Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Feast for All Peoples: A Sermon on Isaiah 25

Sermon on Isaiah 25; Luke 24; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 19-21.  Delivered on 12 April 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fifteenth 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; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; Isaiah 23; and Isaiah 24.

Three weeks ago, before Holy Week, we left off by meditating on the darkness of Isaiah 24, the climax of the Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23) and an indictment of the world-sinking weight of human sin. And that led us to consider how the only hopeful resolution of sin is in the cross. Only Jesus could bear that load for us; if we try to do it ourselves, if we pin our hopes on our good works outweighing the world, we slide irresistibly down the path into the pit. Our good works can't save us, because they're just so much extra baggage: “Whatever doesn't proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Salvation comes only by faith, a faith in the world-bearing Jesus, a “faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6).

But now we find ourselves on the other side of Good Friday, even the other side of Easter. The world of sin has been dealt with! Christ is risen! All our sin is buried in his tomb – but he isn't, and so neither are we any longer located where our sin is buried! Isn't it a joy to live in an Easter world? And that's what Isaiah wants to show us. Good Friday deals with Isaiah 24; and only after Isaiah 24 is over can Easter give birth to Isaiah 25 and the great meal to end all death and sorrow. We have that solid hope of celebration: “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure” (Isaiah 25:1). We hear already echoes of “the song of them that triumph, / the shout of them that feast.”

Late on that first Easter Sunday, after Jesus had revealed himself to Mary Magdalene – the woman whom tradition calls “the apostle to the apostles”, because she brought them the first report of the gospel of resurrection – Jesus appeared incognito to a pair of disciples on their way out of Jerusalem, taking the seven-mile hike to Emmaus. They walked with the Lord – and they didn't even know it. They were bundled up in their fears and frustrations, their perplexities and problems. They couldn't hide it: they were “looking sad” (Luke 24:17). When Jesus asks them what's going on, they tell Jesus about Jesus (Luke 24:18-24).

Note well what they say about him: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Aren't those such sad words: 'Had hoped'? For Cleopas and his friend, hope had become a dead thing, lost at the cross. They only 'had hoped'. They no longer call Jesus 'Lord', 'Messiah', 'Son of God'; they only call him “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). They've rolled back Peter's God-given confession to the mere rumors of the crowds (Matthew 16:13-17) – even though they'd heard what Mary Magdalene and the other women said, a report of “a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (Luke 24:23). Yet still they only 'had hoped' – 'had hoped', but no longer. To them, hope was dead, not alive – they were too “slow of heart” (Luke 24:25) to yet catch on that God “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

And so, on the walk to Emmaus, Jesus walks with them anonymously, joins them, rebirthing their hope by opening up the Bible to them, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27), showing them from Genesis through 2 Chronicles how the whole Old Testament scripture bears witness to him, how all its patterns and prophecies can only fit together if they climax in his death and resurrection: “Wasn't it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26), Jesus asks them. He unfolded for them God's “plans formed of old, faithful and sure” (Isaiah 25:1). They recognize the truth in his words – their hearts burn within their chests (Luke 24:32) – but they don't yet recognize the Lord who's walked with them these seven miles out of Jerusalem.

Not until they invite him in. Not until they bring Jesus home with them. They want to show hospitality to this strange guest, this unknown teacher, this master of mystery. He makes them work for it: he feigns a continued trek into the darkness of night (Luke 24:28). He enters a house in Emmaus as their guest (Luke 24:29), but at supper time, he is the one who takes the bread, he's the one who blesses it, he's the one who breaks it and hands it out to them (Luke 24:30). When we invite him as guest, he feeds us as an unexpected host. And that's how Cleopas and his friend have the first Easter dinner with the risen Jesus, getting bread from the hands of the risen Bread of Life (cf. John 6:35). Their walk with Jesus leads them from fear to faith, opens up the Bible to them, and leads to a meal of fellowship – one continued later that night in Jerusalem when Cleopas and his friend rejoin the others, and Jesus eats fish in their presence (Luke 24:41-43).

Isaiah 25 is about a meal of fellowship on the holy mountain, a place of protection and refuge. “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). There “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” where “the LORD of hosts will reign” (Isaiah 24:23), everyone from every background is welcome to eat – not just to eat, but to eat the very best! As good as the fire hall's chicken pot pie was yesterday and it was good! it's got nothing on Isaiah 25. This is the LORD's Feast, the true LORD's Supper, to which our every Eucharist and Love-Feast is a holy foretaste.

