Sunday, November 9, 2014

Israel's Sour Grapes and the True Vine: A Sermon on Isaiah 5

Sermon on Isaiah 5 (specifically, Isaiah 5:1-8, 11-13, 15-16, 20-24); Jeremiah 2:21-22; Psalm 80:8-11, 14-19; and John 15:1-8.  Delivered 9 November 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fourth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, and Isaiah 3-4.

The first four chapters of Isaiah introduce so many themes: To a wayward people, Isaiah points them to the true atonement, deeper than bulls and goats, which takes crimson sins and makes them whiter than wool. Isaiah calls us to repent of our hypocrisy, living and thinking one way on Sunday and another Monday through Saturday. In the darkest times, days of corruption and evil, Isaiah points us to the Branch of the LORD, to the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, to the mountain of the LORD's temple, to the word of gospel-peace going forth from the people founded securely upon Jesus Christ, the church's one foundation.

What we have here in Isaiah 5 is probably one of the first sermons of Isaiah's long prophetic ministry, maybe delivered before the death of King Uzziah, probably at the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major feasts when the people of Judah would have made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Like many a poet and bard throughout history, I can see Isaiah walking the streets of the holy city, gazing out at the makeshift booths, offering to sing a love song, a song about a loved one's vineyard.

But that love song becomes a lawsuit. In Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, he describes Israel as a vineyard specially chosen by its Owner. He did everything for the vineyard, everything a vine could ask for. Good soil? He planted it on a fertile hillside. Clear soil? He cleared it of stones. Good stock? Isaiah calls it “the choicest vines”. Protected? He built a wall, he built a watchtower, he built a winepress. And he looked for juicy grapes, the reason he planted the vineyard – but there were none (Isaiah 5:2-4).

We know Isaiah, we know his themes, we can see where he's going. But it probably took his first audience plenty by surprise! The vineyard owner is God. The vineyard is all of Israel (Isaiah 5:7). God did everything for Israel, more than they ever could have asked – he delivered them from Egypt, he planted them in the Promised Land, he cleared away the stony Canaanite peoples, he protected them from trouble. And all he wanted were good grapes, good fruit, the fruit of holy life. They weren't planted as an end in themselves, the final stop of God's rivers of blessing. No, they were planted with a purpose.

For all God did for them, you'd think he'd see those good grapes! But no – no, instead there are bad grapes, corrupt grapes. Literally, grapes worth nothing because they rot and they stink. Isaiah points out the contrast with a pair of puns: instead of mishpat, rightful judgment or justice, Israel gave God nothing but mispach, bloodshed; and instead of tsedaqah, righteousness, Israel gave God nothing but tseaqah, cries of distress. So there will be consequences. The wall of protection, gone; the nourishing blessings of heaven, withheld; the beasts, invited.

In his sevenfold woes, Isaiah paints a vivid portrait of Israel once again out of control. They have no respect for God; they're obsessed with leisure and partying; they're arrogant; they greedily grasp for more and more of God's land, stealing it away from the poor; and their degraded state leads to moral chaos, classifying good things as evil and evil things as good – a total subversion of right and wrong. An all-too-familiar picture today. Later, when the prophet Jeremiah picks up on the vineyard image, he stresses the inability of human effort to fix it: No matter what remedies they try, the vine stays stained, corrupt, filthy from the inside-out (Jeremiah 2:22). And so the nation was slated for devastation – Isaiah 5 ends with a call to the ungodly Gentile empires to come and do what they do best: be beastly.

Some time later, maybe decades, maybe centuries, someone wrote Psalm 80 to pick up where Isaiah left off. “How long, O LORD, God of hosts”, the psalmist asks, “will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” (Psalm 80:4). Israel was one vine, plucked out of Egypt, planted in a cleared field, it filled the land, it towered over the cedars and the mountains – why does it go unprotected, why is it left to the boars and the bugs? The confused groan of God's people: Not yet fully grappling with their sin, yet desperate to be delivered – and hopeful. There's hope in a new shoot from the vineyard, a 'son of man' raised up at God's right hand; and only if God is with that man, can it be honestly said, “Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name” (Psalm 80:18).

Centuries went by, and the imperial beasts of Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome had their field day on that fertile hillside, ravenously ruling over God's oft-rebellious people. The vineyard of Israel didn't have a great track record. From a worldly point of view, it'd be hard to make a case for putting much stock in it. But now we come to John 15, where Jesus unfolds the new truth. He, the Son of Man, is the remedy for Isaiah 5 and the answer to Psalm 80. The Vineyard of Israel was full of sour grapes – but not him. He isn't a replacement, an alternative; he's the fulfillment. Jesus is the True Vine, just as his Father is and has always been the Divine Vinedresser (John 15:1). Jesus is the True Israelite, the One-Man Remnant, the Messiah, who was born of Israel to fulfill everything Israel was called and chosen to do and be.

Israel under the Old Covenant was so often a corrupt vine with stinking grapes – and they found the truth that no soap, no powder, no effort wrought by human hands, could ever make them clean. The stain of their guilt, all the bloodshed and distress, still remained before the Lord, only covered over and hidden from view by the blood of bulls and rams. No, they were no clean vine, and their branches were unclean – but Jesus, the True Vine, declares to his branches: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

There, there we have it – what no ritual remedy could do, no works of the Law could do, was accomplished, finished, done while we were blinking, before we even took notice. “Already clean” – because the Voice of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, declared it so. “Already clean” – because Jesus taught his people the New Law and wrote it on their hearts, not by quills on parchment but by the Spirit of God on human lives. “Already clean” – because “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25-26). “Already clean” – when we drink in his word, when we turn to it again and again, when we learn his teachings and ways, when we inundate our souls with the spiritual flood of his purifying word, for “the words of the LORD are pure words, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Jesus is the True Vine – and we are his branches, if we belong to him. Do we belong to him? How do we belong to him? By faith. We are united to Jesus through faith, for by trusting him, by clinging loyally and devotedly to him, we are grafted into him by the Spirit. Now, is this some easy-believism, a mere lip-service, a rote recitation of a creed uttered lazily on the lips but not really reflecting the mind and heart? No, no, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), but this is a living faith, a truly engaged and committed surrender to Jesus. In that faith, we cleave to him and open ourselves fully for his life to flow into us, to be lived in us – the Spirit, the nutrients of living witness, being nurtured by the Father through the Son into our lives, and expressed in great, big, juicy grapes of righteous mercy and holy love.

