"If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!" Isaiah cries.It is a lament, for Isaiah looks at himself and at his people and knows why God is not answering. The people have sinned and turned their backs. So God is waiting.
As I read this prayer today with my lectionary group, I was unprepared for the next line in the scripture. As I remember the translation there was always something about filthy rags... but as I read along in my new Common English Bible, the verse leaped off the page:
"We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag."
To be unclean - ritually unclean - means that a person is temporarily unsuited to take part in holy activities like prayer, sacrifice, fasting, etc. Temporary is the key word there. A ritual impurity, such as that caused by contact with bodily fluids or menstruation, are not permanent states of being.
In order to become clean again... a ritual washing is required. Sometimes just the hands, sometimes full emersion. But washing none the less.
When Isaiah uses this concept in the passage, he is connecting the hearts of the people to their worship. He is connecting a physical reality to a spiritual one. Because of their sins, they have defiled themselves. God doesn't want them in the presence of the divine right now. Like it will later say in Malachai 1:10 -
"Who among you will shut
the doors of the templec
so that you don’t burn something
on my altar in vain?
I take no delight in you,
says the LORD of heavenly forces.
I won’t accept a grain offering
from your hand."
When our lives are filled with sin, good deeds mean nothing. They can't earn us a place in God's heart. In fact, the hypocrisy of them only serves to anger our Lord more, because they cover up the truth... that we need to be washed clean.
That we need to be transformed from the inside out.
That we need our Holy Potter to take our misshapen clay and to form us once again.
Come, Holy God, tear open the heavens and wash us clean.