Thousands of years ago, scripture tells us about another feast, one that sealed the Covenant of the Law, when the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai into the LORD's presence and “saw the God of Israel”, and “they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11). They caught a distant and shrouded glimpse of God and were spared. But we aren't called to come to Mount Sinai, with its “blazing fire and darkness and gloom and tempest” (Hebrews 12:18). We aren't called for a short meal in fear. We are called “to Mount Zion”, and “to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all”, with whom sits “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24), ready to host an everlasting feast.

The Great Feast is a celebration that the time of death's oppression and sorrow is over. The LORD “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isaiah 25:7). Coming under the pall of death is one thing that unites every sinful man, woman, and child from the days of Adam 'til now. It's a shroud, a sheet, a burial linen; it's a veil, a heavy thing that wrapped us up and weighed us down.

But on this mountain, when the hand of the LORD rested there (Isaiah 25:10), the death-blow to death was struck at the cross and at the tomb; and on this mountain, the LORD “will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). Death, already unfanged and crippled, has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55), which is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56). Death still clings on – “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26) – but because Christ is risen, “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54), his victory that he shares with us (1 Corinthians 15:57).

What Jesus accomplished when he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25) will fully bear fruit at that last Great Feast, the feast to which all feasts point, when he tenderly “will wipe away the tears from all faces” and bring our disgrace and our grief to an end (Isaiah 25:8). Already he gives “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31), leading up to the day he'll personally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” and do away with “mourning and crying and pain” at the Great Feast (Revelation 21:4). We taste morsels of Isaiah 25 already, and if we “endure to the end” and enter our final salvation (Matthew 10:22), we'll be seated for the full dinner.  All the courses.  Every course of blessing; every dish of grace.

And of course, the whole point is – it's a feast! A joyful meal! After the death of death, it's time for feasting, it's time for celebrating life with lively joy. The New Testament picks up this theme and adds a twist: this Great Feast isn't just an ordinary meal; it's a wedding banquet. Jesus told parables about a king throwing a wedding party for his son and sending out his servants to invite people to the feast – but the first round of invitees, the chosen people, don't come (Matthew 22:2-7). So now the king sends his servants with the instruction, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). It isn't just for those who were 'good' – the guests are gathered from “both good and bad” (Matthew 22:10), the sorts of sinners and social outcasts Jesus came to save (Luke 5:32). At the big wedding feast, Jesus says, even outsiders “will come from east and west, from north and south” to dine alongside the patriarchs and the prophets “in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 8:10-11; Luke 13:28-29).

Revelation picks up on the same theme. Just as Isaiah moves from the destruction of the City of Chaos (Isaiah 24; 25:2) to the praise-filled feast on the mountain (Isaiah 25), John of Patmos moves from the fall of Babylon the Great (Revelation 18) to a blessing on all those who've RSVP'd to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), which takes place in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The feast-after-death is a wedding feast. Right now, the Church is Christ's fiancée – he “loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind” (Ephesians 5:25-27). He “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14), purified “from dead works to worship the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). We're being sanctified, we're growing to maturity (Ephesians 4:13), but we're not quite yet presentable in full.

But in the new creation, when the Church is finally “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2) – the engagement is over, the covenant is consummated, the marriage begins! That's when Christ and the Church move in together: “See, the home of God is among men; he will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). The marriage begins – “he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4)! No more heartbreak, no more grief, no more agony, no more wondering where God is in all this. All the mayhem covered by our 24-hour news cycle will be “no more”. Only when all former things have passed away, only when the Church in her fullness is brought to Christ in his fullness, only when our intimacy with him goes beyond all eye could ever see or ear could ever hear in this world, can the “bride” finally be called “the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9). Because Jesus lives, so shall his bride! The marriage begins – and the feast goes on forever, dining on fruit from the tree of life, which has leaves for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

It's a celebration! There is no celebration greater! This will be the Great Easter of the Universe! And the walk to Emmaus, with its first Easter dinner, is poignant foreshadowing. We too walk with Jesus, even when we don't recognize his hand in the stressful outworking of our lives. If we're disciples, we learn from him to view the world in light of God's Word and then act accordingly. And a life of this sort of discipleship will lead up to full fellowship at the Meal in the kingdom of God, where the patriarchs and prophets and martyrs attend – and we're invited too, we're asked to RSVP in faith and hope and love.

