Showing posts with label Isaiah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Isaiah. Show all posts

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Even to those long dead






That the Laws of Loving-kindness called Him even to them that had been long dead.
Now the laws of love summoned Him even as far as Death and the dead themselves, so that He might summon the souls of those who were long time dead. And so because He cared for the salvation of all for ages past, and that “He might bring to naught him that hath the power of death,”* as Scripture teaches, here again he underwent the dispensation in His mingled Natures: as Man, he left His Body to the usual burial, while as God He departed from it. For He cried with a loud cry, and said to the Father: “I commend my spirit,”* and departed from the body free, in no wise waiting for death, who was lagging as it were in fear to come to Him; nay, rather, He pursued him from behind and drove him on, trodden under His feet and fleeing, and He burst the eternal gates of his dark realms, and made a road of return back again to life for the dead there bound with the bonds of death. Thus, too, His own body was raised up, and many bodies of the sleeping saints arose, and came together with Him into the holy and real City of Heaven, as rightly is said by the holy words: “Death has prevailed and swallowed men up”; and again: “The Lord God has taken away every tear from every face.”*
And the Saviour of the Universe, our Lord, the Christ of God, called Victor, is represented in the prophetic predictions as reviling death, and releasing the souls that are bound there, by whom He raises the hymn of victory, and He says these words:
“From the hand of Hades I will save them, and from death I will ransom their souls.1* O Death, where is thy victory?2 O Death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”3
Such was the dispensation that brought Him even unto death, of which one that wishes to seek for the cause, can find not one reason but many. For firstly, the Word teaches by His death that He is Lord both of dead and living; and secondly, that He will wash away our sins, being slain, and becoming a curse for us; thirdly, that a victim of God and a great sacrifice for the whole world might be offered to Almighty God; fourthly, that thus He might work out the destruction of the deceitful powers of the dæmons by unspeakable words; and fifthly also, that shewing the hope of life with God after death to His friends and disciples not by words only by deeds as well, and affording ocular proof of His message, He might make them of good courage and more eager to preach both to Greeks and Barbarians the holy polity which He had established. And so at once He filled with His own divine power those very friends and followers, whom He had selected for Himself on account of their surpassing all, and had chosen as His apostles and disciples,4 that they might teach all races of men His message of the knowledge of God, and lay down one way of religion for all the Greeks and Barbarians; a way which announced the defeat and rout of the dæmons, and the check of polytheistic error, and the true knowledge of the one Almighty God, and which promised forgiveness of sins before committed, if men no longer continued therein, and one hope of salvation to all by the all-wise and all-good polity that He had instituted.5







* Heb. 2:14.
* Luke 23:46.
* Isa. 25:8.
1 LXX: αὐτούς..
* Hos. 13:14; 1 Cor 15:55.
2 ἡ δίκη σου.
3 “Eusebius prophetam in parte, et in parte aposlolum sequitur.”—Gaisford.
4 θιασώτας: so for “disciple” in Lucian: Fugit. 4; Themist. 33 c.
5 Everything posted above is taken from: Eusebius of Cæsarea. (1920). The Proof of the Gospel: Being the Demonstratio  Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea. (W. J. Sparrow-Simpson & W. K. L. Clarke, Eds., W. J. Ferrar, Trans.) (Vol. 1, Bk. IV, Ch. 12, pp. 186–187). London; New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; The Macmillan Company.












Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be like the eunuch (an Easter meditation)




My wife and kids were all sick this past Lord's Day, so we stayed home and worshiped as a family, using the readings from the BCP as our focus for the day. Below are some of my thoughts about those readings. 

Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8



Our passage from Acts is well known. Philip receives a message from God, informing him to go south to the road which travels from Jerusalem to Gaza; there he would meet a eunuch and court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her entire treasury (Acts 8:27). This eunuch "had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah" (vv. 27-8). When Philip meets with him, the eunuch asks about whom Isaiah was referring--about Isaiah himself or another person--when he wrote: 
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip then uses that passage of Isaiah to teach him the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 35). This eunuch then responds with faith in Jesus by receiving baptism (v. 38), and continuing on from there in his travels he rejoices (v. 39).

