Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Fallen, Fallen is Babylon": A Sermon on Isaiah 13, 14, and 21

Sermon on Isaiah 13-14, 21 (13:1-3, 10-11, 19-21; 14:1-5, 9-10, 12-16; 21:1-2, 9-10); 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; and Revelation 18:1-6.  Delivered 18 January 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The ninth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, Isaiah 8b-9, and Isaiah 10-12.

On the heels of tackling the Assyrian crisis and urging Judah to look to God in “trust and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2), Isaiah opens eleven chapters of Oracles Against the Nations. They begin with Babylon, sitting at the eastern end of the civilized world as the Israelites would have known it; and the oracles end with Tyre, sitting toward the west. Isaiah talks about Babylon and its fall, but we can see that he's speaking of more than just a city or an empire. Even during the days of Isaiah's early ministry in the eighth century BC, the city of Babylon was already a major center of world culture, and it represents the cultural dimensions of pointless human self-glory. Babylon signifies the cultural domination of sinful paganism, of prideful human culture set up in opposition to the kingdom of God. In our modern Western world, it often manifests in the life that we call 'secular', or worldly – though the religious impulse of the human heart won't be quelled so easily. Worship is hardwired into our souls, and if we don't direct it toward God, we'll find a distorted substitute. That's the story of Babylon. But Babylon is not new; it is as old as sin, and it's touched every time in history, from the age of Isaiah to the time of Rome to the Founding Fathers and on down.

The city of Babylon, in Isaiah's day, was the major exporter of cultural goods. Everyone admired how refined and sophisticated the Babylonians were. In our day, the United States of America is the greatest global exporter of cultural goods – especially the culture epitomized by Hollywood, by media outlets, by our corporations. I remember visiting a remote Kenyan village a couple years ago, up in the mountains, and spending some time with a few of the young men – and they started talking about a few of their favorite American films! And in the Kenyan cities, there isn't a place you can go, even in the most impoverished slums, where you won't find Coca-Cola for sale. We are the greatest exporter of cultural goods around the world, just as we look to European nations as the standard of refinement and sophistication – think Downton Abbey, think French cuisine and art, think German cars. Aren't America and Europe the “jewel of kingdoms” now (Isaiah 13:19), in a way?

But given our heritage as a supposedly “Christian nation” – something that some of us stress over and over – it can cause some problems. People around the world who don't share our faith look at our media output – at our movies, at our celebrity culture, at our news, at our sensationalistic focus on the outlandish and extreme – and think that this is the fruit of the gospel. And so they get the wrong idea – the idea that Christianity means selfishness, exploitation, violence, lust, immorality. That's part of the driving force of the resistance to Christianity in the Middle East – and what kind of witness is this? The 'culture' we export around the world is dominated, not by the values of the church, not by the values of the gospel, but by the values of elite media-producers, of opportunistic politicians, of unscrupulous corporations, of aggressively secular academic institutions. They all may applaud compromised churches, but in general they look at most of the nation as “flyover country” where people bitterly cling to guns and religion and prejudice; they deem a gospel of faith and holiness to be “unsophisticated”, “superstition”, “bigotry”. But Paul writes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18) – and make no mistake, Babylon is perishing.

The culture-makers of Babylon sneer at the countryside, at the ways of life cherished in rural America. That's not where the action is, it's not where the real 'thinking' happens, they say. It's a place to be escaped. And the culture-makers of Babylon sneer at the inner-city as doomed to stay stuck in its cycles of violence and poverty. But the church, in its purity, doesn't see as Babylon sees. No, we know that life outside of urban centers isn't a wasted life in a wasteland. We're here to tend the garden of God, “to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And the church knows that life in the dark belly of the city isn't wasted: as Jeremiah wrote, we actively “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And our hope looks forward to New Jerusalem, a life where the garden and the city will be one perfected union.

The culture-makers of Babylon disregard the church's witness. Babylon thinks it's hopelessly outdated to actually ask the questions we ask and offer the hope we offer. At its kindest, Babylon ignores us as undeserving of comment. More often, Babylon mocks us as undeserving of basic respect or serious consideration. In recent years, we've increasingly seen Babylon start demanding that Christians must choose: we can have our convictions, or we can have a place in society, but not both. I've lost track of how many times I've heard people remark callously about Christian workers facing a struggle of conscience: “Well, don't work in that field, then.” And we've all heard the news about Atlanta's fire chief, who lost his job – for what? For discriminating against anyone? No, he was cleared. What then? For writing a book just stating what Christians believe about sexual ethics.

Babylon's message is: “Submit to our sacred dogmas, or else make yourselves scarce.” And they ask, “You don't want to be on the wrong side of history, do you?” But the church of the martyrs is always on the “wrong side of history” – Revelation 17 history, that is, the large but limited scope of history that falls under Babylon's sway. But just the same, the faithful witness of the church is on the right side of Revelation 18 history – the unlimited scope of history that looks to Babylon's fall and beyond, onward toward the New Jerusalem. If we're following Jesus and thinking with his mindset in accordance with what scripture teaches – for, after all, “we have the mind of Christ”, Paul writes (1 Corinthians 2:16) – then we will stand on the right side of the Lord of History. But Babylon is on the wrong side of history's Lord, even if shortsighted eyes, glimpsing only the fleeting trends of the present, can't see far enough to believe that Babylon could ever totter and topple.

What do we do? We're called to give a persuasive witness – not in arrogance, not in anger, but in open-handed assurance of the gospel. We're called to answer accusations against us “with gentleness and respect”, carefully explaining our faith and its good sense in both words and actions so that “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter3:15-16). And we're called to “always be ready” to do this – to be prepared. So do we intentionally set ourselves to learning so that we'll be equipped to give a serious answer suited for the time, place, and people at hand? Do we intentionally set ourselves to holy living so that we won't be caught with a gap between our preaching and our practice?

Babylon is all about the pridefulness of human works. It's all about what we can attain or accomplish – in John Lennon's words, “No hell below us; / above us, only sky.” It's the impulse we see at Babylon's foundation: if we all work together in “the brotherhood of man”, if we just get rid of everything of value, then we can achieve a god-like task. That's the message of Lennon's enduring song. That's the heartbeat of the Tower of Babel: if we all work together and screen out anything higher, we can reach that sky, and we can master the world (Genesis 11:1-9). That's the message of Isaiah 14. The Latin translation may have rendered 'Daystar' as 'Lucifer', but viewed as a whole, it isn't about Satan; it's about human pride. Isaiah's heavenly images are borrowed from Canaanite stories of a second-class god trying to dethrone the chief god. Shocking enough – but Isaiah imagines a human figure having the gumption to try pulling that off! And that madness is what Babylon means: the human pride of trying, in effect, to replace God with our achievements – a project doomed to be exposed as a fraud, because we aren't the gods we so often pretend we are.