We can't bear those by ourselves – “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (John 15:4). If it doesn't proceed from faith, our vital connection with our Vine, then it's corrupted by the stinking stain of sour sin, for “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). No, the path of human initiative is a downward road – paved with good intentions though it may very well be. We must remain in the Vine, drawing all our life from the Vine. If we don't keep drawing our life from the Vine, partaking of his Holy Spirit through living relationship, then what? Then we wither; then we bear no fruit. “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). Don't shoot the messenger – that's what the Vine says, and he would know. But if we are his branches, then we are already clean, already forgiven – forgiven, not because of our fruit, but in order to bear fruit!

So many religious traditions, so many natural human impulses, tell us that God will love and forgive us if only we can live up to his commandments, if only we can do the right rituals in the right way, if only we can say the right words and do the right things, if only we can be just a bit less sinful than the guy across the street. Such is legalism, such is moralism, such is works-righteousness. So many of our guilty instincts are wrapped up in this idea that, if a dead branch starts budding, that will qualify it to be added to the tree. That's a lie from the devil's own lips, filled with just enough half-truth to sidetrack us.

God doesn't love us 'if only we...', he doesn't forgive us 'if only we...' – God loves us and forgives us already, he cleanses us already, 'so that we...' Cleansing comes first, so that we can be part of the Vine; and only after we're the Vine's branches can the right fruit begin to grow. We don't obey to be redeemed, or even believe and obey to be redeemed; we believe to be redeemed to obey. Faith in the crucified-and-risen Christ meets the holiness of God's Spirit head on, and the explosive collision lights up the darkness with the fire of divine love.

That's the beauty of, “Already clean”. That's the beauty of, “Remain in me”. The beauty is, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Israel under the Old Covenant didn't and couldn't – the soil was right, but the vines went wrong. Israel under the New Covenant is the holy church of God, the branches of a holy Vine, the true Israel: Jesus Christ and all his branches. Jesus is determined that his branches should bear fruit; it's an inevitable result of being his branches, being an earthly extension of his messianic life. That's what it means to be rightly called a Christian: to suffer pruning with him, so that we can share in his glorious fruit as we together with him glorify the Father (John 15:8; cf. Romans 8:17). He bears his fruit through us, once we're already in him by faith.

If we abide in him, if we cleave to him in faith, then we will bear fruit – if we let his life flow through us. We can try to block it, of course. We can refuse to be open. We can choke ourselves on our own stubborn stupidity, acting like we don't depend on him for everything. We can live as though the Christian walk were anything but Spirit-fueled. So often, that's just what we do, and we risk choking the spiritual life out of ourselves. Or, we can learn the blessed wisdom of just abiding – a disciplined openness to the Spirit of the Son, through which his life floods us and, although pruned for our own health, we bear abundant fruit to the glory of God.

When the frantic chaos of the world encroaches, we can clear time and space for God's gift of sabbath rest. When worldly voices vex and perplex, we can drown them out with the word of God, returning again and again to the scriptures. When the thorny troubles and cares threaten to choke the seedling of the kingdom, we can seek God's peace by anchoring our will in his through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines. When pride and self-sufficiency tempt us with their vision, we can humble ourselves and answer Christ's call: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Instead of bloodshed, cries of distress, greed, selfishness, pride – instead of any of these sour grapes, lo, behold, there are justice and righteousness, where we are chosen and appointed to be filled with the joy of the Lord and to love one another, just as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves his branches.

Beasts may ravage, but all their savagery can only be an instrument of God's pruning – and “if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). This True Vine of Israel, raised up from the dead, will never die, can never die – he lives and grows forever, and his eternal life flows through all his branches, the new Israel, the new way to be human. We, united with him, are planted for a purpose. Isaiah said, “I will sing to my beloved a song about his vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1) – how much more should we sing to all the world a song about the Father's True Vine, the Branch of the LORD, Jesus Christ, in whom we abide and bear much loving fruit to the Father's glory?

Lord, when this vine in Canaan grew,
Thou wast its strength and glory too!
Attack'd in vain by all its foes,
'Till the fair Branch of promise rose.

Fair Branch, ordain'd of old to shoot
From David's stock, from Jacob's root;
Himself a noble vine, and we
The lesser Branches of the Tree:

'Tis thy own Son; and he shall stand,
Girt with thy strength, at thy right hand;
Thy firstborn Son, ador'd and blessed
With pow'r and grace above the rest.

O! for his sake, attend our cry,
Shine on thy churches, lest they die;
Turn us to thee, thy love restore,
We shall be sav'd, and sigh no more.            (Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David [1791], 66).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Unwise Leaders, Paraded Sin, and the Branch of the LORD: A Reformation-Sunday Sermon on Isaiah 3-4

Sermon on Isaiah 3-4 (specifically, Isaiah 3:1-9, 13-15; 4:2-6) and Galatians 3:23-29.  Delivered 26 October 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The third installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 2.

The third chapter of the prophecies of Isaiah, that great fifth Evangelist, is no rosy picture. He could not afford to be gentle with an out-of-control Judah. No, Isaiah's verbal arts paint a damning portrait of a society degraded to its roots, locked in a ruinously unstable state. God speaking through Isaiah has to warn that, in the exile that will come as punishment upon them, all competent political, military, and spiritual leadership will be snatched away to a foreign land. Remaining is a competence vacuum, filled by the untaught, uninstructed, unwise, inexperienced. Leadership becomes a synonym for corruption.

Society is in turmoil: the young rise up against the old, the shameless rise up against the dignified, the camps of Occupy Jerusalem litter the heaps of rubble – and in the vicious cycle of uprising and oppression, the poor and vulnerable are put through the grinder. The people aren't content to sin in quiet and make a hypocritical display of goodness. No, they celebrate their sin, christening it as good, patting themselves on the back for being so clever. Violence, theft, debauchery – these are exciting, these are a distraction, these are survival, these are glorified. But how can a society survive like this? How can a society function when, politically and spiritually, those it calls leaders aren't good examples to imitate? How can a society survive this level of drastic mismanagement? It may squeak by, but it can't very well thrive – yet such was the state of Judah at the outbreak of crisis, as Isaiah foresaw.

Over two thousand years later, another man found himself in a situation not so unlike Isaiah's. In this later time, society had again become corrupt. The earthly potentate of the western church, the pope, had become one among any number of worldly princes, and made war with them as often as peace. The notoriously corrupt Pope Alexander VI openly had numerous mistresses and installed various friends and relatives as high-ranking church officials. His successor, Pope Julius II, was often fueled by jealousy, had fathered a daughter out of wedlock while still a cardinal, and presented himself as a new Julius Caesar to lead a new Christian empire in military victory.

