The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.
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Human beings instinctively seek the transcendent. The things of the world do not satisfy ultimately, and they sense something beyond, something more. Pascal was correct; the “infinite abyss” in the human heart can only be filled by God himself. But do human beings desire God?
It is evident from looking at modern “spirituality” that people want an encounter with the divine. But they want it on their own terms. And they are willing to pay for it dearly, as long as they are in control of the terms. This is the foundation of all false religion. Even when the terms seem horrific – children passed through the fire to Moloch; the prophets of Baal slashing themselves – people will pay almost any price in hope of encountering the transcendent as long as they can control it. From the Babylonians, to the Greeks, to the Hittites, to the Assyrians, to the Muslims and beyond, false religion is rooted in the uncontrollable human desire for an encounter with the transcendent, coupled with such fear and loathing of it as to desire the encounter only upon our own terms.
We the people to whom God had made himself known and with whom he had made a covenant any better? The prophet Isaiah lamented, “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men’” (Isaiah 29:13). How can we really desire God if we refuse to take him on his own terms? This is the question that vexed the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah longed for an encounter with God, not only for himself but form his people. Yet that longing seemed an impossible contradiction – “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down (Isaiah. 64:1),” but “our righteousness is as filthy rags – how, then, can we be saved?" (Isaiah 64:6)
But with God, all things are possible, and Isaiah had a dim glimpse of it:
"For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. . . . The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the LORD." (Isaiah, 59:12-15, 20)
And what would this Redeemer look like? Isaiah had an inkling of that, too, and it is not what we would expect:
"He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:2-5)
The Advent season has historically been the time that the whole church has declared that the strange longing of mankind – the God-shaped vacuum – the fearsome desire that the Transcendent would become imminent – that God would rend the heavens and come down – has become a reality.
When Mary kissed him, she kissed the face of God When the woman came to Jesus at the Pharisee’s house, and wept over his feet and wiped them with her tears, she wiped the feet of God. When the nails pierced his hands, they pierced the hands of God.
The Desired of all Nations (as he has been called) has come – But did we desire him? Would we recognize that he was our soul’s satisfaction? We want a god on our terms. For we fear the God who really is, because we know in our hearts that he is judge.
But in Christ Jesus, the Judge has become the Redeemer.
The prophet Haggai would declare: “'I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the LORD Almighty.” (Haggai 2:7)
The ancient Latin commentators believe this “Desired of Nations” to be Christ, and that is codified in our Advent hymn, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus (“Dear Desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart”). And so it might be in the Latin. But when we look at the Hebrew this “Desired of Nations” cannot be the Christ. The verb is plural. The Hebrew says, “The Desired of all Nations, they will come.” The “Desired” is not a single individual, but a group of people.
Christ is hardly the Desired of Nations. Human beings want God only on their own terms. John tells us, “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)
No, Christ is not the Desired of Nations. We are. In the incarnation, God rent the heavens and came down. It was not that we desired him, but he desired us:
“This is love: not that we loved God (desired God – we cannot help but desire what only God could fill, but we wanted it without Him) – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).
God sent his Son so that he might gather up those who were scattered, and lost, and afraid to come, to make us his people and be our God.
He rent the heavens and came down, not to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. (John 3:17) He came to call his sheep, to gather together his elect, to assemble his desired ones, not merely from Israel, but from every tongue and tribe and language and nation.
“How, then, can we be saved?” That was the question that vexed Isaiah. Jesus is God’s answer to him, and for us.