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we celebrated holy communion. In this world where “we know in part”, where “we see in a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we still meet Jesus, the Church's Husband-to-Be, at the table, and he's made known to us “in the breaking of the bread”, just like at Emmaus (Luke 24:35). This is not just a meal with a crucified Jesus, now long dead. This is a meal with a Christ who is risen! This is a meal with the risen Christ who unfanged death there at the Holy Mountain! This is a meal with the risen Christ who even now wipes away our tears and soothes our fears by his Spirit.

But we glimpse him now hidden, present yet veiled in bread and wine. Even the veiled presence of Christ should fill us with joy – it's an appetizer that promises the main course! Christ is risen! “Now we see in a glass darkly, but then we will see face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) when the veil is lifted from our eyes at the wedding celebration, when our eyes are opened to behold him in his glory. But then, on that day, we will look with unveiled eyes into the beauty of the Lord Jesus and say, “This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:9). We're bursting with anticipation for the endless honeymoon of freedom and life – “[We] know not, O [we] know not, / what joys await [us] there, / what radiancy of glory, / what bliss beyond compare!” We're waiting for the wedding banquet!

But how can people show up for the feast if they don't know it's going on? How can they believe if they haven't heard? And how can they hear without being told? And how can they be told if those who know don't go? (Romans 10:14-15) In the parable of the wedding feast, the king told his servants, “Go” (Matthew 22:9)! “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find” – and didn't our King commission us to go and "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19)? As servants of the king and heralds of the feast, are we going? Are we finding? Are we sharing what Jesus has opened our eyes to see? Are we inviting people to the Great Celebration, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb?

There is literally no greater message, no bigger gospel. There's no one beneath this invitation, and there's no one above it. Jesus is “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4). No one has too much to offer, and no one has too little to offer. There's no billionaire who can't enter the gate with humility. There's no beggar who can't enter the gate with faith. There's no persecutor who can't enter the gate with repentance. There's no martyr who can't enter the gate “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).

The invitation is for skeptics and scoffers, thieves and terrorists, alcoholics and addicts, politicians and pundits, paratroopers and pacifists, cheaters and churchgoers and convicts and celebrities. The invitation goes out to all sinners from greatest to least, all in need of repentance and transformation: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexual offenders, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers”, and “this is what some of [us] used to be; but [we] were washed, [we] were sanctified, [we] were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The invitation is for the tattooed and pierced, for metalheads and blues fans and classical music afficionados, for all nations and all social classes and all ages – the Lord “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). It really is a “feast for all peoples”. There's a spot for everyone at the table, when Christ “will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). There's no cheek too dirty or too privileged for him to touch to tenderly wipe away our tears. If we want to be involved in the Spirit's work, we have invitations to extend, to bid all people to the gospel-feast: “The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.' And let everyone who is thirsty come” (Revelation 22:17).

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Does It Really Matter?, Part II: A Tag-Team Easter Homily

Throughout the Bible, God shows us a clear pattern: where there's an exile, there's a return; where there's a captivity, there's an exodus. Nothing in the Old Testament makes sense unless that pattern comes to a great climax, just as the prophets constantly said that it would. Nothing in the Bible makes sense without hope of return from our exile away from God's presence. Nothing in the Bible or in the world makes sense without an exodus from our captivity to sin and death. Without that, everything is senseless. But the resurrection of Jesus is the restoration of sense. The resurrection of Jesus means that God really stepped into human shoes to be exiled from the land of the living – and to return. For us, all for us. The resurrection of Jesus means that the Lord is alive! And “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has any dominion over him” (Romans 6:9).

The Apostle Paul wrote that, at the time of his deepest despair in the face of death, he knew that he had no reason to rely on himself. No works could save him; no works could protect him. Instead of putting his faith in himself, he resolved that “we would not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). That's who God is. The true God is the “God who raises the dead”. The defining character of God is that he speaks light into the darkness and creates life right under death's nose. In the beginning, he breathed life into dead dust and crowned it his image (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:7). This God is a God who guarantees life's victory over death – and if you want to see him in action, look no further than his Son.