Upon reading this the first time, what struck my attention first was the fact that this eunuch had just visited Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but while he was in Jerusalem worshipping, none of the Jewish authorities taught him about Jesus, the messiah whom they had recently crucified. The second thing which struck my attention is that he is found traveling away from Jerusalem while reflecting seriously upon Isaiah 53, a messianic passage specifically about "justice being denied" a servant of God, during "his humiliation." These references to injustice and humiliation are particularly intriguing, because Luke describes this man as both a eunuch of the Queen (which, ordinarily, was a humiliating status) and her treasurer; but if this man is a genuine eunuch--that is, a slave surgically castrated according to a King's orders, for the purpose of serving in an official capacity for his wife, the Queen--then he would not have been allowed to enter Herod's Temple, no matter how great his faith was. The Jewish authorities would not allow it, based on their interpretation of Torah. This man's status as a eunuch disqualified him from having direct access to God in Jerusalem's Temple. Although this eunuch was given a surprisingly high status in his own culture, among those of similar faith, he was marginalized; he was forbidden to become a full proselyte of Judaism.1 

This message of marginalization echoes in our other readings for this day. In John's first epistle, he writes to a marginalized Christian congregation, a congregation filled primarily with Jews, but also Gentile God-fearers like the eunuch. John writes to Christians whose faith was being "shaken up" and challenged by anti-Christian Judaizers and proselytes of Judaism. John could not have been any clearer about why he wrote such polemical, black-and-white statements:  
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. (I John 2:26)
These allies of anti-Jesus Judaism were intentionally trying to deceive Christians into believing their worship of God, in Christ, was false worship. Similar to the Jewish authorities who kept the Ethiopian eunuch from learning the gospel of Jesus, so these antichrists are intentionally deceiving the Christians of John's congregation. A few verses earlier (I John 2:18) we learned that "many antichrists have come," and these antichrists infiltrated the Christian community to become "one of them," eventually making it plain among all, when they left, that Christians worshiped another God than the God of the Jews. Christians affirmed the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and also One-with-the-Father (I John 2:22), which the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem emphatically denied (John 5:18). Christians affirmed that they worshipped God the Father and the Son together as the one true God, whereas these antichrists denied that they could worship both the Son and the Father as one (vv. 22-23). 

While Jesus was among his people, he had spoken clearly about such escalating unbelief in Israel, and that God would come and visit them to prune the vine of Israel, removing every branch in Jesus which does not produce fruit. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, 
I am the true vine, and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. ...Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
This pruning began with the first disciples of Jesus, and the gathering of dead branches culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its idolatrous anti-Christian Temple in 70 A.D.. Jesus was abundantly clear about this message, as the gospel of Matthew testifies. The epistle of first John was likely written very close to the end of that idolatrous old covenant system, as seen by John's reference to it being the "last hour" (I John 2:18). 

In 2:28 John reminds his congregation about this promise of Jesus to come to them, delivering them from their oppressive enemies (i.e. the antichrists, the anti-Christian Jewish authorities). John says that no one born of God persecutes God's own children, as these antichrists have been doing (I John 3:1-24). Moreover, John commands his congregation to not believe every spirit, because some spirits put on a great show, claiming to be of God while rejecting Jesus as God the Father's Messiah.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. They are from the world...and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 
This is the message which takes place immediately before our lectionary reading today. And so, in light of this marginalization of Christians from Jewish antichrists, I think it's important to notice how John instructs his Christian congregation to respond. He tells them to respond with love toward their brother; and not just any brother. In context John seems to be referring to Jewish brethren, the same brethren who are challenging them to publicly walk away from the Christian congregation with them, back to Jerusalem, back to Herod's Temple where faithful, Torah-keeping "believers" have exclusive access to God, and can draw near to Him with a sacrifice.