The practice had long since emerged that the pallium – the special vestment marking out high-ranking bishops – required the 'donation' of a massive fee, and so joined with other factors that made church offices essentially available for purchase for those with the right connections and social standing. Meanwhile, the church authorities had developed a theology in which, to cover up the punishment for our sins, a special 'indulgence' – access to the treasury of excess 'goodness' built up by Jesus and by saints – could be doled out in exchange for various religious acts – including 'charitable' gifts to church leaders. Between the need to pay for building opulent churches, and the need for church leaders to pay off debts incurred when they bought their office, this set the stage for indulgences – a remission of punishment for the dead in purgatory or the living in advance of purgatory, but easily understood as forgiveness of sins and thus a license to sin with impunity – to be sold by men like Johann Tetzel.

Like Isaiah before him, a man dared to challenge his corrupt society. A monk, theologian, biblical scholar – his name was Martin Luther. It's no wonder that he read Isaiah 3 as “a prophecy for our age against princes and bishops” and suggested that “the sin of our countrymen is greater than the sin of Sodom was”. Initially, infuriated by Tetzel's dealings, Luther only meant to offer up for discussion 95 searching questions about anti-Christian practices he felt must surely be a local mistake – but when his questions went viral thanks to the wonders of Gutenberg's printing press, he found himself forced into a confrontation with the powers-that-be. He asked, if indulgences work the way they supposedly do, why wouldn't loving church leaders give them out freely as quickly as possible? Luther argued:

Any Christian whatsoever who is truly repentant enjoys full remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given to him without letters of indulgence. Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God without letters of indulgence. […] Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better action than if he buys indulgences; because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he doesn't become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties. […] The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. […] Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells; and let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

Luther's challenge did not go unnoticed. In the year 1520, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine, threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted forty-one points of teaching within the next sixty days. Luther refused, stepped up his publishing campaign, burned a copy of Exsurge Domine that December, and went on trial before Emperor Charles V the next year, declaring his conscience to be captive to the word of God alone. He escaped arrest, went on to translate the Bible into German, married a former nun, organized congregations that dissented from the corrupt practices of the mainstream institutional church, and died in the year 1546.

Luther wasn't perfect. He was wrong on a number of key theological points, like the relation of faith to reason and the importance of human free will. He failed to adequately challenge his political protector, Philip of Hesse, when he insisted on taking a second wife. Luther could be ill-tempered, especially as his health worsened, and once disillusioned about his hopes for leading the Jews of the German states to Jesus, his later writings about them lent support centuries later to the Holocaust.

But in his day, Luther stood as a bold witness. And cleaving to the Lord Jesus Christ in empty-handed faith, bearing faithful witness to him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life over against all opposing powers, is and has always been the robustly Christian way of resisting a corrupt world. Luther rediscovered the key: that real godly virtue, real righteousness, flows out of faith, not the other way around, because faith fulfills the First Commandment, unites us with Jesus, exchanges our sinful curse for his divine blessing, and flowers in grateful love. Standing firm in this faith, Luther withstood much of the raging tempest that the corrupt political and religious establishment hurled his way. He sparked, in short, a Reformation, one that changed the political and spiritual landscape of the whole world.

In our own time, we are also called to stand as a community of witness. Isaiah's description of society in shambles cuts awfully close today. Do we not also live in a day of often-incompetent political and religious leadership, a day rampant with foolishness and sneering, a day of cowardly compromise? How many political leaders beyond the local level come to mind when I say the words 'integrity', 'principled', 'trustworthy'? Some, no doubt; but not enough. How many denominations both engage constructively with the world and hold the gospel pure and undefiled? It's easy to fail in one or both.

In our world, do we not frequently see the poor oppressed – either demeaned, on one side of the political aisle, as being undeserving of love, support, and gentle reform, or else, on the other side of the political aisle, enabled in bad habits and exploited perpetually for political gains? Do we not see the constant manipulation of young versus old? The young dismiss the stodgy, out-of-touch, inflexible, old-fashioned ways of the elders; and the elders, in their turn, deride the young as lazy, unmotivated, ungrateful, addicted to constant change. Both caricatures are wrapped up in the same hopeless cycle, repeating itself in generation after generation.

Do we not, in our day, see the eradication of many standards of what it means to be honorable? Is ours not a time when the slogan from Judges, 'every man did that which was right in his own eyes', could in practice almost supplant 'In God we trust' as a national motto? As Luther said, the uprising of the 'base' against the 'honorable' has its roots in the self-assertion, “I'm just as good as you are”. These days, you may hear it crop up in phrases like, “Don't force your beliefs on me; don't judge me; no one can judge but God” – but heaven forbid we listen to what God actually has to say.

Do we not see, in these very days and weeks, people “parading their sin like Sodom”, not ashamed of breaking the commandments of our God for how to flourish as holy bearers of his image, but actively celebrating their so-called 'liberty' to sin? You've seen the news. The attitude grows that all who will not conform must be shamed or punished. You've seen how the court of popular opinion treats those who will not 'bow the knee to Baal', who will not offer just a pinch of incense to Caesar, who will not compromise their Christian convictions on the value of unborn human life, or the solemn nature of marriage as a God-given institution mirroring Christ and his Church, or the freedom to worship not just within the walls of our buildings, but to worship God with our lives in the public square, in the marketplace, the academy – all convictions that should be evident to fair-minded people on the basis of reason and human decency, both of which are in short supply today.

This is not a call to “take America back” – as if we ever 'had' it! As if our history weren't so much a series of trade-offs, one set of trendy sins for another! As if our pretense at civil religion couldn't so often be summed up under the phrase, “This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isaiah 29:13)! No, this is not a call to “take America back”, but to give back to our village, our town, our county, our state, our nation, our world. To give what? To give our witness – like Isaiah, like Luther. To forsake compromise, to stand firm in “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), to remain faithful, and to not just tell but show that true life is found in Jesus Christ and his love – and “if you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15).

