26 December 2014

Sermon – “A Christmas Triptych” (John 1:14)

I understand that the triptych began as a specifically Christian form of art. Instead of a single canvas, three panels are used to portray a particular truth or incident. In that sense, triptychs offer a fuller, you might even say three-dimensional, perspective of what they portray. Perhaps for this reason the Bible gives us not one but three accounts of Jesus’ coming into the world: one each in the gospels of St Matthew, St Luke and St John. Each of them has a slightly different story to tell, recounted from a different perspective. I believe it is only when you have heard all three, looked at all three panels so to speak, that you can come to a full understanding of the Christmas story.

Unfortunately, at the Christmas services we usually have time only to read one, to look at a single panel. But for the next few moments I want us to fold out the triptych and to look at all three.

Luke: A picture of Mary

We begin with St Luke, whose account of the first Christmas is perhaps the most familiar. It is Luke who tells us of the angel coming to Mary and announcing to her that she will bear a son. It is Luke who tells us of the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is Luke who tells us about the shepherds and the angelic choir.

It has long been observed that Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is written from the perspective of the Virgin Mary. Mary was probably a young girl in her early teens, barely a woman at all, when she became betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. Betrothal was the stage that preceded marriage. It lasted for a full year and was something considerably more serious than modern-day engagement. For one thing, it was every bit as binding as marriage and could only be broken by a formal act of divorce.

It was in this betrothal period, then, that Mary received a strange visitor—an angel sent from God. Now we mustn’t necessarily think of an angel as some winged being robed in dazzling white, as artists so often portray them. The word both in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New simply means a messenger. So we have no reason to think that the room where Mary sat was necessarily flooded with blinding light. It may have been just an ordinary meeting. What was extraordinary was not the messenger as much as the message that Mary received: that without having engaged in sexual relations with any man (not least her fiancĂ© Joseph) Mary was to become pregnant and give birth to a child. Even more astounding was that that child would be the Son of God.

Mary’s initial reaction was bewilderment. How could any of this be possible? She lived in an era centuries before the development of modern embryology but she knew as well as you or I do that virgins do not get pregnant. Perhaps it was the angel’s final words that convinced her: “Nothing is impossible with God.” And we all know Mary’s response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the rest, we might say, is history.

Matthew: A picture of Joseph

We turn now from Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s. Luke wrote his account of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Mary but Matthew tells the Christmas story from the eyes of Joseph. And of course it is from Matthew as well that we learn about the visit of the wise men, of King Herod’s uncontrollable jealousy, and of Mary and Joseph’s being forced to escape to Egypt with their newborn son. But back to Joseph.

Somehow word had reached him that Mary was pregnant. Could it have been through Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah? Could it have been through the village grapevine? I like to think that Mary herself might have told him what had happened. Whatever route it took, Joseph had learned of Mary’s condition and this threw him into a moral dilemma. What was he to do? One option was to call off the betrothal. But he would have to find a way of doing it quietly, behind the scenes, or else Mary could end up being publicly accused of adultery. And on that topic the Scriptures were clear: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Perhaps images conjured up in Joseph’s mind similar to what we read of the woman who was brought to Jesus after being caught in adultery.

It was as Joseph was tossing all of this back and forth in his mind that he too received a visit from an angel—in his case not in person, but in a dream, but the message was the same. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This was all that Joseph needed. He awoke from sleep determined to take Mary as his bride and to suffer the consequences of people always talking (but never to him) about the questionable provenance of her child.

John: A picture of God

Turn on a few pages now to John’s gospel. If Luke wrote from Mary’s outlook and Matthew from Joseph’s, whose perspective does John represent? The answer, I believe, is God’s. We hear nothing from John about the maid in Nazareth or of the carpenter who was her husband-to-be. Instead, John points us upward to gaze into the vastness of the cosmos and to look back, if we can, to the very beginning of time.