The essential mode of our hearts has to be trust in the God who conquers death with life, the God made visible to us in the life of Jesus. That's why “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Without this, we're hopeless, because the scriptures say that Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). If the second thing didn't happen, then the first had no power. So “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is pointless and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

That's a big 'if' – and praise God, it's an empty 'if'! Because Christ has been raised! Jesus is alive! He is King! And that means that the promised resurrection, the long-awaited victory of God, has already started. It started with Jesus, and that's the concrete guarantee that his sacrifice was accepted by God. And since that's the truth, then the gates of forgiveness are thrown wide open. By his grace, all we need is faith to enter in. But it's also the concrete guarantee that death is not the end for us, and even heaven isn't the end for us: “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14). Death's quest to divorce us from God's good creation will fail. Our hope isn't to escape our bodies and leave the earth and flit around in the clouds; our hope is that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). If the silent tomb of Jesus didn't stay silent – and it didn't – then neither will the cemetery right outside these walls! Jesus Christ is the firstfruits from the dead, and that proves the full harvest to come (1 Corinthians 15:20)!

But since Jesus Christ is risen, then the resurrection-life should already be beginning in our hearts. We are a body, but “he is the head of the body, the church”, and “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And the body grows from the head, when God grants the growth (Colossians 2:19). That means that we aren't just a random collection of individuals with common interests who are located at the same building now and again. That's not the church; that's a social club! That's not a living body; that's decomposition! We are not called to be a collection; we're called to be a community, the community of the living Christ. We're called to actively live as that holy community, working together as a faithful fellowship on a continual basis, investing in one another's growth and well-being. That is how a living body lives.

So if Christ has been raised – and he is risen! – “set your minds on things that are above”, not on things below (Colossians 3:2). It's the 'things above' that will be obvious everywhere when “Christ [our] life is revealed” and we “also will be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). The rule of 'things below' lost when Jesus beat the Grave and claimed the victory for Life (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). The 'things below' separate; the 'things above' unite – for there's one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one body, one faith, one baptism, one hope and holy calling (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Now, since the physical body of Jesus is glorified beyond death and is ascended to the Father's throne above, the corporate body of Jesus on earth is called with one holy calling to put away anything that diminishes our life together. Our life together is hindered by 'things below' – things like impurity, greed, anger, lies, impatience, unkindness, unforgiveness, and in short, all the things that tear the church apart and make parts of Christ's body pretend they're better off alone (cf. Colossians 3:5-13). If we choose to cling to these 'things below', then we're pretending in practice that Christ isn't really risen. And that's a lie! Because Christ is risen, and that means he sums up all things in heaven and earth under one headship (Ephesians 1:10). Does it really matter? A trillion times, yes!

If we're a body, then we're a community. And as a community, we commune. A real community has to have a communion, and ours is unveiled when we share in the same sacred meal, refueling our body with the resurrection-life made available for us when Jesus was voluntarily broken for our sins. We don't live together under our own power, any more than we live separately in the Spirit – which is a contradiction in terms, since “the unity of the Spirit” is lived in “the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). No, we live together through Christ's life, which broke through death and tunneled out the other side into glory. We're on a journey through the path Christ made for us – together. So, to have life for the journey, let's eat the feast of God from the Lord's table – together. Because Christ is risen!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Fourth Word from the Cross: A Good Friday Message

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?", which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"     (Mark 15:33-34)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23). Three hours into the shadows of dread that cloak the earth, Jesus gives voice in this fateful moment – I think the darkest instant in the life of God from everlasting to everlasting – to how true he found that message. Having “drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath”, having drained “to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17), having been denied for it to leave his hands (Isaiah 51:22; Matthew 26:39), now the curse of wrath reaches critical mass upon the tree. Yet for the Gospel of Mark, this point is the climax of how Jesus reveals himself; the baptism and the transfiguration lead up to this moment, this outburst.

Because Mark tells us the story of the passion by saturating it with the psalms of lament, it's no surprise to find the opening words of Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1). The lament psalms usually beg God not to forsake us in the future; it's the worst fate the psalmist can think of. But here, Jesus takes up the psalmist's place at the lowest of the lows, not just feeling forsaken but experiencing it as a reality. The same God who proved himself trustworthy to generations (Psalm 22:4), the same God who spoke from heaven and empowered miraculous deliverance, now looks and feels like a no-show.