It can be easy to fall into these kinds of traps in the workplace, imagining that the value of a life is how high we climb the corporate ladder, or how much we get done, or how much bacon we bring home. But even in our spiritual lives, we may sometimes try to exalt ourselves by our works. We may fall into the trap of thinking that our own virtue will boost us up to heaven's heights, that we can find favor in God's eyes through being good enough that he'll just have to grant us a pass through the pearly gates. But that project fails. In the words of one of my favorite songs (Josh Garrels, "Cynicism"):

Self-promotion's how we function in this culture;
We fight for the spotlight with a peacock's pride,
And then condescend to all the lesser men
From thrones we made of paid accolades and a compromise.
There is no power that a man can have
Unless it's given to him from above;
Our ladders of success descend to hell:
Don't sell your soul and lose your one true love.

But the church's real message is a message, not of human achievement to press higher and higher, but of bowing downward in faith before the “High and Exalted One” who says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). Our closeness with God doesn't come from building a tower of human works; that's structurally unsound without the Cornerstone and Foundation that is Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:20), and our works are too weak to support the weight of our load of sin. No, real intimacy with God comes through repentance and humble faith. “I live by faith in the Son of God”, Paul said (Galatians 2:20). Do we define ourselves by what we do? Do we take pride in our accomplishments, and judge people by what they 'make' of themselves? Or do we live by humble faith, from which holy living follows?

Babylon is all about questing for a self-made legacy – at the Tower of Babel, they sought to build a name for themselves to avoid serving God's mission (Genesis 11:4). It wasn't about fulfilling the reason why they were made, the objective purpose that God had for them, which was to spread through all the earth and make it a holy place. The Babel project was about ignoring their objective purpose and instead making a subjective purpose for themselves, to be “self-made men”. In our world, we admire these “self-made men”, people who didn't 'need' any help, or so we say, in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But that's Babylonian thinking. And we try to give ourselves a legacy. We want to live forever on our terms. How much of culture is a result of people trying to live on through their work? How many broken dreams result from trying to live on through our children, to live vicariously through their lives? But the Bible tells another story. At Babel, they achieved only infamy – and who wants the name 'Nimrod' as a legacy, anyway (Genesis 10:8-9)? But God called to Abram, “I will make your name great” (Genesis 12:2). Not Abram making his own name great, giving himself a legacy. No, God would give him a legacy, because God defines his purpose. And that purpose was to turn Abram into Abraham, a vessel for God's blessings to sprinkle the whole earth (Genesis 12:3). To which story do we belong: Babel or Abraham? Am I trying to 'make a name for myself', or is my focus on faithfully receiving whatever God in his grace offers and then blessing others?

Babylon as a culture exalts the individual's act of will to choose a God-substitute and to remake the message to our own liking. Our world is rife with personally tailored 'gospels' cut down to exclude uncomfortable parts or enhanced with alien doctrines; our world is rife with idols under many guises. As a culture, we like to found our own private religions, custom-built for all our whims and wants. Don't like the God of the Old Testament? Go ahead, ignore it all from Genesis to Malachi. Don't like what the Bible says about caring for the creation? Go ahead, snip that out, and forget the hope of resurrection too, and replace it with an escapist heaven that leaves the earth behind for good. Don't like what the Bible says about marriage and sexuality? Sneer at it and offer some platitudes on loving everyone instead. Don't like the verse that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we are saved (Acts 4:12)? Time to ignore Jacob's ladder and build a tower to reach to heaven – as if that hasn't been tried before.

But the Bible calls us to be humble, and to partner with God, and to always put his will before our own agendas. Too often, we put our will before his. He calls us to “not give up meeting together” as Christians, “as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25), and to bear gently with one another's faults in love and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13). God wills our unity, that we may be one people just as the Father and Son are one God (John 17:22); but our fallen will is anonymity, and self-indulgence, and grudge-bearing. God calls us to live a holy life and to put aside pride; but our fallen will is to endorse sin and think it's no one's business to “tell me what to do”. He calls us to love the downtrodden (Deuteronomy 10:19); but our fallen will is to judge them as lazy and to moan about the inconvenience of getting our hands dirty. God calls us to worship him faithfully and go out to train all people in following Christ (Matthew 28:19; Romans 12:1); but in our sinful pride, we'd rather cling to our agendas of musical style, of building architecture, of making Christianity a once-a-week or private thing. How else can we explain leaving a fellowship of believers over something as petty as the shape of the building, or the color of the carpet, or the style of the music? God calls us to put a united mission first, and to submit our own personal tastes to the world's need for the Savior we know. Not that we're saved because we meet together or because we serve the poor or because we make disciples, but we're saved to meet together and to serve the poor and to make disciples, and these all help us grow into a holy human character that God, out of his love for us, desires us to have.

Some, reading about the fall of Babylon, suggest we should “come out from Babylon” (Revelation 18:4) by retreating out from the world, that we should have a stance of condemning the world and the evils of our culture, that we should insulate ourselves and our children away from any contact with the world. Is that how we should respond to Babylon? No, for Christ said he didn't come to condemn this Babylonian world; he came to redeem it from the weight of its sin and rebellion and error (John 3:17). Just as the Israelites gathered gold and silver from the Egyptians in leaving that pagan power behind (Exodus 3:22; 12:35-36), so Christians thousands of years ago talked about their relationship to Greek philosophers as “spoiling the Egyptians”, plundering the riches of what can be salvaged from their culture.

All truth is God's truth; and even the most corrupted thing bears the imprint, however distant, of a reality God created. Every good argument in philosophy, every true insight, every scientific discovery, every beautiful turn of phrase in literature, every creative use of cinema – it doesn't belong ultimately to Babylon, it belongs in the service of the kingdom of God. In Acts 17, preaching in Athens, Paul gladly took anything good in the Greek poets to point to Christian truth; and the New Testament is saturated in transformed Greek and Roman ideas, used to communicate the gospel. If we deny the scriptural truth that we are genuinely “in the world”, we may miss the chance to seize on tools God has given us for the work set before us. We are to judge them by the light of the gospel, and we are to avoid melting them down and making a golden calf out of them (cf. Exodus 32:1-4), but we're called to take them for good purposes.