From the very beginning, John exhorts his Christian congregation to hold fast to the faith by loving their brothers while resisting the Judaizing cultural pressure to go back and worship the Father in their Temple, where they can offer the old covenant sacrifices of God again. 
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world
John's message was the same as Philip's. God sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the midst of his own people, to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel, and not for them only but also for the sins of the whole world, even for eunuch's from Ethiopia, who would not have been allowed to draw near to God in Herod's Temple. Even Isaiah prophesied about these days with the coming kingdom of Israel's Messiah: 
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people."
And do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 
For thus says the Lord: "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off." 
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:3-5, 8)
God's love was revealed to the whole world in this way: God sent his only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for its sins, so that the whole world could live through him (I John 4:9-10). God sent his only Son in the world so that the world could no longer find life through the Temple, Torah, liturgy, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. "We have seen and do testify," John says, "that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God" (4:14-15).

In our day and age, nearly 2,000 years past those events of which John spoke, Christians are still confessing the same truths and are still being marginalized by "the world" because of it. Just look at the Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them as enemies of God. Christians confess that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of the world, which includes Muslims too, but some people simply don't want to receive that truth claim. Apart from the vine of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation for the world. Time doesn't change the hearts of people who love darkness, and refuse to step into God's light.  

Even 2,000 years of Church history doesn't change the way brothers treat each other, marginalizing some because of zeal for the truth. Did you ever meet a Christian who behaved that way? Did you ever meet a Christian brother, baptized into the Body of Christ, who turns on you or someone you know, treating them as though they're not true Christians, as though they can tap into the secret councils of Almighty God and deliver His sovereign message about your personal salvation to your front door? Did you ever meet any Christian who marginalized others because that so-called Christian actually enjoys drinking alcohol, and he doesn't think it's sin! Or they enjoy "worldly movies" and entertainment? Or, God forbid, they're Catholic, or Charismatic, or anything that's not in accordance with the true Christian doctrine, and so they know who is and not a true Christian? (That's sarcasm, by the way.)

If you haven't met any Christian brother like that, you are very fortunate. In reality, our so-called "Christian nation" is plagued with unloving, foolishly zealous "brothers" like that. They love you just enough to insult and demean your intelligence, but they have the best of intentions for your soul. Even more unfortunate is the fact that all "Christian" cults in America have been like that too, and they try to recruit Christians out of Trinitarian churches to save them by joining their cult. They tell you you need to use their rituals to draw near to God. You need to abide by their laws to be saved. You are welcome to feast at the table of their god once you repent and believe what they believe, as they understand "belief" to be. 

Thankfully, these are not the ways in which we know God. Our congregation uses a formal liturgy, but our liturgy is not essential for drawing near to God. We even have rituals which condition us week after week, year after year to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, His spoken Word, and His Table, but He is essential, not the rituals; our rituals and liturgy can change from church to church, but God can still be known in all of them. Our lives are caught up in the life of God, not our rituals. Because Jesus is our life, the cycles of our life and the boundaries we place around us are approved by Jesus, boundaries which are faithful and beautiful and holy in God's sight. 

Each week we gather together in the eucharist to feast at the Lord's table, not a Mormon table or a Presbyterian Table or a Roman Catholic table. It is the Lord's table, and you know the significance of that message. You know its significance because you know the One who goes out into the margins of a violent, ungrateful, and unloving world to heal, comfort, and love, to bring them into His Church and be renewed by His Spirit, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, and to proclaim liberty to those enslaved in sin. You know the God who I'm talking about because greater is the One in you than the one who is in the world. Those who are violent and ungrateful in the face of Christ, in the face of God's children, are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world and the world listens to them. We are from God, and we confess that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh from God, to reach beyond the margins of Israel to the margins of the whole world, to be the true bread and true drink of heaven for the whole world.  