Isaiah and Luther both knew that our hope is not to be found merely in reforming outward habits, in dropping external bad habits for externally better habits. That's important, but we need reform of the heart. Our hope involves binding ourselves to accountability to another kingdom, the world of the heavenly Zion, the kingdom of the Branch of the LORD – Jesus Christ. While the world – and the worldly even in compromised churches – disdain Christ and his faithful ones as “a dried-up tree trunk”, Luther recognized with Isaiah that “they are not regarded as such before God”, for “the kingdom of Christ is now glorious in the spirit”. Only this Branch, restoring the intimacy of God's protection of the Israelites in their exodus, can give protection. Luther commented:

The Christian has no other cover than Christ; he does not rely on the arm of flesh, for there is no salvation in man, nor on good works, for they are not good in the presence of God. The Christian should teach and act in such a way that he may dare to stand in the presence of God. But the faithful are supported by the Word alone. […] Faintheartedness is not made strong with hands but by the Word of God, which alone heartens and causes to stand. If you trust in men, you will have help neither from them nor from God, who forsakes those who forsake Him. For the Word of God is the exceedingly strong tower of Zion and the pavilion of God offering protection in prosperity and adversity.

As Isaiah shows in his fourth chapter, we must come to grow through union with this Branch – to be Christ's twigs, bearing glorious fruit by faith, which secures our life-giving connection with the Branch. Only the life of the Branch, made real in us, gives clean fruit, glorious fruit acceptable to the LORD our God. Only by living faith – not a dead and fruitless faith, but a living faith made perfect in love – makes us righteous through that Glorious Exchange: our unrighteousness for the righteousness of Christ in God. And only when we are righteous by faith may we inherit Isaiah's promise and “enjoy the fruit of our deeds” (Isaiah 3:10).

We must let Jesus Christ, the Branch of the LORD, be our “Mediator, Leader, Teacher, Priest”, our “Pillar and the Cloud”, and “yet that cloud will not appear except through the Word which protects and goes before, and we follow”, as Luther rightly commented. In all things, we must witness to Christ's ways, careful to be faithful to him and his teaching, and in being a community of witness, to hold ourselves, one another, and those charged with leadership accountable to the Holy Branch. Do we so witness? Are we living as examples of how faith brings the righteousness of God? How is our witness today, this week, this month?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"The LORD Alone Shall Be Exalted in That Day": A Sermon on Isaiah 2

Sermon on Isaiah 2 (specifically, Isaiah 2:1-5, 12-22); Revelation 6:15-17.  Delivered 12 October 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The second installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

When God taught us through the first chapter of Isaiah's beautiful “Fifth Gospel” last month, we saw a strong warning – for Judah and for us today – against a “divided, compartmentalized heart” that tries to “let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship”.  Judah was mired in sin – all mankind is mired in sin – and the only hope is true atonement and true repentance, for “through Jesus, God fought
our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness”.  We remember that:

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus. […] And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words. This grace lays claim to all these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.

That prophecy gives way to a new oracle, a portrait of the nations finally being eagerly drawn toward God's kingdom.  What we have in the second chapter of Isaiah is not merely some far-off utopia, a scene of things after Christ's return.  No, its perfection may await that long-desired day, but the world of Isaiah 2 lies before us.  We don't have to wait for “the last days”, for we know that “in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2).  And what can we say of the true Mount Zion?  Is it only a future reality?  Hebrews 12:22 says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”.   What is this great mountain that looms so large in Isaiah's view?

Remember the dream that the prophet Daniel will interpret for Nebuchadnezzar: the great worldly powers are a statue of declining value – gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay – but there comes “a rock cut out, but not by human hands”, which “struck the statue” and so “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35). This rock, says Daniel, becomes a mountain because “in the times of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed”, which “will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44) – and as Christ, the great Rock, himself said during the days of his earthly ministry, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The Mountain is Christ, expanding his kingdom throughout the whole earth: he is the true Mount Zion, the highest of mountains, exalted above all the hills of our petty idols and vain desires.

Jesus Christ, then, is the mountain of the LORD's temple – and is himself the cornerstone of that temple, in union with his people. As Paul says, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16).  Paul asks, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).  But it is only in Jesus Christ that “the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). Peter also testifies that, along with the great living Stone who is Christ, we “like living stones are being built into a temple of the Spirit” (1 Peter 2:5).

When Isaiah foresees a grand mountain of the LORD's temple, then, what he sees in the days of the New Covenant is Christ and his kingdom crowned with the church as a holy temple. And “the law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” – that is, in our own day, the message of the gospel will go forth from us, or through us from its heavenly source, and into all the world. That is our calling: to “disciple all nations”, which happens when we go, and when we baptize them into the pure faith in the Triune God, and when we teach them the whole of Christ's doctrine and practice (Matthew 28:19-20).

What is the effect of the gospel spreading through all the earth?  What does it look like when it gets brought to fruition?  God himself will “judge between the nations”, and with God as the Judge to adjudicate all disputes, what need will there be for war?   So “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – swords and spears, the weapons of warfare and good for nothing other than death and destruction, will be permanently useless – and thus “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”.  That is a world that can be achieved only by the gospel-message from the heavenly Zion.  That is a world that can be achieved by the kingdom of God.  And as we watch our world falling apart in warfare all around us, that is a world I want to live in.

The gospel is not a message of war – save in the endless warfare of the Savior against sin itself – for “our struggle is not against flesh and blood”, but rather is against “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). The gospel is a message of peace, though it may bring a sword in this rebellious world – a sword, not against unbelievers, but wielded by them against us (Matthew 10:34).  And in our day more than ever, that sword is all too sharp and all too active.

We live now in a world where the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State brutally persecutes Christians and many others throughout portions of the Middle East under its control. We live now in a world where the constant strife between Israel and Palestine claims civilian lives on both sides. We live now in a world where Boko Haram still holds countless Nigerian schoolgirls hostage. And who can forget the Syrian civil war, and the ethnic violence in South Sudan, and continuing war in eastern Ukraine, and in places even our twenty-four-hour news cycle hasn't taught us. Nor is it limited to foreign shores: our own soil is stained with blood, brutality, oppression, bitterness, resentment, envy, hatred, discord. Our whole world is sucked into an endless cycle of violence begetting violence, wrath spawning wrath. This is nothing new: the rock in the hand of Cain has filled the earth for far too long. But the Rock of our Salvation came to exhaust all the wrath of evil, so as to fill the earth with a peaceable kingdom – and the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), crying not for vengeance but for peace through justice and love.

That is the message we're called to proclaim: the gospel of peace, going forth from us, the LORD's temple – not founded upon our own strength or wisdom, but solely and securely upon Christ our Sure Foundation. But just as in Isaiah's day, the hope for Israel and Judah was only through a painful scourging of the wickedness from their midst – salvation always comes through judgment.   Salvation for the Hebrews came only by the ten plagues upon Egypt.  Salvation from false prophets and outward idolatries came only by the pains of exile and return.   Salvation from sin and the idolatries of the heart comes only by the death penalty: by the nailing of the sinful character of Adam in us to the cross, not in our own person, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, whose divine and sinless life made way for him to have God judge our sin in his death: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The old Adam died in the Last Adam's death, that new people in us might live through his risen life.