My God, my God, why leav'st thou me,
    when I with anguish faint?
O why so far from me remov'd,
    and from my loud complaint?
All day, but all the day unheard,
    to thee do I complain;
With cries implore relief all night,
    but cry all night in vain....
My strength, like potter's earth, is parch'd,
    my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And to the silent shades of death
    my fainting soul withdraws.
(Brady and Tate 1698:29, 31)

In quoting this psalm, Jesus wants us to know he's stepping into our shoes in our darkest moments, the moments when we lose sight of even the smallest joys. He knows what it's like; God knows what it's like. Maybe you've watched a loved one waste away – early, too early, unnaturally early – and you've fallen on your knees through sleepless nights, pleading with God, imploring him to heal. Maybe you've lost your job, your pension, your security; maybe you're at wit's end to make ends meet; maybe everything's out of your hands. Maybe you've been consumed by self-loathing and self-doubt, wondering why the world's stacked against you, wondering why God doesn't tip the scales in your favor. Maybe you've invested all your hopes and dreams into that last-ditch prayer and felt shattered in the end, like a sword's pierced your very heart, like your world's a snow globe rolling off a cliff and the screams of your descent fall on deaf ears. And maybe, as the pieces scatter out of your reach, as the universe spins out of control, you've felt these words like never before: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe you've cried out by day without an answer, maybe you've called out in the night and found no rest (Psalm 22:2). Maybe you've felt like no grief was ever like yours. But Jesus on the cross means that God knows how it feels. No grief was ever like his.

Or maybe you feel spiritually bankrupt. Maybe you're lost in the dark, numb to the world, crying out in desolation and desperation and despair. You think, “If I could just see a spark through the clouds, if I can only know that there's a light beyond the abyss of my heart, I can go on living.” And you pray and pray 'til you're blue in the face, searching for hope despite the nauseating cold inside, groping blindly for a lifeline when you're convinced you're as good as dead, begging for even mustard-seed faith when doubts and disbelief gnaw your soul to tatters – and the minutes and hours tick by, and days lapse into weeks or months or years, and heaven is silent as death. And you cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” I've been there. But most important of all, Jesus on the cross means that God himself has been in those shoes; he's felt as we've felt at our lowest. God understands depression, God understands loneliness, God understands helplessness, God understands despair, God understands desperation. He's stepped into our shoes at the lowest place they've ever fallen. God knows what it's like to be God-forsaken. He asks our questions, he voices our doubts and burdens, by standing with us in the depths. “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Psalm 97:2).

That's the curious thing about the gospel. God feeling God-forsaken. The king, lifted up on a throne to rule – but the crown is sharp and bloody, and the throne looks like shame and blood. He belongs at the Father's right hand, aglow with power and glory; and the cross doesn't contradict that, the cross inaugurates it. For this God, the real God, the only God worth calling 'God', to start ruling is to suffer pain and shame and abandonment; it is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the downtrodden and the outcasts, with the broken-hearted whom he came to bind up (Psalm 147:3). When God becomes flesh, it's to be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). There's the beauty of the gospel. Jesus suffered pain, he suffered shame, he suffered abandonment – not to abolish them for his people, but to redeem them into a way of hope. How can the persecuted be called 'blessed' (Matthew 5:10-12)? How can it be that “if you suffer for doing what's right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:14)? Because Jesus was persecuted, and in the midst of persecution, we can choose to grow closer to him through that persecution. And if we're drawn close to our Lord, then that's a blessing greater than all the harm persecution can do. As the Christian philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams writes about suffering, and especially the final suffering of martyrdom:

God in Christ turns martyrdom into an opportunity for intimacy and identification with him. … The more the believer loves his Lord, the more he wants to know what it was like for him, what it is like to be him. The cross of Christ permits the martyr to find in his deepest agonies and future death a sure access to Christ's experience. … Moreover, as the believer enters into the love of Christ and shares his love for the world, he will be able to appreciate his own suffering as a welcome key into the lives of others. … For Christians as for others in this life, the fact of evil is a mystery. The answer is a more wonderful mystery – God himself.