If you ever doubt God's word about you, about how he sees you in Christ--as a brother, a sister, a child of God, and friend--that is why the Lord offers the waters of baptism for you, as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch. If you have not been baptized, be like the eunuch and point to some water, asking, "What prevents me from being baptized?" After God has claimed you for himself, go on rejoicing like the eunuch too! 

Unlike the Pharisees and other Judaizers of John's day, God doesn't marginalize anyone who puts their trust in him, no matter how great your sins are. (Yes, I said that right: no matter how great your sins are.) Just as there is no sin so great but that it deserves God's wrath, so there is no sin so great that it can bring God's wrath upon all those who truly repent. Because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, God doesn't deny us justice in our humiliation, or treat us as insignificant or peripheral to the world he came, in flesh, to save. In Baptism he gives us an everlasting name that we can live  forever rejoicing in, a name that will never be cut off, the name of "son" or "daughter." At the Table he gathers the outcasts of the world and brings them beside other sons and daughters that have already been gathered. That is why our Lord sets His table before us each and every week. If God has claimed you for himself, don't come doubting whether you are welcome to feast with Jesus. It is his Table, and you are welcome to feast upon the faithful sacrifice who died for your sins. 

Be like the eunuch. Believe and rejoice in this glorious gospel of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.










1.  See Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Volume 2) [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2013], pp. 1567-1573 




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Proclaiming Liberty to Captives (A homily for Gaudete Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)



Advent  (Third Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks. Do not quench. Do not despise. Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back. Try repeating those verbs out loud a few times. (No, seriously, try it.)
 
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks.

Do not quench. Do not despise.

Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back.

Perhaps, as you spoke those words out loud, you noticed that Paul gives three positive commands, followed by two negative commands, followed by another set of three positive commands. Each set of commands fits together as one unit, and each of those units fit into each other, forming a neat symmetrical structure.1 This structure is a neat little way to illustrate that Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His closing thoughts were well thought through, organized, and intentional. He said things in such a way that there really should not be room for doubt or debate as to what he meant. But of course, we do anyway. We doubt at least a little bit because Paul didn’t simply say “Rejoice.” He said rejoice always. He said give thanks in all circumstances. He said test all things, and hold-back from every sight of evil. Once we hear such penetrating and seemingly unqualified instructions for the Church, we want to ask questions like, ‘Did Paul really mean to rejoice always?’ ‘Am I really supposed to be praying constantly, or to be giving thanks in everything?' As I am going to contend in this message, I think the answer is “yes.” I think that set of commands was meant to be understood exactly as we find it today; and that set of commands were not just the will of God for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:18), but they also remain valid commands for the Christians today.

But I’m willing to bet that doesn’t clarify things for us very much. Such unqualified terms do not, in fact, help us understand why Paul would gave such broad, sweeping commands and actually expected people to honor them. 

Fortunately the lectionary readings assigned for today help us make sense of this. In our old testament reading, Isaiah preached about the gospel of God coming to visit His people and to deliver them from exile. It begins with a familiar poetic proclamation, something Jesus used to describe his own ministry as he read from the lectionary in a synagogue in galilee (Luke 4:16-20):
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 brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Isaiah, of course, is the one who spoke those words originally; and if you were living in Isaiah’s generation, and listening to him say those words, you might have thought he was referring to himself. But he wasn’t. He was referring to someone else, someone coming after him, whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.