And ultimately, the salvation of the world will require the judgment of all that is sinful within it.  Either that sin is done away with in Christ's cross, or it remains to be addressed in the judgment that is to come.  There is indeed a day in store when all that is exalted will be humbled, and all human pride will be brought low, and the idols will all disappear, revealing their worthlessness. What we have here is no different than what Mary sang in her beautiful Magnificat, the song of how Christ's birth changes the world: God “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; / he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. // He has brought down rulers from their thrones / but has lifted up the humble. // He has filled the hungry with good things / but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

God will reverse the fortunes that we have claimed.  What we've claimed for ourselves, we will have to give up; what we've been content to leave in the hands of God, that he will distribute freely.   The day is coming!  Maranatha!  When the LORD rises to shake the earth, the self-exalted have good reason to wish to hide and to throw their idols by the wayside.  But no earthly mountain, no earth-bound rock, can shield anyone from the omnipotent justice of God – no more than any idol can.  There is only one Rock, only one Mountain that offers a true Refuge – because only one Rock, only one Mountain, has already borne all the wrath of God and been raised up to tower over all the hills that shall surely be brought low.  Only in Christ is there hope of salvation – and that is the message that goes forth from God's temple to all the nations.

The gospel out of Zion calls forth with a challenge.  Will we humble ourselves, and let God exalt us in Christ in his due time? Or will we exalt ourselves, and resist vainly that day when God humbles us against our will?  Will we choose gospel humility, or will we cast our lot with the vile idols in their promised humiliation?  Jesus Christ chose humility: though he existed rightfully in all the divine glory, being the eternal Word of God, he emptied himself to take on the indignity of a human servant, and he obeyed his Father's will even in humbling himself all the way to the “slaves' punishment”: a painful, shameful, naked death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Paul advises us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Let us not exalt ourselves, let us not boast like the idols of human pride and status, but let us humble ourselves – for just as “God exalted him to the highest place” and made public that Christ bears the name of God himself (Philippians 2:9), so through the humility of faith “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him” (Ephesians 2:6).

We here, living in humble faith, are God's temple, a shining city on a hill – more than a hill, but the highest of mountains, Christ the King.  His kingdom is the mountain of the temple of the LORD, to which all nations must be drawn for the wisdom of God's design for human life.  But how will they learn, if no one tells them?   How can the nations be taught peace – not just mere détente, not just an unsteady truce, but the real peace of holy love – if the instruction of the gospel fails to go forth from Zion?   The message will go nowhere unless this temple sends forth heralds of good news!

Are we here at Pequea EC founded securely upon this mountain and no other?  Are we shining as a temple, bright and unmistakable?   Do we beat our swords into plowshares?   Does the word of the LORD go forth from us into the world that needs so desperately to hear it – not just distant lands, but here in the towns and countryside all around us?  Have we tossed all idols aside to the moles and bats?  Have we humbled ourselves, forsaken our worldly ambitions, and set our minds on things above, where our life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2)?  Do we in word and in deed, in thought and in attitude, proclaim the exaltation of one and only one name – the name of Jesus Christ?

Christ in us, the peace of the Spirit, is the one and only hope of the world.  That good news is not easy to hear and obey.  It threatens all idols and the self-assured dignity of human pride.  Every high and lofty thing naturally resists this truth in one way or another: spiritual strongholds, governments, political parties, big business, corporate media, the ivory tower, the social elite, sometimes even the church itself. But all the high and lofty things – “all the towering mountains and all the high hills” – will be brought low, and “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day”.

Only our God will stand tall, while all the debris of failed earthly aspirations and crushed worldly boasts settles into holes and joins the rest of the guano where all idols belong.   Jesus Christ is LORD, crowned with many crowns, and he alone will be exalted!  In all our living, in all our working, in all our resting, in all our preaching, in all our teaching, in all our believing, in all our suffering, in all our rejoicing, in all our hoping, in all our loving, may Christ the LORD alone be exalted!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fields White Unto Harvest: A Harvest-Home Sermon

Sermon on Psalm 147:1, 7-14; Matthew 13:3-9, 18-30; John 4:34-38; and Revelation 14:14-15.  Delivered 28 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

Year after year, we and our neighbors sow seeds into the soil beneath our feet – an act of faith in the regularities of God's providence in nature, and in his willingness to bless us with enough to survive.   And year after year, by God's blessing, we reap a harvest.  Some years, the harvest is sparse.  Other years, the harvest is abundant.  So far as I've heard, this year is quite fine: a good harvest, a satisfying harvest, a harvest worth celebrating.   So as we celebrate the Harvest Home, we thank the Lord our God for the fruitfulness of our labor, and for the practical wisdom that comes from his Wisdom, Jesus Christ, and for the Holy Spirit who always bears righteous fruit whenever he's sown in the human heart.

The Old Testament knows of various harvest festivals – some for the grain harvest earlier in the year, some (like the Feast of Tabernacles) for the other harvests later in the year.   Leviticus 23 outlines all of them, and in speaking of the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as Shavuot or Pentecost, God reminds the Israelites to take extra care not to divorce the joys of harvest from the urgency of love. The farmers were to leave the edges of their crops unharvested and forget all about the dropped portions, so that those without farmland could come to glean.  A portion of every field was reserved for the needy, and Deuteronomy 14 shows us that one of the three Old Testament tithes was specifically to replenish the town food bank for the sake of those very same disadvantaged groups.

Today, we celebrate the Harvest Home, one of our modern harvest festivals alongside Thanksgiving.  The same spirit of Leviticus and Deuteronomy is alive and well here at Pequea, amen?  We know that joy and love go together in the harvest. We know that God doesn't bless us just for our own selves.   He blesses us to bless others.   And from the bounty that God gives us, we find ways to pour more blessings to those in need, through cooperation with ministries like Jars of Hope Food Pantry.  Today we celebrate!   Today we rejoice!  Today is Harvest Home, and we honor God as the Lord of the Harvest, the God of grace – and great is his faithfulness.  Whenever the Bible speaks of the harvesting of crops, this perspective – uniting gratitude and grace – is abundantly clear.

