118, Luke 20:1-26)
Collect for The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Collect for Saint Thomas (21 December)
Everliving God, you strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in you Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Isaiah 64:1–2 (ESV): 64 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
2 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!
Why the prophet Isaiah’s pleading invocation of God spoken on behalf of the people? Rend the heavens! Come down! Why? The answer comes in the verses immediately preceding our appointed text:
Isaiah 63:17–19 (ESV): 17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
like those who are not called by your name.
There is a strong “Us versus Them” mentality evident in this passage. Notice how Isaiah characterizes Judah, how Judah characterizes herself: the servants of God, the tribes of God’s heritage, God’s holy people, those over whom God rules, those who are called by God’s name. But, as for “Them,” as for the nations, they are the adversaries, the ones who have trampled down God’s own sanctuary.
Rend the heavens! Come down! Deal with Them. Deal with our adversaries; deal with your adversaries. Make the nations tremble at your presence. “Us versus Them,” Israel against the nations and the nations against Israel: thus it had always been.
That story starts in Genesis 11.
Genesis 11:1–9 (ESV): 11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
There is deep, theological resonance between our text in Isaiah and this text from Genesis. It is signaled by the beginning of verse 7, God speaking: “Come, let us go down.” What Isaiah was pleading for — Rend the heavens and come down. — had happened before, on a plain in the land of Shinar when God had rent the heavens and come down in judgment against a stubborn and rebellious people. And God’s judgment wasn’t just the confusion of tongues — the creation of languages — but the creation of nations. This is the beginning of “Us versus Them,” Israel versus the Nations. This is spelled out in Deuteronomy, in the great, final Song of Moses:
Deuteronomy 32:7–12 (ESV): 7 Remember the days of old;
consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
your elders, and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
9 But the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
10 “He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
12 the Lord alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.
There is much to be said about this passage — much which must remain unsaid due to the limitations of time — but the heart of it is this: when the people rebelled against God at Babel, God created and separated nations one from another and gave those nations into the keeping of other spiritual powers, called the sons of God in the text. God did not take one of those nations for his own portion. Rather, he created an entirely new nation from one man, Abram, through his sons Isaac and Jacob: God’s people, God’s portion. And there began “Us versus Them,” not by God’s intent, but by Israel’s misunderstanding of her own nature and calling and by the nations’ descent into idolatry. It was never intended to be “Israel versus the Nations,” but rather “Israel for the Nations.” Israel was to be the signpost for the nations, a light to manifest the righteous rule of God and to call all nations to it; this is what it looks like to be the holy people of God. This is what God intends for all people and for all nations. But, Israel became proprietary and the nations became idolatrous and the world became “Us versus Them.” Hence the prophet’s cry:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence.
But, this “Us versus Them” conflict between Israel and the nations can’t be the end of the story, because it was not God’s intent from the beginning of the story. And that brings us round to the great hope of Advent. There is a wonderful, holy coincidence at work today, which is to say not a coincidence at all but a subtle manifestation of the great mercy of God. I’ve spoken to you before of the Great O Antiphons of Advent: beautiful, traditional musical introductions to the Magnificat sung at Evening Prayer in the final week of Advent. They are called the “O” Antiphons because each is introduced with the interjection “O” followed by some name or description of the one who is to come, Jesus. We begin with O Sapientia (Wisdom) on 16 December, followed by O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dayspring). That bring us to today, 21 December, when the reading from Isaiah calls for the Lord to rend the heavens to come down to make the nations tremble: “Us versus Them.” Today’s O Antiphon is O Rex Gentium — O King of the Nations:
O King of the nations, and their Desire;
the Cornerstone, who makest both one:
Come, and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay.
Do you see how the “Us versus Them” of Israel and the nations is destroyed in the coming of Christ who is the King of the nations, the Desire of the Nations, the one who comes to make Israel and the Nations one, who comes to save not just Israel, but all mankind, all those formed of clay? The O Antiphon for this day is the answer to Isaiah’s invocation, but an answer that radically overturns and fulfills Israel’s plea. Yes, God will rend the heavens and come down. And yes, God will make the nations tremble, not with fear but with joy and desire. The “Us versus Them” will again become “Us for Them” as God intended and even more: “Us with Them,” or simply “Us” as the arbitrary distinctions vanish in the love and grace of the One who is to come.
Righteous, old Simeon saw this when he took Jesus into his arms and quietly sang:
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel (Nunc Dimittis, BCP 1979).
The Savior whom Simeon held in his arms had been prepared from before the foundations of the world not to come down and make the nations tremble, but to come down as a Light to enlighten the nations. And, as beautiful as that is, it is just the firstfruits of what is to come, a glimpse of what we see at the renewal of all things:
Revelation 7:9–12 (ESV): 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
In the end, every vestige of “Us versus Them” is swallowed up in the mercy of God, nailed to the cross and abolished by the victory of the One who came and who is to come, The King of the Nations and the Glory of Israel.
Isn’t God gracious to weave all these themes together for us today in this great tapestry of grace? And how should we respond? Perhaps this prayer is a good place to start.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.