As John tells it, the story of Jesus does not begin with an angel coming to a virgin or with a carpenter waking from a dream. No, it begins deep within the very heart of God. What happened that first Christmas morning had somehow, mysteriously, been a part of God’s plan of creation, part of his very being as Love, right from the beginning, before ever the first word was spoken and there was light.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

So there you have a triptych: three pictures of the coming of Jesus from three different perspectives. But what is it that unites these three pictures, that gives them unity? The answer, I believe, is faith. We have the faith of Mary, who not knowing what the future might hold, trusted God enough to take that next step after which nothing could ever be the same again and say to the angel, “Here I am… Let it be to me according to your word.” There was Joseph, who was also willing to trust God to bring him and Mary through the shame and the gossip, the sideways glances and whispered murmurs that would forever be a part of their life in the village of Nazareth.

I am grateful to Nancy Clauss for posting on Facebook a recent op-ed article about faith by New York Times columnist David Brooks. I found it tremendously helpful and challenging. He describes the main business of faith as

… living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but [Rabbi Joseph] Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As [Yale professor and poet Christian] Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”[1]

The Letter to the Hebrews puts it more succinctly: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This was the case with Mary and with Joseph. They had come to see their lives, indeed life itself, within the context of the transcendent, always loving purposes of God. Not that there were not doubts, problems, conflicts—but their faith in God would always sustain them through them.
We’ve thought about Mary and Joseph, but what about the middle panel of our triptych? What about God? Perhaps I am teetering on the brink of heresy, but I believe that at Christmas our God himself also showed faith—faith to become a tiny cluster of cells within a woman’s uterus, faith to be a helpless infant in his mother’s arms, faith to think that one man in a far-off corner of an empire could change the world, faith to undergo his own death… And that same God comes to you and to me today and invites us on that same adventure of faith, to follow the one who teaches, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

[1]     David Brooks, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith”, New York Times, 23 December 2014, p. A27. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/opinion/david-brooks-the-subtle-sensations-of-faith.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

23 December 2014

Sermon – “An Unexpected Fulfillment” (Isaiah 7:10-16)

King Ahaz paced nervously back and forth across the floor of his royal palace in Jerusalem, to the point where the carpet was becoming threadbare. It looked as though he was headed for the worst day of his reign, which had been disastrous from the start. With each passing year his tiny kingdom of Judah had become smaller, gnawed and chipped away by enemies on every side. Even the nation of Israel, their ancestral kith and kin, had been among the aggressors. In a single battle against Israel he had suffered the loss of 120,000 soldiers, with a further 200,000 women and children dragged away into captivity. Among those lost in battle had been his own son, the commander of the palace guard and the prime minister.
In addition there were the Arameans, centered in Damascus, once the dominant power in the region and still a force to be reckoned with—not to mention the Edomites, and also the Philistines, who had taken village after village, so that now the little nation of Judah was reduced to a fraction of what it once had been. Things had reached the point where Ahaz did not know where to turn.
Tragically, the one direction Ahaz never did turn was to the Lord. Quite the opposite: with each successive disaster he became increasingly faithless. At one point he began offering sacrifices to the gods of the Arameans. “After all,” he reasoned, “if they helped the kings of Aram, perhaps they will help me also.” Yet the situation only got worse—and even this did not turn Ahaz to the Lord. Instead, he confiscated the sacred vessels of the Temple and had them destroyed. Then he ordered the doors of the Temple itself to be locked up. At the same time he had shrines to false gods erected throughout the towns and villages that still remained to him as well as in every corner of Jerusalem, right under the shadow of the Temple.
The cause of the current crisis was that Aram and Israel, his two of his most powerful adversaries, had joined forces and put Jerusalem under siege. Up until this point the city had appeared to be unassailable. Surrounded by steep hills and a seemingly impregnable city wall, Ahab had thought himself safe. Now the specter of defeat loomed large, as it never had before. The prospect of utter ruin, of losing everything, was more than a possibility: it was virtually inevitable. In the verses just prior to the passage we have read this morning, Isaiah writes that when they heard the news of the alliance, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2).