But the Holy Scripture speaks also of another type of harvest, one not administered by mortal hands.  We see it in the Parable of the Weeds, for which the Parable of the Soils sets the stage.   The good news of Christ Jesus is the seed for kingdom wheat – but will it find receptive ground?  Will it find soil too stony to grant it entry at all, or soil so shallow it cannot resist the trials of the heat of life, or soil too preoccupied with the thorns and thistles of worldly prosperity?   Or will it find soil devoted alone to it, soil deep and rich and fertile for the kingdom's growth?   Only then will it bear fruit – thirty times, sixty times, a hundred times over, a yield fit for the kingdom of God.  What has it found in your heart?  In your neighbor's heart, in your brother's and sister's heart, in your wife's or your husband's heart, in your son's and your daughter's heart?  Do their hearts need plowing, fertilizing, and weeding as the gospel-seed is scattered anew?  Take heart: the Spirit is at work in mighty and mightily surprising ways, and the prayers of God's saints here may avail much.  Here, in this story, the evangelistic ministry is planting the gospel seed, and the discipling ministry of preaching and teaching and loving is tending mercifully to the crop – but as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, even in the best soil and under the best farmers' and gardeners' care, all praise and thanks for the growth goes to God alone.

But the Parable of the Weeds – now there's a new complication.  Before, in the Parable of the Soils, the thorny weeds were a pre-existing condition, afflicting the growth of the kingdom within each heart.  Here, the weed is of a different sort: a counterfeit and competitor within the community, within the church.   False wheat.  Poison darnel, the infamous 'tare'.   Looks almost just like the wheat, until the wheat and darnel ripen and make manifest what they each truly are.  In this age, the kingdom-field grows both: true wheat, the sincere believers, and false wheat, growing in the same place, going to the same building, putting food on the table at the same potlucks, listening and teaching in the same classes – but grown, not from gospel-seed, but from another kind.

Are there tares in this sanctuary right now?  Are there tares on our membership rolls?  I don't know.  I hope not, I pray not, but I don't know.  To a great extent, I can't know; if I minister seventy years here, I still may never know, at least not perfectly – that's the point.  The wheat and the tares grow side by side until they ripen and make manifest what they each truly are – “by their fruits, ye shall know them” – at the time of the harvest, the great Harvest-Home of God.  Did we not just sing, “Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home”?  At the great Harvest-Home of God, the Judgment of the Last Day, the tares, which proved to not belong to the gospel-seed, receive judgment in the Lord's fire; but the wheat, the true and fruitful wheat, find salvation in the Lord's barn, a mighty refuge in troubled times.

This salvation here is the resurrection to glory, a resurrection of which Jesus Christ is the firstfruits, presented holy to God, as Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 15:20: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, and as it continues, those who belong to him will be made alive when he comes, and then he will destroy all dominion and authority and power that sets itself up against the kingdom of our God – for the tares and their devilish sower shall be no more.   And on that Day, Christ is not just the firstfruits – no, he holds also the sickle, the sharp sickle to lead the reaping of judgment, either for destruction or for salvation.  How near is that Day?  How near is the Great Harvest of Heaven and Earth?  It could be noon today.  It could be next Friday.   It could be next year.   It could be in 2020, or 2040, or yet a thousand years hence.  We don't know that any more than we can pick out a tare from wheat on sight.

But until that day, the Bible speaks of one more harvest.  The great Harvest to come yields final salvation through resurrection and glorification, but the harvest before us now is the evangelistic harvest, which yields initial salvation to be confirmed later in the Judgment-Harvest.   Jesus himself urges us to look at the fields around us.  Look at the white fields of White Horse!   Look at the fields of Gap, of Intercourse, of Blue Ball, of New Holland, of Gordonville, of Honey Brook, of all the land (named and unnamed) around us!   God has been at work in this land, in this township, in this county.  God is no absentee!  He is present, he is vibrant, he is preparing these fields for harvest – so much so that the workers are too few.  There's more harvesting to be done than harvesters actively doing it!   So, says Jesus, pray that the Lord of the Harvest would send more workers for the harvest.  We are those workers, we are called!  Are we harvesting?  Do we see, do we behold the ripeness of the fields around us?

In this season, we celebrate with thanksgiving as we and our neighbors harvest the crops of their fields, sown by human hand, tended by human hand, but grown and blessed by God.  We have much to be thankful for.  But as we harvest the crops of our fields, or as we see the large combines at work, or as we see the crop acreage shrink and shrink as the corn and tobacco come in sector by sector, don't leave your thoughts at a mere earthly level.  These times were appointed for more than that.  Think also of the work set before us – not merely to bring in the crops, but to bring the lost and ready, once they're ripe, to Jesus: a “crop of eternal life”.   The harvest is here, there's reaping to be done, so let's go forth and gather, bringing in the sheaves of souls for the High-Priestly Son to wave before God the Father on high.  And the Harvest-Home of God is coming – maybe far, but maybe near, and always nearby.

Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home;
Gather thou thy people in, / free from sorrow, free from sin;
There, forever purified, / in thy presence to abide:
Come, with all thine angels, come, / raise the glorious harvest home. Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Red as Crimson, White as Snow: A Sermon on Isaiah 1

Sermon on Isaiah 1 (specifically, Isaiah 1:1-3, 11-12, 15-18, 25-27); Hebrews 9:11-14.  Delivered 7 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The first installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

Sometimes, I've wondered what it would be like to live in the world of the Old Testament prophets, or even to be one of those prophets.  When you picture a prophet in Old Testament times, what images go through your head?  For me, I often think of a John-the-Baptist type of figure: someone hairy, wild, unwashed, untamed.  Dressed in strange clothes, saying strange words, doing strange things.  Spending months in the deserts, coming back to scream fire-and-brimstone in the streets to a people unwilling to listen.  Always coming from the outside, from the fields or the hills, called to criticize the constant wrongdoing of the kings and queens, the city-dwellers, the large landowners.  Hated, disliked men that the 'respectable' worldly people wanted to avoid.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were like that.  But Isaiah didn't quite fit that mold.  The ancient rabbis had a tradition that his father Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah – and if that's true, then Isaiah was King Uzziah's cousin, and an elder relative of the next three kings during whose reigns Isaiah ministered.  The first twenty years of Isaiah's ministry in Judah overlapped with Hosea's ministry in Israel, and Micah's forty-year ministry all took place while Isaiah was still at work.  But while Micah was from the little country village of Moresheth-Gath, Isaiah lived in the capital city, in the palace, in the halls of power – the prophet-chaplain to the king's court.  Second Chronicles 36:22 suggests that Isaiah may have served as an official royal historian and scribe.

