As a pastor I’m very used to seeing the amazing amount of pain people in the Scriptures express, but still I was blown away by Isaiah’s audible groan, “Oh, that!” (Isaiah 64:1) when I saw it. You know what that is? That is the sound of a broken heart. It has to be. The way that an “Oh!” rushes out of a person with a violent gust of air. The way it gushes out like a verbal geyser. “Oh!” is a single syllable that communicates emotional pain more effectively than 800 other syllables ever could. And that “that” that comes attached? That’s all you need. You don’t have to know exactly what Isaiah’s pained over. Because that “that” tells you that there is something he’s staring at in his life that is tearing up his soul.
What Isaiah goes on to do in the chapter is to give voice to that inner pain to God. And not just in any old way either. He asks God to grieve a grief as deep as his. It's amazing to think about that. Isaiah didn’t merely ask God to show up on the scene in Isaiah 64. He asked God to show up feeling a certain way when he did. That’s why he prayed for God to “rend” (Isaiah 64:1) the heavens. He wouldn’t have had to ask quite that way. He could’ve asked God to cut the heavens to get down here or to saw them or something like that, but he didn’t. He asked God to rend the heavens to get down here. You know why? That is the language of profound grief. Because that’s exactly how people in that culture grieved. They would rend their garments. They would do to their clothes exactly what had been done to their hearts. And they would do it on the spot. Immediately. They wouldn’t take the time to grab a tool out of their garage so they could cut their clothes in a more thoughtful, more emotionally controlled way. They expressed their grief in the same way pain had entered their lives – on a tear. And so they immediately tore their clothes with their own bare hands. That’s how the prophet asked God to come.
Isaiah asked God to be so deeply in sync with our pain here that God would be driven to come down and deal with it with his own bare hands.
I’m hesitant to analyze that prayer too much. I really am. Because I don’t want to lose the incredible emotional temperature of it, but I think I have to. I think I have to point out that scholars all agree that this is Isaiah praying a lament. Specifically, it’s a communal lament. In other words, it’s not just Isaiah praying about his pain. It’s us crying about ours. Do you see the importance of that? We’re not merely supposed to listen in on this. We’re not just supposed to sympathize with Isaiah. We’re supposed to share his heart’s cry. God is helping us here to feel and acknowledge our pain. That’s God's purpose in lament.
Lament is your chance to have a truly authentic spirituality – to recognize what’s wrong and what’s broken and what’s painful in your life with such clarity that you speak your pain out loud.
And I’m convinced we’re no good at it. I think that’s why we hardly use the word lament let alone practice it. It’s a part of our culture of denial. And we do live in that culture. We live in a culture that asks us to be spiritually plastic about pain – to be spiritually inauthentic. To present a self to the world that is always sure and optimistic and bright and beautiful. We live in a world where boys aren’t supposed cry and where big girls are supposed to tuck in their lips. To just button on the emotional armor and try to get on to another better day. I hear it all around me. I notice how people in pain think that they shouldn’t come to church like that. They say, “I’ll be embarrassed of my tears.” As if God and his church actually believe that tears are weak. (Aside: God cried when he was here. He even fell apart and wept.) I even hear it even at funerals. People say, “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be like this.” Like deep grief and falling apart at those times isn’t a totally appropriate emotional response. I’ve even noticed that when we do admit suffering, our tendency is to immediately divert ourselves from it – from ever truly staring too directly at it. We say, “I’m in pain, but it’s not as bad as so and so over there has it.”
But God doesn’t want emotionally inauthentic people. He doesn’t. He doesn’t want us walking around as spiritual zombies who are numb to their own lives. He can't have that. God can't have people walking around with calcified hearts hard to the brokenness of ourselves and our world. He can’t have us bottling everything up and just grinding on with their lives. He can’t have us being emotional stuffers. That’s why he calls us to honestly feel our pain. To lament it. To acknowledge it. To see and feel and react to ourselves and our world for what we could be, but aren’t. And that kind of lamentation? It always gives birth to hope.
When we truly lament what's missing, we can begin to hope not only for what should be, but we can also hope for what God will do yet.
It sure did for Isaiah. “Yet you, LORD, are our Father.” (Isaiah 64:8) That's what Isaiah saw. And he had every reason to hope. Because Jesus will come yet. How do I know that? Because Jesus already rent the heavens once before. That’s the truth of Christmas. God grieved our pain so deeply once before that he did the inconceivable. And I hope you appreciate that wordplay. Because that’s just what he did in that virgin. The Lord grieved his broken creation so much that he became a part of it to love us with his own, bare hands. That's proof that he cares enough to come again.
And that is what Christmas is about. Something that real. Something that authentic. It’s not chestnuts roasting over an open fire. It’s not presents and eggnog and ideal people laughing and connecting over ugly sweaters. It’s saying, “Oh, that!” deep in your soul about yourself and your world to your God. To everything that pains you. Your ugly sin. Your busted dreams. Your hurting relationships that pain you especially this time of year. Christmas is the perfect time for that. It's the perfect time to let all that pain just well up in your soul to God. Not for catharsis, but for hope. Hope not just in what could be, but what will be yet. That’s what I pray you do this Christmas: hope in the God who in Christ not only hurts with you, but already once hurt for you. When you do, you'll deepen in the belief that he cares as much about your pain as you do - that he's going to rend the heavens just as soon as he can to fix what he’s already forgiven in your life.
The surprise will be finding out what he brings for you when does.
When he comes the second time he’ll come bent on un-breaking your heart all the way with his own bare hands.
And I’m convinced that when he’s done that, you like the prophet once did will give your own version of Isaiah's ancient verbal geyser. As you stare at the world you've always longed for that's now been delivered your heart will overflow so that you say, “Oh, that!” to your God. But I think you'll agree that you'll do that - can we say in honor of this time of year? - for only the most merry of reasons.