That's the answer, that's the costly mystery. Jesus voluntarily walked into that dark night of the soul. He stepped into the perceived and practical absence of his Father, drinking the cup of God's wrath, “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). And here's a thought: if the sufferings of God-made-flesh can redeem suffering, then the God-forsakenness of God can redeem God-forsakenness. When we feel like we're plummeting into the void, when we can't understand why God seems silent, we may shake our fists at the sky – or, we can actually identify with Christ on the cross. Cling to that cross, cling to that prayer, cling to those words! Don't pray them in opposition to Jesus; pray them with Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus stood in the darkness and the fog to meet us there, in the lonely walk through the valley of the shadow of death, in that friendless place between the crown of thorns and the jeering crowd, out in the hinterlands where all blessings come hidden. The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, pointed out over four centuries ago how true this is: If we feel spiritual joy all the time, then maybe we love God only for the way he makes us feel. Maybe we'll distort our faith into an endless pursuit of one spiritual high after another, neglecting the cross and everything it means. That was a temptation even in the first century or the sixteenth century – how much more for American consumers accustomed to having hundreds of TV channels or clothing brands, used to instant long-distance calls and to fast food and to immediate gratification of all sorts?

And so, St. John suggests, it may be the kindest thing God can do to seem to hide in silence, training us in costly patience as a mother weans an infant, teaching us to love him for his own sake and not for any ulterior motive of pleasure, whether worldly or even spiritual. God “seeks to bring [us] out of that ignoble kind of love to a higher degree of love for him”, he “turns all this light of [ours] into darkness, and shuts against [us] the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which [we] were tasting in God”, to be led “through these solitary places of the wilderness”.

If we wait upon the Lord when every other voice calls it hopeless, if we sit in sorrowful silence without deserting the God who seems absent, then when the cloud lifts, we find that God is closer than we ever dreamed – not in spite of the distance, but because Christ our God was already at our side of the chasm, suffering with us so all our suffering could be suffered with him – and “if we suffer with him, we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). If our hope is to “reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6), it has to begin on the throne where he was crowned: the cross, the cross, where he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the story isn't done. When we meet God in the raging storm, where all is dark and cold and where we can't find him, if we meet God in the God-forsakenness of the cross, we have the blessed assurance that the darkness will not be forever: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back; in a surge of anger, I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:7-8). Now, that moment, brief to the Lord, may demand patience from our shortsighted and easily worn-out hearts. Mother Teresa famously spent most of her ministry in despair because she couldn't feel God's presence with her – for nearly half a century. In one letter, hear what she wrote:

As for me – what will I tell you? I have got nothing, since I have not got him whom my heart and soul longs to possess. Aloneness is so great. From within and from without, I find no one to turn to. … If there is hell, this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God – no prayer, no faith, no love. The only thing that still remains is the conviction that the work is his. … And yet … in spite of all these, I want to be faithful to him, to spend myself for him, to love him not for what he gives but for what he takes, to be at his disposal.

She later penned the remark, “If we feel like this, I wonder what Jesus must have felt during his agony, when he went through all these unspoken and hidden wounds.” But through all that great aloneness, Mother Teresa didn't turn her back on God, or on the poor he called her to serve; she didn't give up the communion of believers, she didn't drop the habit of prayer, she kept her arm outstretched to God through all the decades of the dark night of her soul. It may be a soul-tormenting wait, but that isn't how the story ends.

Jesus wasn't pulling words out of context. He knew very well how the twenty-second psalm goes. Yes, it runs through scorn: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:7). Yes, it runs through opposition: “Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me” (Psalm 22:13). Yes, it runs through weakness: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15). Yes, it runs through spectacle: “All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:17-18). It runs through all these, but where does it end?

But you, O LORD, don't be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. … For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. … All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:19, 24, 27-28)

This isn't the surrender of prayer; this is persevering in prayer! If we're praying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” with Jesus, then we have the certain hope that the end of that prayer – in God's time, not ours – will be the same as it was with Jesus. There is light at the end of the tunnel, there is a sun behind those clouds, and even if it takes years of patient discipline, God will not despise or scorn any suffering we co-suffer with Christ. And faith in spite of feelings will yield a harvest for God from all families of nations – starting right here where we are. We seldom get the luxury of an explanation for our suffering, including the pains of our souls. But what we need isn't answers so much as to draw close to the Answer, the Answer made flesh who dwelled among us, full of grace and truth (cf. John 1:14). We can draw near to him at the very moment of our felt distance from God, and we can refuse to fall away, hoping beyond hope in the sure promise that, even if we die in this Answer, so we shall rise in him as well (cf. Romans 6:8; 2 Timothy 2:11).