Enter the prophet Isaiah, who brings a challenging message of encouragement: “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands… Thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass… If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’ ”
As though these prophetic words were not enough, Ahaz would not believe what Isaiah said; and it is at this point that we arrive at the beginning of this morning’s Old Testament reading. As the passage opens we find the Lord giving a further word to Ahaz to confirm that what Isaiah had told him was true. Whether it was through Isaiah or by some other means we do not know, but the word was this: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be in the depths of hell or in the heights of heaven.” Eugene Peterson in The Message renders this, “Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!”
Now Ahaz’ response is intriguing. On the surface it seems very pious. After all, the Bible warns us that we are not to put the Lord to the test. You may recall how some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to give them a sign. His reply was curt: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” Yet on the other hand God again and again graciously offers his people signs to confirm their faith in him and in his promises. Think of Gideon and the fleece, for example. Centuries later God would give a sign to shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem that the Messiah had been born: they would find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Ahaz was so fixed in his opinion, however, that he refused to ask for a sign (“Don’t confuse me with the facts”)—and all under the guise of a false piety. Instead of turning to the Lord for help, he turned instead to an alliance with the powerful empire of Assyria. This was simply one in a series of flagrant acts of disobedience towards the Lord, which had included not only encouraging the worship of false gods throughout the nation, but even placing an altar to an Assyrian god within the Temple.
To this Isaiah gives his telling response: A young woman will give birth to a son and she will be inspired to call him Immanuel, “God is with us”. The reason for this was that Judah’s two enemies, Aram and Israel, were busy defending themselves against Assyria and the nation was enjoying a period of tranquility. However, Judah’s days of peace and prosperity were no more than a temporary respite. The time would come when Jerusalem would fall, its king and citizens forced into vassalage.
Who exactly this child was Isaiah does not reveal to us. Was he a royal prince to be born into the house of Ahaz? There are some who think so—that it may have been Hezekiah, the pious and just king who succeeded Ahaz. The Bible speaks of him in glowing terms: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:3,5).
On the other hand, some ask, may Isaiah have been prophesying about a child who was to be born into his own family? This theory also has its proponents, particularly since Isaiah describes the birth of his son in the very next chapter. Still others suggest that the young woman of verse 14 was not an individual at all but a metaphor for the whole nation of Judah. Elsewhere we find Amos speaking of “the virgin Israel” (5:2) and Isaiah himself addressing the city of Jerusalem as “virgin daughter Zion” (37:22). In the final outcome, I am not sure that I find any of these arguments convincing. My own sense is that the wisest course may be to leave the identity of Isaiah’s Immanuel shrouded in mystery.


Now fast forward ahead nearly eight hundred years. A man named Matthew sets out to write an account of Jesus for the Jewish-Christian community of which he was a member. For some reason, as he muses about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, this passage from the prophet Isaiah keeps popping into his mind: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel.” Could it be, Matthew asks himself, that in the amazing story of Jesus’ coming into the world, here was the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy? It was not in the political machinations of Ahaz, who sought security through military alliances and worldly power. No, it was in a helpless child, born to a working-class couple far from their home, that was to be found the true Immanuel, God with us, God come to us in human flesh!
Again and again that had been the experience of Matthew and the other disciples—as they had first set eyes on Jesus at the bank of the Jordan and heard John cry out, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”; as they had mended their nets on the lakeside and Jesus had come to them with the irresistible invitation, “Come, follow me”; as they had struggled to keep their little boat afloat amid a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus had stood up and commanded, “Peace! Be still”; as they had stood breathless at the top of a mountain and seen Jesus transfigured before them in the presence of Moses and Elijah; as they looked back on a seven-mile walk with a stranger from Jerusalem to Emmaus and asked, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”… As they looked back on these and countless other incidents, they recognized that they had been in the presence of Immanuel, God with us.