Too often, parts of the church have resisted God's truth in God's name; we don't want to follow down that road. And if we refuse to be salt and light – publicly tasted, publicly seen – then our witness suffers. And we aren't just “in the world” as some unfortunate fact; Jesus says, “I have sent them into the world” (John 17:17) – a holy presence with a mission to live out, here in the world. We are not passive; we are active, and the tools of the trade have “divine power to demolish strongholds” that presume to oppose “the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). But neither do we triumph over sin through bad manners and flaring tempers. “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3). We have other ways to answer God's summons and to “rejoice in his triumph” (Isaiah 13:3). It isn't about preserving our rights, it isn't about imposing virtue from the top-down through force of law, it isn't about giving vent to splenetic attacks on the wickedness of the world as though we ourselves were immune. If we do that, then we have not “come out of Babylon” at all; we carry Babylon in our hearts. No, we live differently, and while we appeal to everything good in the culture, we sift it, we test it, and we transform it in light of the gospel, and so “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In testing even things within the church, we need to test them carefully, rejecting anything bad and welcoming the good (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

Centuries ago, the literal city of Babylon did fall – and Isaiah lamented: “I am staggered by what I hear; I am bewildered by what I see” (Isaiah 21:3). The human side of judgment is a tragic thing, because we were made for so much more than our low self-made purposes. But the fall of Babylon as a symbol, as a name for godless culture, still awaits: the final judgment on all sin that hasn't been left at Christ's cross and buried in his tomb. There is hope: to the people of God will be joined those who were once under Babylon's sway, “and Israel” – the global assembly united by faith to Jesus, the True Israelite – “will take possession of the nations” (Isaiah 14:2).

The fall of Babylon is good news for the world – but are we living by faith unto holiness so that it will be good news for us? As Ash Wednesday looms a month away from today, as we prepare ourselves in heart and mind for the self-discipline of Lent, that's the question that stands over us. Are we vigilant watchmen and winsome witnesses? Or are we in a “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, as Luther charged against the Roman Church in his day? More than just lamenting what we see around us, we need to scrutinize where we – as a denomination, as a church, as families, as citizens, and as souls standing before God – might have compromised in teaching, in behavior, or in attitude with ungodly cultural powers. And we have this assurance: “Whatever bondage the Church may fall into, God will choose her again” (Oswalt 1:313; cf. Isaiah14:1). And so, “resting in his might, lift high his triumph song, / for power, dominion, kingdom, strength to Christ belong!”

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Put On the New Self": An Epiphany Sermon

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 3:1-17; Romans 6:1-4; and Ephesians 4:22-24.  Delivered 4 January 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church on the occasion of Epiphany Sunday and New Year's Communion.

Although we're still technically in Christmastide, this Sunday we look forward a couple of days to a feast-day called Epiphany. What's Epiphany? In Eastern Christianity, it mainly celebrates the day that Jesus was visibly 'manifested' as God's Son by the Father and the Holy Spirit confirming it at his baptism. Throughout history, many believers chose to be baptized on Epiphany – it fits, to be baptized to celebrate Jesus' baptism. So what is baptism all about? What on earth is this strange prophet, John the Baptist, doing out in no-man's land, passionately preaching with his locust-and-honey breath and his rough camel-hair outfit (Matthew 3:4-5)?

For John, baptism was all about cleansing and repentance. In those days, Gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith would go through a baptism ritual as a once-and-for-all act of turning from everything in their old way of life and turning instead to God. John treats even native-born Jews as needing the same thing just as much – not a little scrub here and there, but a wholesale spiritual overhaul from the ground up. Already for John, baptism meant turning over a new leaf – no, not just a new leaf, a new tree! Epiphany is perfectly placed so near to the start of our year, the switching of an ink-filled calendar for a new one fresh from its wrappings. At the start of the year, our thoughts are so often turned to new leaves and new starts. Over a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton remarked:

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year's resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Show of hands: Who made any New Year's resolutions this year? Who made a New Year's resolution sometime in the past five years? Okay, now another show of hands: Who here has both made some resolutions and also kept every single resolution you've made? A couple days ago, I went back and looked at the resolutions I jotted down at the end of 2013. I made five resolutions for 2014. I'll be honest: I flunked pretty miserably on four of the five – all but a pledge to read at least 65 books. I don't think I'm alone in saying that the first few weeks of January are a yearly reminder of how often the flesh is weak, even on those rare occasions where the spirit really was willing (cf. Mark 14:38). Turning from old ways is hard. Flipping over a new leaf is hard, to say nothing of growing a new tree. Repentance is hard, and our repentance is so often imperfect. It can be easy to give up in despair.

On Epiphany, we remember that strange day long ago when John's cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, made his way out to the banks of the River Jordan. John knew that Jesus was the Coming One, the Messiah, the one mightier than he himself, whose sandals John humbly admitted he was unworthy to untie (Matthew 3:11). John was perplexed: “Jesus, I don't understand. You're the Messiah! I'm just a messenger, the voice crying in the wilderness. I'm just a man with a call. I have my own burden of sins to carry. You're the Fount of All Purity! I only baptize with water; you baptize with the Spirit and fire! What are you doing here? How can I baptize you? I need to be baptized by you!” (cf. Matthew 3:12-14).

In a lot of that, John was spot-on. But Jesus still came – why? “It is proper for us to do this” – why? “To fulfill all righteousness”, he says (Matthew 3:15). He had no need, in himself. But we have great need. He alone had no sins to repent – but we do. He alone had no need to turn over a new leaf – but we do. He went to the river just like he went to the cross: to fulfill God's plan. He went to walk perfectly in the steps that Israel walked so clumsily. Just as old-covenant Israel was “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”, as Paul says (1 Corinthians 10:2), Jesus made his way through the waters and into the wilderness to withstand the temptations that Israel failed (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).

Jesus went to fulfill God's plan; he went to do right all that Israel did wrong, so that a new Israel could be raised out of the water with him to walk wisely in the Spirit. And so Jesus went down to the water, down to be baptized – for us. He had no sin of his own to repent, just as he had no sin of his own to die for. No, the sinless one died for our sin – and the sinless one, to fulfill all righteousness, was baptized in repentance of our sin.

Year after year, we start with the best of intentions – and then find the messiness of our lives building up anyway, like a Tower of Babel we just can't topple. Year after year, we crash face-first into the depressing reality of our own weakness. Our repentance is imperfect and incomplete. Do we need to stress? Do we need to despair? No – because Jesus made a perfect repentance of our sin in his baptism – for us. And his holiness – a holiness he graciously showers onto us – was approved by the Father, who sent the Spirit to appear visibly upon the Son like a dove: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest upon him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). And to silence all doubt, let the matter “be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15) – the certain voice of Scripture, and then the voice of a prophet crying out in the wilderness, and finally a fresh voice like thunder out of the wild blue yonder:

Here is my Servant, whom I uphold; my Chosen One, in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, nor raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching, the islands will put their hope. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

Or, as Matthew writes it: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God was well-pleased with him in his baptism. God was well-pleased with him as he fed the five thousand. God was well-pleased with him as he stood on a mountainside and said, “Blessed are the meek”. God was well-pleased with him when he caused a holy ruckus in the temple courts. And yes, God was well-pleased with him as, battered and brusied, he dragged a heavy wooden cross up the hill to Calvary.