There is something else peculiar about this message from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted with regard to Himself. Isaiah’s prophecies of salvation are always accompanied by messages of judgment. They are, in fact, messages of salvation through judgment; and Jesus stops his quotation of this passage at the very end of the salvation portion. Jesus stops right before the Isaiah passage talks about God’s judgment—about the Day of vengeance, a day not at the end of human history, but at a time when God would come down to judge Israel for her sins, sending them into exile and destroying Jerusalem for the empire of idolatry it would eventually become. Such messages of salvation proclaimed through the mouth of Isaiah could hardly be taken as “good news” if his own generation and the city of Jerusalem would first have to endure God's judgment. So God’s promise in the days of Isaiah was not simply that God would come and save Israel. God’s message to Isaiah's generation was primarily one of judgment for everyone who would not repent and turn to God, and be saved through it. Yet, somewhat enigmatically, this means that the salvation promised by God would have to come at a later time, to the people of God sent into exile after Jerusalem was destroyed. This means that if you happened to be living in Isaiah’s time, you would not have lived to experience the glorious deliverance that God had promised. That generation could not have experienced the salvation Isaiah described because it didn’t occur in Isaiah’s time. It occurred much later.

It doesn’t take much to realize that such a message does not appear to be good news, at either the first, second, or fifth glance. But it was, in fact, good news. It was good news to the people who trusted in God’s faithfulness, those who prepared their hearts to endure through God's judgment upon Israel; and it was also good news to the generation who lived through Israel’s second exodus—their return from Babylonian captivity. If you study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s promises through Isaiah were most certainly promises of good news. At the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—roughly 500 years before Christ was born—God had done far more than simply proclaim liberty to his people held captive in Babylon; He had actually given them liberty to return to Jerusalem and re-build the House of the Lord, i.e. His Temple. He released His people who had been held prisoners in a foreign land so that they could proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor back in Jerusalem.

From our Psalm reading today (Psa. 126), we learned a little about how the people of God felt at that time, when they returned from Babylonian captivity:
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter

And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

With all of Israel’s future talk (in these Psalms) about the greatness of God in restoring them from captivity, the people probably expected the prophecies of Isaiah to have reached their fulfillment. In other words, if you were an Israelite in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, you probably would have thought that God’s ultimate promises for His kingdom had now come to fruition. You might have thought that the end was near and it was only a matter of time before God would make all things new again. However, there would have been one significant dilemma for those who held that belief. No matter how close one looks at that period in Israel’s history (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.), what will not be found is a record of the Lord returning to His House, the Temple. The people returned, but the glory of the Lord did not.

You see, when God gave Israel plans to construct His House in the wilderness, at Sinai, He showed up and made His glorious presence known. He didn’t just give His people instructions to build a House for Himself and then sneak into His throne-room quietly in the middle of the night. To the contrary, the Lord descended in a glorious cloud onto the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35) just as He did onto Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20). There, in the presence of everyone, YHWH shook the earth and sat down on His throne in the Most Holy Place, seated on the Cherubim above the ark of the covenant (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 1). The Lord also showed up when Solomon finished building the Temple in Jerusalem. The shekinah glory descended upon the Temple and the arrival of His glorious presence is given extra special attention in those passages of Scripture (II Chron 7:1-3). But the glorious appearance of the Lord did not occur in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity; and the glory of the Lord would not appear again until a man name John started baptizing Israelites in the wilderness.

We read a little about that in our lectionary assignments for today. It’s interesting that we are only given a very small amount of information about who John the Baptist was, and perhaps even more interestingly, John’s gospel makes a special point to tell us emphatically who John was not (1:6-8). John was not the light of the world. But he was a lamp with just enough brightness to be noticed; and because the world of Jesus' day was so dark and gloomy, when the Jewish authorities saw John’s light the first thing they wanted to know was if he was the promised Messiah. This confirms what I have already said: the Jews themselves understood that God’s promises in Isaiah and other prophets were not yet fulfilled, and that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned to His Temple to rule and restore all things as promised.

Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1st Thessalonians, Paul was writing to Gentiles who had received the Spirit of God because the glory of God had finally returned. God had returned, in the flesh, to restore not just Israel, but the whole world from its bondage. Paul spoke as one who believed that kingdom-building project throughout the whole world was well underway—that God had come down in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and was now, after his resurrection, working powerfully by His Spirit to build a new and glorious Temple not just in the earth, but of the earth, of the whole earth. Jesus came to make all things new, not just some things new. The scope of His salvation was cosmic. He came to build up all the ancient ruins, raise up all the former devastations of many generations, and to plant oaks of righteousness across the globe (Isa. 61:3-4). Paul saw a forest of God’s righteousness and praise springing up before all nations as Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. That is the background of Paul’s commands at the end of 1st Thessalonians. Paul understood that God was up to something He had never done before—something far more powerful, and influential, and lasting than the kingdom-building projects of Israel’s early days.

Now, as you read through the commands of Paul at the end of 1st Thessalonians, allow that vision to permeate the way you view what has been said. Paul said, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. Do not quench the flame of the Spirit working throughout the world. Do not despise the words of prophets who confirm this glorious temple-building project of God; but rather, test all things, hold-firmly to what is beautiful, and hold-back from every sight of evil; and may the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit, soul, and body of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Paul knew that the glorious faithfulness of God had been manifest for the whole world to see. Paul had seen it with his own eyes, and heard about it from distant lands far beyond what he had ever traveled, and that is why Paul could confidently say to the Thessalonians, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:24).

The Spirit’s powerful work in Paul’s day is something we too should be encouraged by and hopeful for as we wait upon the Lord this Advent season. That same Spirit which spoke through prophets and spread the gospel through Paul’s world was the same exact Spirit who empowered men, women, and children all over the globe to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and to give thanks in every circumstance; and it is that same exact Spirit of rejoicing, thanking, testing, and self-control which continues the kingdom-building project of the Messiah today. Christ Jesus is still making His name known among all the nations today by the work of that same Spirit in Paul’s day, and all who see the Spirit’s work in us—watching us test all things carefully, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from what is evil—they see the God of peace sanctifying the world through us. As Isaiah prophesied, they see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed (61:9). It is because we are truly blessed by the Spirit of God that we can always rejoice and in every circumstance give thanks.

One important way in which the Church has always rejoiced and continuously gives thanks is by celebrating the Eucharist. Even the word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” It is also the word Paul used in our reading today where he told the Thessalonians to “give thanks.” It is here, in the Eucharist, where the Church learns to rejoice, where our tongues are trained for thanksgiving. Here we gather together in “Eucharist”—in thanksgiving—for the gifts of bread and wine, for the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood. Here we hold firmly onto the beautiful gospel made food. So come to the Lord’s Table today and rejoice! Taste and see that the Lord is good.


* * * * * *


O Heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in the cosmic scope of renewal which you have begun through Christ in his first advent, we would learn to serve you with gladness always, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from every sight of evil; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.








1.  The structure looks like this:
A)  Rejoice always
  B)  Pray constantly
    C)  Give thanks in everything,
      D)  for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. 

E)   Do not quench the Spirit
E')  Do not despise the words of prophets

A')  Test all things
  B')  Hold-firmly to what is beautiful
    C')  Hold-back from every sight of evil, 
      D')  and may the God of peaceHimselfsanctify you all completely; and may the complete spiritsoul and bodyof you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.




Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Shall I Cry? (A homily for Advent, Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent  (Second Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18
Mark 1:1-8



In the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib the king of Assyria waged war against the cities of Judah—including Jerusalem. But Hezekiah, king of Judah, was not willing to surrender to the Assyrians. So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent his ambassador—the Rabshakeh—along with a huge army to Jerusalem to intimidate Hezekiah, and to persuade the people of God to think differently about their situation.

Once the Rabshakeh arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem, Isaiah tells us that he addressed the people Israel with a loud voice, informing them that their surrounding cities had been laid to waste, and that their city was next, unless, of course, they surrendered peacefully. And if they were to surrender peacefully, not only would they not be destroyed, but the King of Assyria would give each of them their own fig tree and vine from which to eat and their own cistern from which to drink. By making an agreement with the King of Assyria, they would no longer need to worry about their warfare, for they would receive care by the hand of a good shepherd who leads his sheep to a new land of promise, “a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards” much like their own (36:10-17).