I do not believe it is a coincidence that Matthew concludes his gospel with these same words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is the good news that the whole world longs to hear: that on this tiny speck at the edge of a galaxy which is itself only a speck in the vastness of the universe, God is with us. In a world that with each passing day seems to be spinning more and more out of control, God is with us.
Professor Mark Buchanan points to another obscure passage in the Old Testament prophets, this time in Zechariah. It pictures people coming from all over the world to Jerusalem to seek the blessing of the Lord. “In those days,” Zechariah declares, “ten men from nations of every language will take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you…’ ” And what is their reason for behaving in such a manner? “We have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:20-23).
Good News [Buchanan writes] the gospel is for all nations. It embraces and welcomes all languages—Urdu speakers and Inuit and Norwegians and remote tribes tucked in the folds of Burmese mountain jungles. It’s for the homeless under the bridges of Los Angeles, the untouchables in the streets of Calcutta, the drug addicted in sweaty apartments not far from where you live. It’s for rich people who live atop hills and poor people who live in ditches. It’s for the old man in his lonely room, and the teenage girl struggling to find her identity, the single mom wondering where the next meal’s coming from. It’s for the discouraged dentist, the confused mill-worker, the weary postman. It’s for everyone, everywhere.[1]
God with us.
This is the dream of every church [writes Buchanan again] for God’s life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than us grabbing hold of people, people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone, “God is with us,” they tell one another that.
As we celebrate Emmanuel, God-with-us, this Christmas, may Isaiah’s words be fulfilled in us once again. May they inspire us to be a community where the Lord is truly present—not only in our worship, but in our meetings and decisions, in our homes and in our relationships—and not only on Sunday or on Christmas but every day.

[1]     http://markbuchanan.net/when-god-dwells-in-our-midst/

14 December 2014

Sermon – “Proclaim the Jubilee” (Isaiah 61:1-11)

Some months ago I mentioned in a sermon that legal experts estimate that there are something between 10,000 and 300,000 federal regulations. When you add to that all the state, county and municipal regulations across the country, I can only imagine that you come up with a staggering figure. It occurred to me that some of these regulations must end up being forgotten, overlooked or buried under tons of sheets of legal paper. That in turn set me thinking what some of these regulations might be. Here is what I discovered:
In Texas it is illegal to sell your eyeballs. In North Carolina it is against the law to sing off-key. In Rhode Island you are not permitted to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday. In Indiana you may not attend a public event or use public transport within four hours of eating an onions or garlic. In Wyoming you need an official permit to take a picture of a rabbit between January and April. In Quitman, Georgia, chickens are not allowed to cross the road. In Washington you can be fined for harassing Bigfoot. And did you know that in Minneapolis it is forbidden to drive a red car down Lake Street?[1]  
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to us that the same kind of thing was true in the ancient world as well. (At least they had an excuse. After all, they did not have computers or even books. All information was stored on long scrolls of papyrus.) A case in point is the law found in Leviticus 25:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property… The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25:8-13,23-24)
When you look at it, it is quite a remarkable law: that every fifty years all property reverts to its original ownership. There had been times in the ancient world when kings had seen the land in their realms being gobbled up by wealthy landowners and ordered a general return of property. But Israel was unique in having it as a statute written into its code of law and having it recur on a regular, predictable basis. It was called the year of Jubilee because it was announced with the sounding of the trumpet, or shofar, which in Hebrew is yobel—and hence our word “jubilee”.
Sadly, however, like the driving of red cars on Lake Street and singing off-key in North Carolina, as far as anyone can tell the law of Jubilee was never enacted in all the long history of ancient Israel. It simply sat in the books, or scrolls as it were, unobserved.

The Assurance of Jubilee

Now, suddenly, hundreds of years after Moses, in the prophet Isaiah, as we are bidden to look ahead to the coming messianic kingdom, what do we hear about once again? The Jubilee.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
I suppose we could say that the Year of Jubilee had been something of a utopian dream. It was to have been a universal act of practical recognition that God and God alone is the giver of our land, our freedom and our sustenance. It was putting wheels under those words that we say at the offertory Sunday by Sunday:
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the victory and the majesty.
For everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you, O Lord,
and of your own do we give you. (1 Chronicles 29:11,14)
The distant echo of the long-forgotten Law of Jubilee rings clearly through the words of Isaiah. The day was coming when God’s justice would not just be a principle that we read about in the ancient texts of Scripture. Nor was the promise that Isaiah foresaw merely some wispy existence in a heavenly world. It was solid. It was real—a present, all-encompassing reality, a feature of the transformation of all creation to reflect the glory, the holiness, the compassion and the perfect justice of God.
So it is that the whole principle of Jubilee arises out of the character of God himself. We see this in verse 8: “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;” and again in verse 11: “As the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”
I don’t believe it is a coincidence, therefore, that in the ancient law in Leviticus the Year of Jubilee was to be announced on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. This was the single day in the year when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. There he would call on the name of the Lord and offer a blood sacrifice on behalf of the people. It was on that holiest of days, after the passage of seven times seven years, that the Jubilee was to be proclaimed. The message was clear: Justice springs out of reconciliation with God—and conversely, reconciliation with God issues in justice.