For us, baptism means cleansing, and baptism means repentance – because baptism means death. We don't often think about it, but to be baptized is to drown and die and pass away. What drowns is the spiritual parasite of sin infesting our hearts; we kill it in Christ's death and bury it beneath the water in Christ's tomb (Romans6:2-3). For we “put off the old self” (Ephesians 4:22) that was “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).

Putting off the old self that drowns, what comes up? The God-given new self: the presence of Christ being conceived and gestating and maturing within us (Galatians 4:19). Putting on this new self, we're right to start on that “strange assumption” that we've never existed before. And we walk freely into new life in the Spirit. What kind of new self? One “created to be like God”, a restored bearer of his image, cut and stamped back into that image – not in the innocent immaturity of Eden, but meant to live in the maturity of the kingdom of God. “Created to be like God” how? “Like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).

But here's the problem. We accumulate so much clutter throughout the year. We're made, redeemed, and reborn for a holy purpose. But when we stumble and stumble again down into the mud, we can't always see that holy purpose through all the junk and muck. We're freed from sin's slavery, but maybe it seems like we just can't let sin rest in the tomb where Jesus locked it. If you belong to Christ, then your old self of sin with all its bad habits is dead and buried! ...But sometimes, from the looks of it, we have a bit of a zombie problem.

What do we do? Do we just give up? Do we run back to our chains? “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? … We should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:2, 6b-7)! “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12). What do we do? We go back to our baptism. I don't mean physically getting into the water again; I don't mean a second baptism. The seal of God is indelible; it can't be repeated – but it can be remembered. No, go back to baptism in your heart. Return to the delivering hands of Jesus Christ, who perfects our feeble repentance and gives us new life. If our trust were in ourselves, we'd be right to despair. We cannot carry the weight of all our sins. But we can be carried. If our trust is in Jesus Christ, then despair is the most unrealistic thing we can do.

We can go back to our baptism. We can go back to that precious new start. We know we aren't without sin – but seeing that is no excuse for “walking in the darkness” (1 John 1:6). What can we do? “If we confess our sins” – admit we've fallen and trust in Christ's help – then “he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins” – there, we're freed from the leash held by our dead sin, which Christ trampled down in his own death – and he will “purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That's our return to new life, to “walk in the light as he is in the light”, so that “we have fellowship with one another”, because “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Our repentance may be imperfect. But it doesn't depend on us. It depends on Jesus. And if it depends on Jesus, then we have a sure hope. Leave sin in its watery grave. When it reaches for you, turn to Jesus. When your repentance isn't enough, rely on Jesus even still – and bid shame and despair goodbye. And so “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

But Epiphany doesn't just remember the baptism of Jesus. In Western Christianity, it also memorializes the visit of the Magi, the wise men from the east (Matthew 2:1). Just as baptism gives us the clean new slate of newborns, so we remember on Epiphany a little child, living under threat from Herod because this little child was the true king – and yet his kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36). Herod and his court didn't even know the Scriptures well enough to know where Jesus would be; the scribes knew, but they didn't follow; only these outsiders, these foreign migrants, acted on what they knew (Matthew 2:2-10).

These wise men brought their gifts to Christ – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all gifts that made perfect sense to bring to a king (Matthew2:11). Gold goes without saying, and frankincense and myrrh both cost a pretty penny at the market. But to bring them, not just to a king, but to God the Son? They all fall short. Any and every human offering to God falls short, especially when they're invariably tainted by our sin. Can we perfect our gifts by repenting? Our repentance is incomplete and imperfect. So our gifts – all our works, all our worship, all our prayers, all our charity – are unworthy of God, on their own. They remain pale tokens – if left on their own.

That's the point of the Incarnation. That's the point of Christmas. The Word of God “became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14). And that sojourn in our midst led him to the cross as “king and God and sacrifice”. He offered himself up to God a sinless sacrifice of infinite worth: the presentation of God's life to God, given as the supreme and defining act of human worship. And by his blood, Jesus purifies every faith-marked life and wraps it up in his own life, presenting the whole package forever before the Father's face. Our gifts are pale tokens – on their own. But they aren't on their own. Christ glorifies them all in a package and presents them to the Father. If you ever feel like you've got nothing to contribute, like anything you can do would be too small – remember that even your smallest deed comes before God transfigured in the light of Jesus.

That's the Grand Gift-Giving that we remember every time we celebrate our perfect thanksgiving meal: the Eucharist, our holy communion, the other beautiful sacrament of our faith alongside baptism. To purify us, Jesus sacrificed his body and blood for us. To sanctify us, Jesus offers his body and blood to us, so that we can share in him, so that we can be fused to him, so that his life-blood can flow through our souls and vivify us with his life, so that “we, through them, may be his true body, redeemed by his blood”. And isn't that just like Jesus? As we remember a day when men came to honor him with gifts, his glory is in giving gifts. His gifts are on the table: the “medicine of immortality”, pointing us forward to when, freed not just from the guilt and power of sin but even from its being, we'll sit down in the kingdom at the wedding supper of the Lamb (Matthew 8:11; Revelation 19:9). In the new year, come back to your new life. Return to your baptism; return to the body and the blood by which he redeemed you; return to God in Jesus Christ. Let us prepare our hearts.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Rod from the Stem of Jesse: An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 10-12

Sermon on Isaiah 10-12 (10:5-7, 12, 15-25, 33-34; 11:1-16; 12:1-6); Luke 4:14-21; Romans 15:7-13.  Delivered 14 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The eighth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, and Isaiah 8b-9.

As we continue our journey through Advent, it's important to remember that the season started, not just as a time of hopeful expectation, but as a time of penitent preparation. In the East, they hold a Nativity Fast that lasts as long as Lent, though not quite as severe. It's punctuated with feast-days for many Old Testament prophets who foresaw the incarnation, the Word of God coming in the fragility of human flesh, a rose ever blooming yet able to be trampled to the ground for our transgressions. The season paved the way for the upcoming Feast of the Epiphany, when many people were baptized to connect with Christ's baptism. In the West, Advent served two purposes: to remember the centuries-long wait for Christ's first coming, and to underscore our real and present centuries-long wait for Christ's second coming. The long wait is all worthwhile, because “the best of all is, God is with us”.

During the days of the Syro-Ephraimite War, there was plenty of room both for penitence and for hope. Time and time again, Isaiah warned Ahaz – and the whole House of David, and the whole nation of Judah – to trust in God, not in Assyria, and to fear neither Assyria nor Ephraim nor Aram-Damascus, nor anyone or anything else. And time and time again, Isaiah prophesied that God would assure them of their safety by giving them a living Sign of his living presence – and this living Sign, a Child to be born, would be the perfect love of God who casts out all our fear (cf. 1 John 4:18).