Isaiah stands among the other prophets as proof that God doesn't call just one kind of person.  He calls both the 'simple' and the educated; he calls both the poor and the rich; he calls both the country-folk and the city-slickers; and he uses both the young'uns and the elders.  The Old Testament prophets remind us of Jesus' mixed choices of apostles – both a handful of simple fishermen and a trained scribe; both a former tax-collector and a former terrorist; both country-dwellers and, eventually, a man trained in Jerusalem in the leading rabbinic 'seminary' of his times.  The gospel is preached by all sorts, because the gospel is for all sorts, and it stretches people of every personality and opinion to be open to the parts that are bigger than them, bigger than us.  We most fully embody the gospel when we work together as a diverse church – not all brain, not all heart, not all hands, not all ear or eye or mouth, but a whole body filled with all its functions, all Christ's gifts and graces.

The same is true in the prophets who ministered under the Old Covenant and foreshadowed the New.  And although each of those prophets has a message that, in ways we may never expect, points forward to the gospel, Isaiah is in a way the king of them all.  The Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called "the Fifth Gospel".  The church father Jerome called Isaiah "more of an Evangelist than a Prophet".  There's a reason the New Testament writers loved to quote and reference Isaiah when they preached.  Many prophets foreshadowed Jesus in one respect or another, but Isaiah's preaching is saturated in Jesus from angle after angle.  The first five chapters serve as an introduction to most or all of the themes of the whole book of Isaiah – and what a set of themes they are!

Here, Isaiah paints a sketch – small compared to the grand masterpieces drawn cosmically large later in his collection of oracles and visions – of a rebellious Judah, a nation gone wrong.  The chosen people of God have a collective bout of amnesia as to where they came from.  They became a nation by the grace of God, who rescued them from Egypt, who tended them in the desert, who raised them in the Holy Land as his own children – but now the chosen nation as a whole, God's own children, are too idol-frenzied to even remember which God is really theirs.

In our day, it's easy to point the finger at a secularized America outside our walls and say, "You were a nation appointed by God, who gave you prosperity in the New World, who shepherded you through the Revolution, who safeguarded your 'unalienable rights', who set you free to be a light to the nations, who made you strong and victorious over all the nations of the earth – but now you, you out there, have forgotten God."  Some of this is true, both the good and the bad, but we must not forget who really are the 'nation whose God is the Lord' - that is, the church – and who really is the Light to the Nations, and who really rules a victorious kingdom over all the nations – that is, Jesus Christ.

But more than that, pointing fingers of blame is easy, with our wrists and elbows straight.  It's safe when they only point away.  But that isn't the good news of Jesus; it's the bad news of the Pharisees.  When fingers are pointed, gospel humility means that wrists and elbows always start bent – so that the finger points first at ourselves, acknowledging the planks in our eyes before we speak a word about the sawdust in anyone else's.

America has been blessed, truly and greatly and beautifully blessed, but the church has been spiritually chosen.  In the church – not just this congregation, but the church, the whole church - do we remember the grace of God, who rescued us from the 'Egypt' of our sins, who tends us in our present roaming through this worldly wilderness, and who made us his own children and will reveal us as such when he raises us from the dead in the Holy Land of the whole new creation?  Or do our modern idols – our work, our leisure, our pleasure, our money, our success, our social status, our independence, our privacy, our personal opinions – crowd out the God of grace?

Isaiah has those very concerns.  The ox knows who owns it, and the donkey knows who manages it, but does the church know the God who adopted his children?  Through Isaiah, God poses a biting challenge.  It's easy, in a so-called Christian land, to let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship.  We might assume that "going to church" is just one part of life, a compartment all its own, unrelated to how we treat our neighbors, our families, our bosses, our employees.

Judah had the same problem.  That's why God had to remind her that her whole multitude of sacrifices were pointless if they came from a divided, compartmentalized heart.  It isn't in the mere physical blood of sacrificial bulls and lambs and goats that God was pleased; it was in the heart of repentance and justice and faithful love that those sacrifices were supposed to reflect.  The bloody sacrifices were just the outward vessel, a symbol of their inner meaning – but without a wholesale commitment to God and to righteousness, they rang hollow, because they were hollow.  Outward piety became just perfunctory.  Today, we lift up a sacrifice of praise, and make ourselves living sacrifices – but if our heart is divided, if we compartmentalize godliness to an hour or two on Sunday mornings, then our words and our lives are also hollow.  And if we run to and fro with hollow lives, then all our worship is just "trampling God's courts".

But God offered Judah a radical and reasonable offer – reasonable, because God stoops to dialogue with his wayward people, to help them think clearly and rightly so that their lives can be shaped by the Divine Reason who the Gospel of John tells us was with God in the beginning, and whom we know as Jesus Christ.  But the offer is also radical, because it is an invitation to repentance.  And repentance is a radical thing.  For people as far astray as Judah was then, it was no less than an about-face, a trade of all that they actually were for all that they were supposed to be.

God called Judah – and he calls us today, when we sin – to "stop doing wrong" and instead "learn to do right".  We should minister in justice to a needy world around us, defending the oppressed, all those pushed to the margins by the systems of society.  Isaiah's words point forward to the true washing from sin, and the true righteousness of God: Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the one who truly "settles the matter".  Our sins were like scarlet, they were red as crimson – bold, unseemly, visible to God and others.  They were vivid stains, blots on our lives.  But through Jesus, God fought our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness.  Here in Christ, God is fully pleased: all the many bulls and lambs and goats give way to the one Son of God, the Wisdom of God, who makes his people understand.

Christ Jesus purges all our dross, everything unworthy in us – the process of sanctification, making us holy.  Again and again, he restores his church from its confused and wayward and distracted state.  He calls us back to repentance, back to holiness, back to revival.  The idols fall, and the church stands upon its one foundation: Jesus Christ, her Lord.  The church stands as Zion, the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, pointing forward to when she is fully unveiled as the New Jerusalem, dressed as a spotless bride for her Divine Bridegroom, eager with intense longing for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus.  We can repent – we must repent – and turn back to him.  We must remember the grace of God, and that we did not earn it through our lifestyle or our worship.  God offers his costly grace to all, though not all receive it.  He offers his grace to adulterers like David, to murderers like Moses, to cowards like Simon Peter, to persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, to terrorists like Simon the Zealot and like the two convicted terrorists between whom our Savior died – and, yes, even to us.  All equally, thoroughly, desperately in need of Jesus.