The Bringer of Jubilee

We hear Isaiah’s foretelling of Jubilee once again in the New Testament, as a young man walks to the front of the synagogue in Nazareth, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and scans down it until he comes to the point where it reads,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 3:18,19)
Clearly Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Part of his messianic role is to be the herald of Jubilee, the bringer of God’s justice to the world. The disciples thought that this was going to happen at any minute as they strode through the streets of Jerusalem and people waved palm branches of victory and shouted choruses of “Hosanna!” “Save us!” Their hearts must have thumped even more loudly as he swept through the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, coins rolling across the stone floor, doves cooing and flapping their wings, sacrificial lambs scattering and bleating their plaintive baas.
Yet this was not how the Jubilee would be ushered in. Just as the Law had prescribed that it should begin with the Day of Atonement, so it would be as our Great High Priest offered his very self on the altar of the cross. There the Lamb of God took all the wrong and hurt, all the cruelty and brutality of this world upon himself. It is at Golgotha that we see the beginning of God’s justice being fulfilled on the earth.
Three days later, as the disciples talked with him in the garden, walked with him along the road, met with him in the upper room and ate with him at the seaside, they knew beyond any doubt that everything had changed: that even the final injustice, death itself, had been defeated on the cross of Jesus. And in the days and months following the resurrection we find people actually living the Jubilee. In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us,
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44-47)
We read of Barnabas selling his field and laying the money he received at the apostles’ feet. A century and a half later Tertullian could write of how the pagans would look at Christians and exclaim, “Look… how they love one another!”

The Challenge of Jubilee

So what does all of this say to us today? I am not convinced that the Bible is telling us to duplicate what happened in the early church. But I am convinced that God calls us, like them, to be a Jubilee community. The Jubilee was inaugurated at the cross. It will come in all its fullness when Jesus returns and God reveals the new heaven and the new earth. Yet between this time and that, what are we to do?
The Year of Jubilee taught that all property belonged to the Lord who had created it and given it to Israel in the first place. So being a Jubilee people begins with the recognition that all that we “have” is in fact a trust from God, that we are not owners but stewards and servants.
The Year of Jubilee required two years of allowing the land to rest and not tilling the soil. The people had to depend on what the land provided throughout that time. So for us the Jubilee is a call to learn to depend meaningfully on the Lord.
The Jubilee meant release from slavery and freedom for debtors. So living it out means sharing God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. It will be reflected in how we use our resources of money, time and influence, and not least in how we vote when we have the opportunity.
The Jubilee was a time of giving back. And so we are to be a generous people. We recognize that all that we have is God’s gracious gift to us—and we seek to reflect God’s generosity in our own daily living.
The Jubilee was a time of celebration. So too, underlying all the characteristics of a Jubilee people is joy—a profound gratitude for everything that God so bountifully bestows upon us in our creation and above all in our costly redemption through the cross.
I pray that the Jubilee may not be a forgotten piece of Scripture for us today. Rather, in our actions as much as in our words may we be a people bringing the good news of God’s Jubilee in Christ to the world.

[1]     http://justsomething.co/the-22-most-ridiculous-us-laws-still-in-effect-today-2/

08 December 2014

Sermon – “Comfort for God’s People” (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Thomas Cranmer was one of the greatest liturgical geniuses ever to walk the face of the earth. That is why his Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and 1552 continues to be the well from which liturgical scholars and worship leaders draw for wisdom and inspiration—and not just Anglican, but people from all kinds of backgrounds, from Roman Catholic to the emergent church movement. If you take a good look at our 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you will find the words and phrases of Thomas Cranmer popping up again and again.