The nations of Ephraim and Aram-Damascus were doomed to fall – that much was already clear. But, Isaiah warned, the same was true even of mighty Assyria, who would conquer Ephraim and Aram. No doubt some wondered how God could ever use a pagan nation for his purposes. Don't godly goals need a godly tool? But God would use Assyria. Just the same, he would destroy Assyria, because their attitude was the attitude of a conqueror, not of a servant. God can use even the most arrogant pagan power to accomplish his own ends, but being used by God doesn't make one right. Being used by God isn't an endorsement, as it turns out, and Assyria's fate would be Exhibit A. Assyria is only a tool in God's hands, like an axe or a saw (Isaiah 10:15). She claimed to be more, she boasted of being more – and she would be punished (Isaiah 10:16-19).

That's a sobering reminder to all great national powers on the world stage, from America to Russia, from China to Europe, from modern Israel to Iran and the Arab states: We play our roles, but we don't write the script. Just because God has used us in the past, doesn't mean that we're pivotal to his purposes. Just because God has used us in the past, or even blessed us in the past, doesn't mean that we won't be humbled if we exalt ourselves above him or if we confuse our national agendas for his holy Christ-centered mission. That's true of nations and governments, that's true of individuals and groups, that's true of institutions and corporations and cultures. Even mighty Assyria wasn't 'too big to fail'.

But Assyria had forgotten her place. She'd claimed that even her generals were like kings, and that one nation was just the same as another: all dwarfed by her greatness. For Isaiah, Assyria is a prime example of arrogance – but, Isaiah says, her towering trees will be lopped down, her forests will be cleared by fire (Isaiah 10:18-19, 33-34). Yet while the mighty trunks of Assyrian arrogance topple and crash to the earth, Isaiah foresees a small shoot poking its way up out of a humble stump (Isaiah 11:1). It's a perfect illustration of God working, not just in grand displays and in shock-and-awe, but in the gentle growth of new life. Assyria mocked humility, but God revels in it.

That small shoot, that flowering stem, comes from the stump of Jesse – not of mighty royal David, see, but Jesse. Jesse wasn't a king. Jesse was just a man from a small and ordinary clan – but God chose to bring the whole House of David out of this humble stock. And once again, when David's descendants had returned to the simplicity of ordinary and unrecognized life like Jesse's, a new rod would spring up from his stem. He comes like a flower, blooming off of Jesse's lineage through the Virgin Mary. One fourth-century bishop, Ambrose, wrote: “When he blossoms in our land, makes fragrant the field of the soul, and flourishes in his church, we can no longer fear the cold or rain, but only anticipate the day of judgment” (Apology on David 8.43).

And here we have a divine mystery: How can the one who stems from the root himself be the root? For this “Root of Jesse” is both the Root of David and also David's Offspring, as Revelation 22:16 tells us. Jesus embarrassed the Pharisees with a similar question about how David's son could be David's Lord (Mark 12:37; Matthew 22:45; Luke 20:44). And the only answer is that “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14) – that the living presence of the very God who created David and sat David on a throne, then stooped down to be a twig on the tree he himself had planted.

So, Isaiah tells us, building upon the Immanuel sign (Isaiah 7:14-16) and the Prince of Peace sign (Isaiah 9:6-7), that this Rod of Jesse would be a humble king, a perfect king, the giver of peace and hope – and in everything he does, this Messiah, he'll follow God's Spirit. Humility trumps arrogance, because humility is from the Spirit, and all that the Spirit gives, the Son puts into action. Trust trumps fear, because the Spirit impels faith. So when the Messiah comes, Isaiah promises, he'll do everything by means of God's Spirit, and not by arrogant human wisdom.

Instead of faulty decisions, the Spirit of the LORD filling him will be the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge (Isaiah 11:2). And the fearful dread of enemy powers, like Ahaz and sinful Judah had, is replaced by a healthy 'fear of the LORD': “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). This 'beginning of wisdom' delights the Son (Isaiah 11:3): it isn't some cowering in fear, but a healthy awe and reverence for God's all-powerful, fiery love, his hot and holy passion for glorifying his name by breathing new life into us.

And doesn't that sound like Jesus – anointed with God's Spirit to do God's work, and indeed the giver of God's Spirit to us? He himself, reading Isaiah's prophecy about God's Spirit being on God's special Servant, said to the Nazareth synagogue, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The Spirit has anointed Jesus “to proclaim good news to the poor”, to “bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2) – stopping just short of the words, “And the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). How is he anointed? With “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of the knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). And this points forward to Epiphany, when we celebrate the Spirit indeed being seen resting upon Jesus. Everything that the Son does by the Spirit will be for the glory of the Father – it's a picture of perfect trinitarian harmony working itself out in the economy of redemption. Charles Wesley picks it up (Poetical Works 3:141-142):

Glory to God, and peace on earth!
A Branch shall spring from Jesse's line,
Of human yet of heavenly birth,
And filled with all the Spirit divine.

The Spirit of wisdom from above
Shall dwell within his peaceful breast;
On him the Spirit of power and love
And counsel shall forever rest.

The Spirit of godly, filial fear
On him for all mankind shall stay,
And make his senses quick and clear
And guide him in the perfect way.

Shall make him apt to teach and reign
His heavenly mission to fulfill,
Judgment and justice to maintain,
And execute his Father's will....

Yet will he plead the sinner's cause,
The poor and self-condemned release,
Freed by the sufferings of his cross,
And saved by his own righteousness.

Yes, he once came to saved the wicked, freeing us by taking our sufferings upon the cross. And as he came to save the wicked in his First Advent, he will come to finally destroy wickedness in his Second Advent (Isaiah 11:4). And we have the choice before us of life or death: life, if we let him save us by destroying our wicked selves in his own death on the cross; or death, if we cling so tightly to our wickedness that we follow it down and lose our souls. John the Seer, foreseeing the appearance of Christ at his Second Advent, said that “out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15); and Paul, speaking of the Lawless One who would vex God's people in the time to come, said that Jesus would “overthrow him with the breath of his mouth, and destroy him by the splendor of his coming” (2Thessalonians 2:8).

In the meantime, we live between the First Advent and the Second. The reign of Immanuel, the reign of our Prince of Peace, has partly begun, but not fully, not as it will. For Isaiah, both are in the future, and he can slide easily between them and the era in between. What does the kingdom look like? What does it look like when Jesus, the Messiah, “rules the world in truth and grace, / and makes the nations prove / the glories of his righteousness / and wonders of his love”?

For starters, Jesus will reign and judge according to God's Spirit, not according to human estimates. That should speak to us. In our day, we're a divided nation – divided politically, racially, culturally, in so many ways. And it all mainly comes down to the fact that we naturally judge cases on the basis of our own personal experiences, our own tribal sympathies, our own bundle of biases. We see it Ferguson, Missouri; we see it in Staten Island, New York; we see it in virtually every political firestorm, every debate about immigration, about health insurance, about military actions, about interrogation techniques, about oil pipelines, about tax breaks, about just about anything.