But this grace of God did not leave them as adulterers, murderers, cowards, persecutors, or terrorists.  No, no, it sought and found them where they were and led them out of their sinful pasts into the hope of glory.  And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words.  This grace lays claim to all of these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.  Grace is freely given, grace greater than all our sinful stains – but how?  The hymnwriter Robert Lowry said it best (Gospel Music [1877], no. 7):
What can wash away [our] stain?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make [us] whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
Nothing can for sin atone – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that [we] have done – Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
This is all [our] hope and peace – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all [our] righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes [us] white as snow,
No other fount [we] know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

To the Law and the Testimony!

Sermon on Isaiah 8:16-20; Zechariah 7:9-13; and Acts 17:1-4, 10-12.  Delivered 24 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God given to show us, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, our sinful condition before God.  It likewise shows us the way of salvation and provides the instruction we need to develop spiritually and to walk acceptably before God in the new path of faith.  [...]  These Scriptures, given by Divine inspiration, contain the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein nor can be proved thereby is not to be enjoined on any as an article of faith. (Discipline 142.1.2; 104)
So says the Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church.  And while any brief summary like this always has to oversimplify things, this is what we believe.  What we have in the Bible is absolutely amazing.  Here, in the form of many kinds of literature written over the course of over a thousand years, is a sweeping explanation of the history of the universe, from creation to new creation.  It tells, explains, and advises us as we live through the story of God's holy love for a sinful people in a fallen world, and how God conquers all the principalities and powers that try to woo us away from him – including the corruption in our own hearts.  This story is the Truth, because it climaxes in the One who proved himself to be the Way for wayward sinners, the Truth for a muddled world, and the Life to revive our dryness and our death.  That story told by the Bible defines our reality, whether we humbly accept it or pridefully write our own stories – and so, for Christians, it sets the proper context for our lives.

As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who fully affirmed and praised the scriptures of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets – and showed how they pointed to him, how he was so deeply woven into their fabric at every point – so deeply woven that the Pharisees, for missing him there, might as well have been unfamiliar with the whole thing.  As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who established the New Covenant in his blood and whose earliest followers testified in writing of what he himself had taught them and was still teaching through them in their ministries.  If we are unwilling to let ourselves be shaped by the whole story, then we risk still holding something back from Christ's claim as Lord, his determination to have every inch of us all to himself.  Our beliefs, our attitudes, and our worldview need to be shaped by the Bible, by God's revelation and message, which bears witness to what he has done and how he will bring his good work to completion on the Day that is to come.

In our culture today, we are often surrounded by groups that insist the Bible is to be judged, or at least interpreted, only in terms of their own spiritual experiences or life experiences.  We all know, for instance, of the Mormons, who usually place a premium on 'personal revelation' as effectively superseding whatever the biblical text says – unless it happens to agree with what they already think.  And I've lost track of how many professing Christians, when confronted with something in the Bible that they don't immediately understand or like, I've heard say something like, "Well, so what?  Don't you know that this is 2014?  That may be true for you, but my experience in life says different."  They – and sometimes we – judge the Bible in terms of how well it conforms to their own attitudes, their own personal opinions about God, their own cultural background or desires or ethical preferences or agendas borne from their own experiences.  Contrast this to the attitude of Charles Wesley, who reflected on Isaiah 8:20 in these lyrics (Poetical Works 9:380):
Doctrines, experiences to try,
We to the sacred standard fly,
Assured the Spirit of our Lord
Can never contradict His word:
Whate'er His Spirit speaks in me,
Must with the written word agree;
If not – I cast it all aside,
As Satan's voice, or nature's pride.
Charles Wesley was right to judge all things by the Scriptures – understood rightly and truly, of course.  Sadly, we are also often surrounded by groups and people who insist that the Bible must surely agree with their ideas, and so they – and sometimes we – go hunting around in the Bible for ways to support those ideas, and then ignore or twist the rest.  These groups – like Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance – often insist that they are being faithful to what the Bible means on its own terms.  They – and sometimes we – give great lipservice to the authority of the Bible, and if my friendship with a number of Jehovah's Witnesses has taught me anything, it's that they believe themselves to sincerely mean it.  But still the agenda is that of their pet theology, working through a smattering of out-of-context verses and a modern mindset, rather than the authentic 'agenda' of God as he inspired the biblical writers.

God calls us to reject both of these approaches, although even the most sincere and dedicated Christians often stumble into forms of both from time to time.  God calls us to first read the Bible responsibly – and then to take him at his word.  This means using our heads and our hearts, and learning what we can about the way the scriptures fit together and respond to their original settings and now, through that, ours; and it means reading the Bible together, bringing all our gifts and graces to the table.  John Wesley once wrote (Works [1812] 12:230, 233):
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to a heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  [...]  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
Amen and amen!  If I had to quibble with any of it, I'd clarify that 'literal' here should cover all the different ways the Bible communicates in styles of literature – some of which are relatively straightforward narrative, and some of which aren't.  But even Wesley is very clear: we must stick to the clear meaning of the text, as clarified and taken in connection with the context – the context of the passage, of the book, of the time and place and culture where it was written, and of the Bible as a whole.  And once we do that, and once we take into account how it might speak from that setting to our sometimes-the-same, sometimes-different world today, what is equally clear is this: we must "keep close" to it, we must test all things by it, we must rely on it as the word of our God, to be trusted faithfully and obeyed diligently, just as the Berean Jews did in Acts 17 in testing even a true apostle of Jesus Christ against it.

Rather than turn aside to other authorities, we do celebrate all truth that anyone can teach us – whether scientific, philosophical, religious, historical, ethical, cultural, or whatever – but we recognize it in the light of the Bible as properly understood in context by the living witness of the whole Christian church and through the devoted and heartfelt study that marks the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is the standard, and we are called to cling to it, unlike the sinful people of Zechariah 7 who stubbornly refused to heed the Law or the Prophets – both of which were given by God to instruct them – and to instruct us, alongside their fulfillment in the New Covenant scriptures.

As Isaiah 8 shows us, we aren't to run aside after mediums, psychics, fortune-tellers, horoscope-mongers, spiritualists, gurus, or any other false God-alternative; we are called to stick to God's word of instruction, God's commandments, God's design for human flourishing, and God's testimony to what he has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the whole Body united to their living Head by the bonds of the Spirit he has poured in our hearts.  Thanks be to God for entrusting his sacred word to his people, and for giving us the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can read it together and put these words into practice.