King Hezekiah had a decision to make. He and his people could surrender to the Assyrians, or they could repent before the Lord, ask for His help, and hope that the Lord would answer favorably according to their prayers.

Hezekiah made the wise decision and he went into the Temple and prayed. That night the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, and Isaiah let King Hezekiah know that the Lord heard His prayer and was pleased with it. And in response to his prayer, the Lord promised to end the war of the Assyrians against them. That night the angel of the Lord would pass over Jerusalem and plague the Assyrian armies, causing many to die and the rest to flee away from the city.

Jerusalem was then spared. Her warfare had ended. The Lord delivered His people once more from their enemies. Now it was time to celebrate the Lord’s victory.

All of these events I just described are recorded in the book of Isaiah, chapter 36-37, only a few chapters prior to our reading in Isaiah 40. And if you were to gloss over chapters 38 and 39, at first glance the message of Isaiah 40 seems to be describing that victorious event (i.e. that event of Jerusalem’s deliverance from Assyria). Consider how Isaiah 40 begins:
Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her in iniquity is pardoned… (vv. 1-2)

Here the Lord declares that His people ought to be comforted by His good news, and His good news is this: her warfare has ended, and the Lord has pardoned her iniquity. That sounds like a reference to the warfare which ended in the previous story about the King of Assyria attacking Jerusalem.

Then Isaiah hears another voice crying out:
Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness!
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God!
…Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.  (vv. 3-5)
Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news!
Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news! Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  (v. 9)

Because Israel’s warfare is over, now the time has come to prepare a path for a procession of the Lord to His throne. The imagery of paving a highway for God through the wilderness is reminiscent of Israel’s exodus from bondage in Egypt, when God first claimed Himself as Israel’s King and carried them into the promised land. In chapters 36 & 37, we found a “Passover” theme: The people were in bondage and the angel of the Lord passed over His people, striking down all of Israel's enemies. Here in chapter 40, we find a clear “Exodus” theme. Here we see God leading His people in a victorious procession through the wilderness and into the promised land.

However, as I said a few moments ago, if you were to read Isaiah 36-37 and then gloss over chapters 38-39, Isaiah 40 seems to be describing that victorious event mentioned in 36-37. But Isaiah is not actually talking about Israel’s deliverance from the King of Assyria. And we know this because of chapters 38-39. In those chapters, Isaiah tells us a strange little story that doesn’t appear to be very important until we connect it with the message of chapter 40.

In chapters 38-39 Isaiah tells us that King Hezekiah became very sick and when the king of Babylon heard he was sick, he visited him and brought him lots of gifts; and Hezekiah not only accepted his gifts, he expressed his gratitude to the King of Babylon by giving him a tour through all of Jerusalem and even inside the Lord’s Temple, showing him all his treasures (Isa. 39). That action of Hezekiah provoked the Lord, and so the Lord sent Isaiah to give an important message to Hezekiah:

Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (39:5-7)

And take special notice of Hezekiah’s following response as well (39:8). Then Hezekiah responded to Isaiah saying,

“The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” (For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’)

This rise and fall of King Hezekiah, and God’s promise to send his people into exile in Babylon, is the background of our reading today from Isaiah (40:1-11). If we were to skip over Isaiah’s brief mention of Hezekiah’s sickness (Isa. 39), we would be missing out on the fact that this great promise of comfort was not supposed to be fulfilled in the days of Hezekiah, even though many people of Israel probably thought it was. Isaiah's proclamation of God's promise was for a future generation, long after the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel's exile to Babylon.