Whatever the right way to look at the issues of the day, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but Jesus Christ sees by the Spirit of God. And so “he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). As the Word of the LORD made flesh, he “seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That's how he rules now from heaven above, and that's how he'll rule when he comes again to earth to reign.

In that coming time, the Second Coming of Christ, “Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13). In those days, the division of the kingdom flamed into all-out war; but Isaiah still spoke of a time for bygones to be bygones. Just as our country thinks and acts as a divided nation, though indivisible we proclaim it, so we live in days of a divided church, though Jesus prayed for us to be one holy people just as he and the Father are one holy God (John 17:20-23). We're so prone to factions about things that just don't matter. Now, many issues in the church today sadly revolve around non-negotiable issues of the gospel: basic doctrines of the faith, basic attitudes toward the Bible, basic commitments of holy living. And there, the only remedy for dissent from the generation-to-generation consensus of the church's witness is repentance from unfaithful stewardship of the faith.

But then there are things that just don't rise to the level of 'gospel issues'. And still we divide over them – if not outwardly, at least in our hearts. We divide fellowship over secondary points of theology: predestination and free will, for example, or views of the creation, or approaches to biblical prophecy. We divide over remarkably petty things like our musical tastes, or our preaching styles, or even the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. We even divide into factions around our leaders and figureheads (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). But were you baptized into Martin Luther, anointed with the spirit of John Calvin, fed with the body and blood of the Wesleys? Were Menno Simons or Jacob Albright crucified for your sins? They all have much to teach us, and it's okay to differ about these secondary things, so long as we keep first things first and “love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19). But in that day when the kingdom comes in full, Ephraim and Judah won't be hostile; in that day, the unity that Jesus vouchsafed to his church will be made perfect, when we'll be “brought to complete unity” (John 17:23). So “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Under the Messiah's reign, God will reclaim his lost people, the severed branches of Israel. Isaiah speaks of a remnant of the physical offspring of Jacob's line, a remnant who are spared to return to the Mighty God (Isaiah 10:21) – and we know that the Prince of Peace is truly the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). This remnant won't place their faith in Assyria. They won't place their faith in any idol, only in God; any human government, only the Messiah. Their faith centers only on “the LORD, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20; cf. Isaiah 12:6). And so they'll return to their promised inheritance.

Paul teaches the same thing, as we read (Romans 15:7-13). For the sake of God's mercy to the Nations, many branches have been allowed to wither from the Israelite tree. They broke off when they stumbled in unbelief over the Stone of Stumbling, Jesus Christ (Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:33-34). But these broken-off branches aren't lost. If even the remnant of Israel, the apostles, was such a great channel for God's mercy to the world, how much more the restoration of all the broken branches (Romans 11:12)! Through holy jealousy for the promises of God (Romans 10:19-20; 11:11-14), God is able to graft the broken branches back into God's people, and so all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:24-26). A remnant will return, and the people will be restored.

The rule of Jesus is good news for Jews. And it's good news for Gentiles, too – good news for all the Nations. In the Bible, these foreign nations so often are compared to animals, beasts, who prey on Israel; but Israel, the real humanity, is supposed to rule over them and domesticate them, just like Adam was made to do (Genesis 1:28). In Daniel's visions, remember, it's one like a Son of Man – that is, a human figure, faithful Israel in the person of the Messiah – who gets the authority stripped away from the beastly empires (Daniel 7:1-14). Assyria had roared like a lion and preyed on surrounding peoples (Isaiah 5:29-30), but the time is coming for beasts to be tamed, and even the Assyrian lion will settle down with oxen (Isaiah 11:6-7). As beasts prowl the global landscape, we look forward to the day when the LORD will say, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19:25), when even oppressing nations will be converted and tamed to live together in the worship of the LORD (Isaiah 19:19-25).

The tamed beasts, the Nations, will join in life together with God's people, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) – not just any child, but first and foremost the Child who was born, the Son who was given (Isaiah 9:6), the Child whom Christmas celebrates. And the age-old Serpent can do no more harm (Isaiah 11:8-9; cf. Genesis 3:15), for as Ambrose remarked, “the Word of God became flesh, put his hand into the serpent's den, removed the venom, and took away sin” (Explanation of the Twelve Psalms 37.4). Praise God for the day when “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)! And just as before, Isaiah saw the LORD raising up a banner to call the Nations to attack Israel in judgment (Isaiah 5:26), now the LORD raises up a banner to call the Nations to worship – and that Banner is the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). When the Root of Jesse reigns, all will know the LORD intimately, and he opens himself up as the Well of Salvation who satisfies every thirst (Isaiah 12:3; cf. John 4:13-14; 7:37-39). That will be, when Christ comes again, but the Nations are being called around the Banner now.

A Branch shall in that gospel day
Out of the root of Jesse rise,
Stand as an ensign, and display
The cross in all the Gentiles' eyes.

Thither the Gentile world shall flow,
And hide them in their Saviour's breast,
Rejoice his pardoning love to know,
And holiness his glorious rest.

Then shall the Lord his power display,
His ancient people to retrieve,
Gather the hopeless castaway,
And bid the house of Israel live. (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 3:144)

All these things are in the process of being done. The Nations are being tamed and discipled; the Exiled Remnant is being readied for grafting back in; Christ continues to heal spots of disunity; he gives the water of life freely; and he already rules in perfect justice by the Spirit of God. We live between the Advents, and so we're called to praise God for what he has done at the First Advent and what he will do at the Second. “At all times let us stand firm”, another fourth-century bishop named Athanasius wrote, “but especially now, although many afflictions overtake us and many heretics are furious against us. Let us then, my beloved brothers, celebrate with thanksgiving the holy feast that now draws near to us, 'girding up the loins of our minds', like our Savior, Jesus Christ, of whom it is written, 'Righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins'” (Festal Letter 3, quoting Isaiah 11:5).

Our mission is pretty simple, really: we call the Nations and the Exiles alike to rally around the Banner, the Branch of the LORD (Isaiah 4:2), who works and rules by the Spirit. We sing to the LORD with rejoicing, singing the story of the gospel from beginning to end, so “let the mighty advent chorus / onward roll from tongue to tongue”. So “give praise to the LORD” Jesus Christ; “proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4), for he bears the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). “Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things”, for Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again, and “let this be known to all the world” (Isaiah 12:5). Flying to heaven away from the world God created is not our blessed hope; it's at best a waystation between now and the day of resurrection upon the renewed earth. No, but “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14), and so we “wait for God's Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

So “shout aloud and sing for joy” to the world, “people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (Isaiah 12:6), who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Be baptized with his baptism; be immersed in the Well of Salvation, that the Spirit that filled him may rest upon us also, and to taste the Joy of the World and see that his rule is joyous indeed (cf. Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:3). As you prepare in your homes for Christmas, and as you prepare in your hearts for Christ's return to earth, don't lose sight of this mission of hope, to “make known among the nations what he has done” so that the God who is our salvation can be their salvation too, and so that we all may trust and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2; cf. Isaiah 10:24). Let us pray:

  • O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things, come and teach us the way of prudence.
  • O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
  • O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign among the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
  • O Key of David and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open; come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O Morning Star, splendor of eternal light and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O King of the Nations and their Desire, the cornerstone making both one, come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
  • O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their savior, come and save us, Lord our God.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Unto Us a Child is Born": An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 8-9

Sermon on Isaiah 8:11--9:7; Matthew 4:12-17; and 1 Peter 3:13-16.  Delivered 7 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The seventh installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, and Isaiah 7-8a.