One element of Cranmer’s Communion service that has disappeared from our contemporary forms of worship is what were called the Comfortable Words. They followed the confession and absolution and went like this:

Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Hear also what Saint Paul saith.
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Hear also what Saint John saith.
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

The Comfortable Words were a brilliant addition to the service. Coming immediately after the priest’s absolution, they assured the congregation that the forgiveness they were receiving was not just from the man dressed in robes at the front of the church, but from God himself and testified by his own word in Scripture.

My suspicion is that people in Cranmer’s day took sin and its consequences with considerably greater seriousness than the average Christian in our own. They worried about hell and damnation in a way that most of us simply do not. So it was that they needed these words of comfort—and hearing them every time they presented themselves for Holy Communion meant that they quickly became embedded in their hearts.

The same could be said to be true of the people of Isaiah’s time. They needed good news. They needed encouragement. They needed comfortable words. The previous chapter of Isaiah contains his prophecy to King Hezekiah of the complete destruction of Jerusalem:

Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (Isaiah 39:5-7)

It was a devastating foretelling of Judah’s future. Worse still, in the end it was exactly what happened, not during Hezekiah’s reign, not during Isaiah’s lifetime, but a century later. Jerusalem would fall. Its walls would be left a heap of rubble, its beloved Temple a burned-out ruin; and many of its leading citizens would be carried off into a lonely captivity in Babylon. It is from that period that some of the Old Testament’s most poignant literature arises. Here is an example, from the pen of Jeremiah:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal…

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter…

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger. (Lamentations 1:1,4,12)

The Message of Comfort

So it was that the Lord called Isaiah to speak a message of encouragement—comfortable words—to his downtrodden and disconsolate people. “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.” The word in Hebrew is nacham. It is exactly the same as we find in the twenty-third psalm: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (verse 4). At its root it has to do with breathing deeply or sighing, and so it carries with it the strong sense of sorrow and compassion.

The instruction is repeated in the second verse: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” Literally translated, the words are, “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…” Again, we find this expression elsewhere in the Old Testament. It comes to us in the story of Dinah in Genesis. Shechem, one of the local Canaanite princes, found himself smitten by her. The Bible tells us, “And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her,” that is, literally, “He spoke to her heart” (Genesis 34:3). What we have here in Isaiah, then, is the language of romance, the language of love. God’s desire is to woo his people, to draw them from their loneliness and fear, their sorrow and distress, back to himself.

So, as we move farther through the chapter, the cry goes out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Now the day would come when the people of Judah would return to Judah and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Yet that is not what this prophecy is all about. When they returned to their homeland, it would not be by a straight road. To get from Babylon to Jerusalem required a long, curved route, north and west and south again, hundreds of miles, around the arid desert lands of northern Arabia. No, what this prophecy looked to was not the people returning to their beloved capital, but of God himself returning to his people. And when that happened, there would be no barrier that would stand in his way.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.

The Means of Comfort

God coming to his people: It should not surprise us then that we find Isaiah’s words being taken up at the beginning of each of the four gospels—in the ministry of John the Baptist. From the banks of the Jordan we hear him shout, “… the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Through his powerful message of repentance and baptism, John challenged people to a renewed relationship with God. Yet John’s primary emphasis was not on the people’s need to come to God (important and essential as that is) but on the stupendous truth that God was coming to them. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is what makes the gospel good news. We can summon people to a greater commitment. We can call them to a deeper life of faith. We can challenge them to fuller obedience. That is all good advice. No doubt about it. But it is not good news. The real good news, the good tidings that ought to echo from the mountaintops, is that God comes to us: that he has done so in the person of his Son, that he continues to do so in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is good news.

The message of comfort that Isaiah proclaimed was not just that God looks down from heaven and says to us, “There, there.” It is that God comes to us to us, that he actually enters our human sphere. And we know that that great vision has been fulfilled in Jesus. He has shared all that it means to be human—in Paul’s words, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7,8). The Letter to the Hebrews (4:15) adds, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

God has come to us not only in Jesus. He comes to us again in the Holy Spirit. So we should not see it as a coincidence that in the New Testament Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter” at the Last Supper. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). “The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything” (John 14:26). The Greek word in the New Testament is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew that we find in Isaiah.

It is the Holy Spirit who comes into in our lives who mediates the love of the Father and the Son, who makes them realities for us.