But yes, it's hard. It's hard to “wait on the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait on the LORD” (Psalm 27:14). Yet we do have the promise that “those who wait for the LORD” in meekness “will inherit the land” (Psalm 37:9-11; Matthew 5:5) – maybe in this age, but for sure in the age to come, the everlasting sabbath of God's people (Hebrews 4:9-11). That puts the pain of our souls in perspective, but it doesn't make it any less painful – for us or for Jesus, hanging on the cross, awash in the burden of our sin, our alienation, our isolation, our desolation. Go to him, no matter how you feel. If you feel light, go to him and remember the cost. If you feel heavy, if you feel alone and adrift, go to him and grow close to the one who understands. There he is – there, on the cross, despised and afflicted, his arms stretched wide to welcome us in, as he calls out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

We Need an Atlas: A Sermon on Isaiah 24

Sermon on Isaiah 24; Matthew 27:45-51; Psalm 46.  Delivered on 22 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fourteenth 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; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; and Isaiah 23.

Who here likes to watch movies? I do, though more at home than in theaters. I think most people probably have a favorite kind of movie, maybe a few favorites, a genre that just fascinates them. One of my favorites is apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film. These movies present some kind of catastrophe that envelopes the whole landscape, or maybe even the entire earth. Apocalyptic movies focus more on the devastating events themselves; post-apocalyptic movies jump into the forlorn and desolate world left behind. They confront us with the darker elements of our nature, and a lot of these movies set up a scenario where we're ultimately at fault for how things have gone so terribly wrong.

In some movies, the human race – regionally or globally – is nearly wiped out by a disease that we either released into the general public through carelessness or shortsightedness, like in 28 Days Later, or even created deliberately, like in 12 Monkeys or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In other movies, it's our refusal to be good stewards of the earth that leads to disaster, like in The Day After Tomorrow. In still others, it's our willingness to engulf the earth in a global nuclear war that brings catastrophe, like in The Book of Eli, which may be best at portraying the utter devastation we hold in our hands as well as the hope that God's precious word brings even in a wasteland.

On the heels of condemning all the wayward nations from Babylon to Tyre, and even Jerusalem itself (Isaiah 13-23), Isaiah's lethal verbal artistry reaches a fever-pitch here in chapter 24. What we have here is sort of an apocalyptic film storyboard. But the way Isaiah draws it, it's human sin itself – not just carelessness, not just malice, not just bad stewardship, not just war, but sin in its very essence – that the earth can no longer bear. What Isaiah describes is a picture of radical desolation. “The earth is completely laid waste”, he says (Isaiah 24:3), and “a curse consumes the earth” so that “few people are left” (Isaiah 24:6). The earth is “thoroughly shaken” (Isaiah 24:19), and it “reels like a drunkard” (Isaiah 24:20). It's a mess! It's a catastrophe! It's the end of the world as we know it, and no one is feeling fine.

Set in the middle of this reeling, staggering, swaying earth is the “City of Chaos” (Isaiah 24:10). Just like what John does in Revelation by summing up all pagan powers and trends into “Babylon the Great”, that's what Isaiah does here. He blends them together in one composite set to show that every human empire, every human nation, every human institution, every tribe and every tongue and every culture, every element of worldliness, has plenty of skin in the game, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Babylonians have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Moabites, Edomites, Philistines have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Egyptians and Assyrians have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Tyre has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. Even Jerusalem has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. America has sinned and falls short of the glory of God, and so does each and every one of us.

We hear that word – 'sin' – and we don't grasp how heavy it is. It's such a little word, and we're used to it. It's a nice, familiar, 'religious' word. But it should be a heavy word, a horrifying word! How about, “Each of us is completely lost”? How about, “Each of us fights tooth and nail to escape the arms of God's holy love”? How about, “Each of us is stubbornly wicked”? How about, “Each of us is chained down and enslaved by darkness”? How about, “Each of us is stuck in the mire and stewing in the filth of our uncleanness”? That's what it means: we are all party to Sin and its evil kingdom. All of us are accessories to Sin and all it does. With every individual act of sin, every choice to disobey God and spurn the reason we were made, we ratify, endorse, and sustain Adam's rebellion and all its consequences.