Five years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a few months studying and living in Greece. I remember one autumn day in November 2009, no more than a few days after leaving Corinth, I stayed overnight in a village called Andritsaina, settled on the side of a tall hill in the mountains of Peloponnesian peninsula, near the border of Arcadia and Elis. I found I couldn't sleep that night, and so I determined to go out and hike to the top of the hill. Back and forth up the winding path I went until I reached the top, where a small chapel had been built of stone and surrounded with a small courtyard. The chapel was locked, but I determined that in the cold of that still and silent night, I would spend my hours walking around the church, devoting my time to prayer. Almost everything was pitch-black, except for a few spots of light down on the hillside, showing the village nestled among the trees of the forest. The hours of cold and darkness and gloom weighed on my soul as I prayed in total solitude. It seemed like ages went by until, ever so slowly, the sky turned dark blue as the first rays from the sun broke forth over Mount Lykaion. And then there were peaches and pinks and lavender and light blue – the dawn had come. Bit by bit, everything became clear and beautiful – the mountains, the forest, the rustic, red-roofed houses and taverns and churches of the little Greek village, and even other smaller villages dotting the landscape. Over a land of deep darkness, the sun's light had finally dawned. The long wait was all worthwhile.

Thousands of years ago, in the days when Ahaz was king of Judah, that darkness was all the deeper. We saw last Sunday that those were days of the Syro-Ephraimite War: when the nations of Aram-Damascus and Israel, to the north, and the Philistines and Edomites, to the south, threatened to crush Judah to dust, and Ahaz failed to resist the temptation to sell his soul to Assyria to make the problem go away. In those dreary days of desperation, the people were filled with the gloom, fear, and superstition that naturally arise when every horizon threatens danger (Isaiah 8:21-22). Isaiah paints a portrait of people running astray after false and vain hopes – not just the political powers that exalted themselves so high, but even the spirits of the dead and all kinds of pointless traditions – when instead they should be relying on the sure testimony of God, who knows best (Isaiah 8:19-20). A sober reminder for our own day, when we want to listen to everyone and everything except what God has spoken through his prophets and then in these last days by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).

In that long night of darkness, Ahaz was filled with “dread” of the nations that threatened him (Isaiah 7:16), and so too did the people “dread” the destroying forces arrayed against them (Isaiah 8:12). But Isaiah warns, “Sanctify the LORD of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). Their attention shouldn't be on how small and weak they are. Their attention shouldn't be on how massive and imposing the Arameans or Assyrians are. Their attention should be on how holy God is – holy God, holy and mighty, holy enough to fill heaven and earth with his endless might (cf. Isaiah 6:3).

Isaiah's direction isn't just given to Judah. It's given even to the Northern Kingdom, one of the states ganging up on poor Judah. Isaiah's concern is for the whole people of God, even in the midst of their violent division and their flirtations or outright devotion to pagan ways. Isaiah has warned passionately that Ephraim will get punished severely by the Assyrians, and we remember that the northernmost parts will be the hardest hit – stolen away by Assyria. But even as the war goes on, Isaiah stresses God's grace toward the rival nation's desolated land. Their land doesn't belong ultimately to wayward Ephraim. It's part of Immanuel's land (Isaiah 8:8), and his birth and life will change everything.

The one called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) will bring light even to gloomy “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1), for there he will proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:13-17). All this darkness, all this gloom – they don't last. The gloom is doomed! Just as the darkest night turns to day, their darkness can't withstand the dawning of the Light of the World (John 8:12), the “Light of Light Eternal” – Jesus Christ, to whom the whole “law and the testimony” points and of whom all the Law and the Prophets speak (Isaiah 8:20; Luke 24:44; John 1:45).

And listen again to what Isaiah says! Joy will overtake all the earth because “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. He shall reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Don't let those familiar words grow stale! There's a wealth of treasure packed in them.

This 'Wonderful Counselor' of the prophecy meets us as “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), whose cross-bearing pilgrimage the world wrongly ignores as weakness and folly (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus Christ is the eternal Wisdom of God in person; he's “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). In our day, a chaotic choir of voices compete to sell us on their versions of wisdom: Do this like so! No, do it this other way! No, do this instead! Next do this! Just do it! Have it your way! Some voices tell us to look within, to retreat to our own little inner islands, and trust in our own sin-broken and deceitful hearts (cf. Jeremiah 17:9). Other voices tell us all the goods we need to own and the services we need to use if we want to be successful. Over the past decades, the idol of Mammon has increasingly tried to defile Advent with more and more commerce: it's all about getting the newest, the best, the priciest. So many voices cry out to us, “Buy! Buy!” Only one voice tells us to buy... for free:

Doesn't Wisdom call out? Doesn't Understanding raise her voice? […] Choose my instruction instead of silver; knowledge, rather than choice gold; for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. […] Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come, buy, and eat! ...Why spend money on what isn't bread, and your labor on what doesn't satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you'll delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Proverbs 8:1, 10-11; Isaiah 55:1-3)

What better counsel could we ever get than that? The Wisdom of God became flesh and pitched his tent alongside ours so that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10; cf. John 1:14). Amid the many voices of this world, we need a Wonderful Counselor – a Counselor who gives life to the full, a Counselor who speaks by his written word and who guides his people continually with his gentle Spirit. And his sheep, from years of following their Shepherd, know his voice (John 10:4). No other Counselor is so wonderful. Hear what the acclaimed preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said about the Child born and the Son given (Sermons 5:47-48):

Christ is the Counselor whom I wish to consult every hour, and I wish that I could sit in his secret chamber all day and all night long, because to counsel with him is to have sweet counsel, hearty counsel, and wise counsel all at the same time. […] We go to Christ, and we get wisdom, we get love, we get sympathy, we get everything that can possibly be wanted in a counselor. […] “Lord,” said I, “I will follow thy counsel, and not my own devices”; and I have never had cause to regret it. Always take the Lord for thy guide, and thou shalt never go amiss. Backslider! thou that hast a name to live, and art dead, or nearly dead, Christ gives thee counsel. “I counsel thee to buy of me, gold tried in the fire and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed.” And sinner! thou that art far from God, Christ gives thee counsel. “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Depend on it, it is loving counsel. Take it. Go home and cast yourself upon your knees. Seek Christ; obey his counsel, and you shall have to rejoice that you ever listened to his voice, and heard it, and lived.