The Ministry of Comfort

As we come to the third section of this morning’s passage, we find that Isaiah was given good news to announce to Jerusalem not only to bring them comfort, but also so that they could in turn pass it on to the whole of the nation. So too, God has come to us in Jesus, he has given us his Holy Spirit, not just so that we might have an unshakeable hope within us, but even more so that we might bring comfort and encouragement to others. This is what Paul was seeking to get across to the Christians in Corinth when he wrote to them in these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3,4)

Again and again in the course of my own Christian life, it has been those seemingly most in need of comfort who have ministered most deeply to me: a man in his thirties diagnosed with terminal leukemia, an Inter-Varsity staff worker who suffered from chronic depression, a woman confined to bed for years with back pain, and the list could go on and on.

I know that there are many in the congregation this morning who need comfort, who have endured pain, bereavement, unemployment, sickness, loneliness and depression. May Isaiah’s words speak to you this morning. May you know that Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, has shared in your suffering. May you also know the healing presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, on a daily basis in your life. At the same time, especially as we celebrate this Advent season and as we celebrate Jesus’ coming to us, may we never keep that comfort to ourselves, but allow the Holy Spirit use even our weakness to bring comfort and encouragement to others.

01 December 2014

Sermon – “O that you would rend the heavens” (Isaiah 64:1-9)

What this country needs, what the church needs, is a restoration of the vision of the Most High God… The honor of God has been lost to men. And the God of today’s Christianity is a weakling. He is a little, cheap palsied “god” that you can pal around with. He’s the “Man upstairs”. He’s the fellow that will help you in difficulty and not bother you too much when you’re not.[1]
Those are the words of the great Chicago preacher, A.W. Tozer. I believe they are truer today when he first spoke them to his congregation two or three generations ago. The “god” that Tozer describes is certainly not the God of the prophet Isaiah, from whom we will be reading throughout the four Sundays of this season of Advent. But first we need to say a little bit about Isaiah himself.

In fact Isaiah reveals very few details about his personal life. His name means, “The Lord is salvation”. He tells us in the opening verse of his prophecy that his father was called Amoz and that his ministry extended from the end of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah into the reign of Hezekiah, which adds up to a period of about forty years. Although we don’t know his wife’s name, we do know that he was married and that they had two sons, who bore two of the most unwieldy names in all of Scripture: Shearjashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

According to tradition, Isaiah was of noble blood. There is also a tradition that he was martyred by order of the evil king Manasseh, by being sawn asunder. Thus when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes of saints of the past who were sawn in two, this may just be a reference to a tradition about Isaiah.

Far more important than any of these details is the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy sprang out of a profound experience of the presence of God. There is hardly a more arresting passage in all the Bible than Isaiah’s description of God’s call to him as he worshiped in the Temple: the hem of God’s garment filling the whole of that vast structure, the flying seraphim each with their six wings crying aloud, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” and the prophet himself falling on his face and protesting, “Woe is me! I am lost… for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

The Lord

It is this astounding vision of God that permeates and dominates the whole sixty-six chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy, not least the chapter that we have before us this morning. The nine verses that we have read fall in fact towards the end of a longer poem, which begins in verse 7 of the previous chapter. There, Isaiah begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord…” He takes his listeners back to the time when the Lord revealed himself to his people on Mount Sinai. There, Isaiah tells us, “he became their Savior”. He did not send an angel to rescue them but led them himself.

The sad truth was, however, that the people quickly forgot about what the Lord had done for them. Their life-changing experience had faded to less than a dim shadow their memory. And what had been true of the nation of Israel in Moses’ time continued to be true in Isaiah’s time as well. For them God was like an absentee landlord, little more than a vague concept. As chapter 63 draws to a close, Isaiah laments, “We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.”

So it is that as our passage opens this morning Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” We find that verb which our Bibles translate “tear open” numerous times in the Old Testament. In most instances it has to do with people tearing apart their garments much like the Incredible Hulk does as he rips off his shirt. In those days, however, it was a sign of deep sorrow, of repentance and mourning. People would tear off what they were wearing and then clothe themselves in sackcloth. In the same way, Isaiah begs the Lord to tear apart the heavens, to rip open the clouds and to be undeniably, unmistakably present with his people as he had been in the days of Sinai. “That the mountains would quake at your presence…, that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Isaiah’s dream, Isaiah’s fervent desire, was that God should reveal himself to his people with power as he had done with Moses at Mount Sinai. The words that Moses had heard that day were these: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6,7).