Even Isaiah seems to have believed God’s word of comfort was too good to be true. He hears a voice telling him to cry out God’s good news, but he doesn’t know if God’s message really is good news for his generation. “What shall I cry out?” Isaiah asks, for “all flesh is grass and all of its loyalty is like a flower of the field.” Isaiah knows that the people of Israel in his generation were not loyal to God. “Surely the people are grass,” Isaiah says. And just as surely as the people are grass who will fade away by the breath of the Lord,  so shall the word of the Lord stand firm. The days were coming when Jerusalem and the glories of its Temple would be carried away to Babylon, and nothing would be left; all would be destroyed, and the people of Israel would be taken captive to Babylon too.

Now, at this point you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Advent.

Advent is a season when we—people of God—are called to wait upon the Lord to enter our lives again. And as we wait up Him we’re supposed to be preparing ourselves for His coming by repenting of our sins and by meditating upon His promises.

But what has God promised for us? What has God promised that we need to be preparing ourselves to receive?

Perhaps it’s best to answer those questions by imagining ourselves as the people of God in Isaiah’s day. Are we that much different than them? Are the people of God today much different than the flowers of the field in Isaiah’s day? When the Lord speaks to us—His people—addressing our foolishness directly, just as He did with His people in Isaiah's day, what is our response? Even when Hezekiah received a warning from the Lord directly, all he seemed to care about was peace and security while he was alive. Are our ways of thinking much different than Hezekiah's? Are we willing to sacrifice our time, energy,  and petty inconveniences to ensure greater peace and security for the next generation, or do we care more about having peace and security in our own lifetime at the expense of future generations?

When we want God to come to our rescue, of course then we pray fervently to Him, and we teach our children to pray too. When we need rescuing, then we wait attentively for Him to respond favorably to our prayers; but let's be honest: when God graciously delivers us from our sins, our tendency is to go right back to where we were before, to our old foolish ways. And to make matters worse, sometimes we don’t even seem to care much about what happens to the next generation because of our foolish sins. We care far more about what happens to us. We care far more about having peace and security in our lives, even if that means a future generation of God’s people would suffer from our foolish decisions today.

So what message should we be crying out? What message should we be crying out in a generation like ours, whose loyalty is like a flower of the field that fades away with every gust of wind?

The answer to that question comes from our Gospel reading today (Mark 1:1-8). John the Baptist referred to this prophecy of Isaiah as confirming his ministry of baptism, which means that Isaiah’s message of hope was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus and in John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus was the one of Isaiah’s prophecy for whom a highway was to be cleared, and John’s baptism was the way that highway to Jesus was paved. Jesus was the one for whom even the mountains of Johns world were to make room. Jesus was the one whom the people of Israel needed to repent before and receive forgiveness. Jesus was the Word of comfort for Israel.

But Jesus wasn’t simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus was and is the glory of God revealed for all “flesh” to see (Isa. 40:5), therefore Jesus is the one for whom even the mountains of our world need to make room. Our world has mountains of pride, valleys of despair, crooked places of perversion, rough places of bitterness, but Jesus comes as our Word of comfort and paves a highway for us. He is the one who pays the penalty for our iniquity and delivers us from exile. His body, into which we have been baptized, is the Temple he destroyed and raised to life again. Jesus is the name above all names that we lift up without fear before the world, saying “Behold your God!”

Jesus is also the one who makes good on his promises as the King of kings. Jesus is the one who rules over all nations and subdues our enemies under His feet, declaring and end to our warfare. Jesus is the one who calls us to lay down our carnal weapons of warfare and surrender to His rule; and by surrendering to Him, he promises to fulfill His word as our good Shepherd, leading us to rest in his good land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.

And as we learned in our Epistle reading for today (2 Peter. 3:8-15a, 18), Jesus is not slow to fulfill this promise to us either. Rather, he is patient toward us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 


Therefore, this is the message we ought to be proclaiming: Come to Jesus for your warfare to end and your iniquity to be pardoned. Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Confess your sins and surrender yourself unto God, then accept His invitation to feast on the grain and vineyards of His good land. Feast on the bread and wine which your King has prepared for you this day at His Table, so that you may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

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Heavenly Father, stir up your power, and with great might come among us; and, because we are greatly hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.