No wonder the nation will “rejoice before” Jesus “as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder” (Isaiah 9:3)! Second, unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Mighty God. Can it really be so? Or is it too good to be true? If anyone's tempted to doubt that this means exactly what it says, look at how Peter treats the chapter just before it. Peter has advice for those who suffer evil: “Don't fear what they fear, don't be afraid” (1 Peter 3:14) – that's Isaiah's advice to Judah. But where Isaiah tells them to instead sanctify the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 8:13) – that is, Yahweh, the God of Israel – Peter tells us to “sanctify Christ as LORD in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). Just so, in 1 Peter 2:8's twist on Isaiah 8:14, Jesus is now the “Stone for stumbling and the Rock for offense” for the faithless, those who don't build upon him and seek their sanctuary in him.

So as we Christians read Isaiah, Peter – moved along by the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself – wants us to be very careful not to misread this. We can't shrink this down to size. We aren't to pit Jesus against the Old Testament God, like some people in popular culture do: a God of wrath versus a God of love. No, that's a heresy as old as Marcion: the Old Testament is as loving as the New, and wrath is nothing but God's love for the downtrodden and the sacred. Nor do we get to treat Jesus as some lesser god, like some cults do. No, no, Jesus is the personal outpouring of Yahweh's love and rule. We're called to 'act accordingly' in worshipping him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. And surely he is mighty. Jesus is the God whom Moses sang as a mighty warrior (Exodus 15:3). Jesus is the God who redeems his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15)! “Who is this King of Glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).

Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Everlasting Father. Some people misuse those words too. Jesus bears the title 'everlasting father', but he isn't God the Father. We confess “one God in Trinity, and the trinity in unity, neither blending the persons nor dividing the substance: for there's one person of the Father, and another person of the Son, and another person of the Holy Spirit”. Jesus, as God the Son, is fully equal in glory and majesty with God the Father and God the Spirit – not three gods, but one God in three persons. But in the days of Ahaz long ago, kings proclaimed themselves as fathers to their people. But they were so often abusive. They didn't rule by love, no matter what they claimed; they ruled by fear, and they ruled by power. Those kingdoms rose, and those kingdoms fell. Isaiah wants us to know that this Royal Child, this King – King Jesus – is not like the others. King Jesus is the real deal. He will watch over his people in love forever!

Finally, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Prince of Peace. Not only will the Child be called 'Prince of Peace', but his “peace will have no end”, Isaiah says (Isaiah 9:7). He'll rule from David's throne forever – just as Gabriel promised Mary: “You will conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).

How moving the thought of a permanent Prince of Peace must've been in Isaiah's day, to a nation in crisis: threatened with violence from every side, no matter what they do. It's fitting to remember our Prince of Peace now, seventy-three years to the day after the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” – those were President Roosevelt's words – on Pearl Harbor. That day was also a Sunday – the second Sunday of Advent, then just as now. During a time when Christians all over were remembering the Prince of Peace, our naval base was attacked. We didn't go looking for war; it came upon us.

In our own day, circumstances around the world repeatedly ensnare our nation – wisely or unwisely, justly or unjustly – in military engagements. Domestically, we live in days of riots, unrest, dissatisfaction, abuse of power, scandal after scandal. You read the newspapers, you watch the news channels, you know plenty about it. But “do not fear what they fear, do not be afraid” (Isaiah 8:12). Wars and rumors of wars will come and go, but this word of God – “Be not afraid” – will never pass away. The Prince of Peace is “God with us” – forever, through all wars and beyond all wars. How we long for the day when “every warrior's boot in battle, and every garment rolled in blood, will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5) – the inevitable result of the Prince of Peace ruling. How we long for the day when the government will be upon his shoulders, and never will its greatness end. We have a promise: “peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling”.

The peace he brings is more than just the end of war, more than just the absence of hostility. It's wholeness: well-ordered, healthy, harmonious relationships. His peace is a healthy relationship with God, for as Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Since we've been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. His peace is a peace within our very own souls and lives: no more inner conflict, no more war inside, no more out-of-kilter lives, but instead a real balance between rest and work, between family and career, between head and heart, between body and soul. His peace is a peace with each other, for we're told, “Rejoice! Strive for full restoration; encourage one another; be of one mind; live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). His peace is a peace between all our divisions, for “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And his peace is a peace between nations, for the LORD will “judge between the nations”, who “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Sar Shalom, and that shalom is the kind of peace this world needs, and we each need in our lives – peace in our hearts and peace with each other. There is peace in Jesus for “all the weary world” with “its sad and lowly plains” and all its “Babel sounds” of war and commotion and strife. There is peace in Jesus for all “beneath life's crushing load, / whose forms are bending low, / who toil along the climbing way / with painful steps and slow”. In all these respects, we serve the Prince of Peace by being peacemakers – by bringing his peace to individuals and groups, to families and nations, to clubs and cultures, to make disciples of them all.

And this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace, whose kingdom never ends – he comes as a Child, in the weakness of a newborn baby. That is how the Light of the world breaks into the darkness: in the form of a spark. I don't think I could put it any better than John Oswalt did in his commentary on Isaiah (Oswalt 1:245):

How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble – the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.

And so indeed we're delivered from the tyranny of sin and raised up to new life as friends of God in Christ! Outside of Christ, we're lost – each and every one of us. Outside of Christ, we've all been a “people that walked in darkness”. Outside of Christ, we've all been those who “dwelled in the land of the shadow of death”. Paul notes that we were “dead in our transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world”, and that “all of us also lived among” the disobedient, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”, and so we were “children of wrath” no less than anyone else (Ephesians 2:1-3).

But here's the good news! Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given! He is Immanuel – “the best of all is, God is with us!” Our Immanuel is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”. Though we were in darkness, though we were “those whose dreary dwelling / borders on the shades of death”, yet the Son was given to us – and given up for us. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

Even when we were in deepest darkness and gloom, even when we were children of wrath living in a land of death, Jesus is born to us and for us! He promises, “I am the Light of the World: whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This couldn't happen without the long-awaited miracle of the Child who was born, the Son who was given. We owe all our light to this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace – our risen King of Kings and reigning Lord of Lords, the Light of the World. He's our heavenly Christmas gift, and for a gift like this, the long wait was all worthwhile. “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Trust in him; don't trip over him. If we cleave to him in faith, hope, and love, he is our sanctuary in a weary and war-torn world, and even our sanctuary from our own weary and war-torn souls. Come to him and “rest beside the weary road”, and sanctify the Babe of Bethlehem as the LORD God in your hearts.