The God whom Isaiah worshiped and served was not only infinitely powerful. He is also holy: and therein lies the problem. He would not countenance the people’s sins. He would not tolerate their waywardness and rebellion, their apathy towards him on the one hand and their indifference towards their own sins on the other. Isaiah’s words for his people (and note how he includes himself: it is always “we” not “they”) are devastating. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” In fact, Isaiah’s term in the original Hebrew is considerably coarser than our English translations render it. It should really be a menstrual rag.

Our Father

Yet fortunately there is more to Isaiah’s message—and to Isaiah’s God—than that. We see in verse 8 that God who is the almighty and holy Lord is also our Father. To speak of God as Father is simply a given for us. Yet in the Old Testament it is a rarity. Psalm 68:5 speaks of God as the father of orphans. Yet that is more in the sense of a protector, a guardian. In the messianic Psalm 89, the coming king cries out, “You are my Father…” Aside from that there are a half dozen other references, but most of them are accounts of Israel’s failure to honor God as Father at all.

We have to wait for Jesus in the New Testament for God fully to be revealed as Father. There we find Jesus teaching his followers to address God not just as Father, but as Abba, “our Father”, “Papa”. It is a term of intimacy used only by family members. Against the background of the Old Testament you can see why all the religious people of his day, Pharisees and Sadducees alike, were shocked. To address the thrice-holy God in such a familiar manner was effrontery. Worse than that, it was blasphemy.

Yet we have the kernel of it here in Isaiah—not only here in verse 8, but twice in the preceding chapter as well. “For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father; our Redeemer from of old is your name.” So it is that God comes to us not only as the mighty Lord, who causes the mountains to tremble, he comes to us also as a Father—our Father—in tenderness and compassion. “As a father has compassion for his children,” we read in another of those rare references in the Old Testament, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).

Once again, it is Jesus who gives us the fullest picture of that, in the parable of the prodigal son. There the father patiently, expectantly, waits for his wayward son to return home. And when the son finally appears, the father’s legs cannot carry him down the road quickly enough to meet him. He wraps his arms around him, places a robe on his shoulders and a ring on his finger and brings him home again to celebrate. 

The Potter

We have only to move on a few words to find a third image that Isaiah gives us of God: the potter. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah is not the only prophet to use the image of the potter. You will find it in Jeremiah also. There, Jeremiah goes into the potter’s workshop and watches him as he works at his wheel. As he deftly moves his hands a vessel—a jug or a bowl—begins to take shape. But then something goes wrong and the potter reworks the soft, pliable clay into something entirely different. “Then,” Jeremiah says, “the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. ‘Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’ ”

Jeremiah’s emphasis was on the sovereign power of God to do as he wills with his creatures. Isaiah, however, uses the same imagery to underscore something quite different. I believe he is taking us back to the opening chapters of Genesis where God takes the dust of the earth (the word can mean literally a clod of clay) and molds it into a human being—Adam. And that lump of clay bears his image. Isaiah’s picture is of the care and the love that a potter or any artisan puts into each of his artifacts—to the point, I would want to add, where he etches his mark into the bottom of it so that it is identifiable as his work. We have a Creator who cares infinitely for each of his creatures, who has imprinted his own image into us, whose only desire is for our good.

So today, as we read Isaiah’s prophecy through the lens of the gospel, what do we see? That the day would come when the Potter would himself become the clay of his own making, to take on our form and flesh and become one of us. The day would come when the Father would run down to the road to draw his erring children back to himself. The day would come when the earth would indeed shudder. But this time it would not be the heavens that were rent apart, but the curtain of the Temple, as the Son of God cried aloud, “Why have you abandoned me?” Praise God that he has not abandoned us. Praise God that he has not remembered our iniquity forever. We are his people, bought with the blood of his Son.

[1]     Fellowship of the Burning Heart, 28