That's not to say we're worthless. It takes a bright glory to become so dark when it goes wrong. A fallen butterfly – that's not so bad. But a fallen bearer of God's image? A royal priest gone totally awry? No wonder the earth shakes! No wonder the earth reels like a drunkard and sways like a flimsy hut! Who can survive it? Who has the strength? Who has the stability? Who can shed and strip off their sin and flee out of the City of Chaos before the mountains fall and the rivers flood and the earth dissolves in fire and ashes?

Isaiah's picture is a very dark one, because it forces us to confront how dark human sin really is and how dreadful its consequences are. The apparent harmony between sin and fun is a mirage that can only trick us because the judgment of God is held back, stored up until “the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). In the light of God's righteousness, the intoxication of sin is nothing but bitterness (Isaiah 24:9), the noise of sin loses its melody and grows fearfully silent (Isaiah 24:8), and “the gladness of the earth is banished” (Isaiah 24:10). The City of Chaos seemed like a happy place, a fast-paced place – but “the City of Chaos is broken down; every house is shut up so that no one can enter” (Isaiah 24:10). If God isn't “in the midst of the city”, it can't stand secure (Psalm 46:5). And so, Isaiah promises, the City of Chaos won't.

During this season of Lent, we've listened attentively to Isaiah's Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23) and the challenges they bring. Babylon, the cultural force of ungodliness and the pridefulness of human works, called us to self-examination and the question, “Are we vigilant watchmen and winsome witnesses?” Moab, the heretical half-church, called us to test our teachings against the pure truth of the gospel. Damascus-loving Ephraim, the divided church, summoned us to ask, “Do we actually treat each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God? If our music style or service time or sermon length became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it?” Egypt called us to lift our hopes above fleshly yearnings for revenge and to instead dare to pray both for our persecuted fellow-believers and for their persecutors, for the blessing of knowing Christ to turn their hearts to peace. Wayward Jerusalem urged us to look outward toward our mission and to hold fast to Christ's gospel of both holiness and love – not opening what he's shut, not shutting what he's opened. And Tyre asks us, “Does our earning, our saving, our giving, our spending, serve the kingdom of God first? Do our financial habits bear witness to Jesus Christ? Do they look like something empowered by the Spirit of God?” Heavy questions. Important questions. As Lent winds down, they stick with us.

It's all a lot to deal with! It's a lot to live up to! On our own, we can't do it. Like a New Year's resolution, we fall short of the glory of God in every case. None of us measure up in ourselves. Lent is a time when we have to discipline ourselves and take stock and stare unflinchingly at the hopelessness of our own corrupt hearts and souls. Our sin is a heavy thing – heavy enough to snap our spines, break our resolve, and weigh down our worlds 'til they crash through the floor of creation into the unending and unforgiving abyss. We struggle to fight it, we struggle to resist, but ultimately we have to despair of ever doing it under our own power. Under our own power, the struggle is in vain. We can't bear up the heavens and the earth. Our shoulders aren't strong enough.

What we need is an Atlas. I don't mean the book of maps. In Greek mythology, there was a Titan named Atlas, one of the enemies of the gods of Olympus. As punishment after they defeated the Titans in war, the gods cursed Atlas with a burdensome job: to stand at the west end of the earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders, using only his own strength to keep heaven and earth from crashing together. So in ancient Greek statues, Atlas is shown with the celestial sphere on his shoulders; in time, we started sculpting him holding up the earth and keeping it firmly in place. Atlas has shoulders up to the task. But Atlas is just a myth. Atlas can't really hold our world together. And with all our coping mechanisms, all our worry and care, all our graceless rituals, all our decent citizenship and family ties, all our mighty achievements and good deeds, all our climbing the corporate ladder and ruthless self-promotion and questing to leave a legacy, still neither can we. Because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

Yet the bad news of Isaiah 24 isn't meant to be God's last word. No, wrath is not the end; grace is the end. If we think Lent is only a season about ourselves and our self-improvement, we've completely missed the point! Lent is not about us and what we can or should do on our own strength. Lent is about Jesus, and he is God's Word, the Word to end all words. “One day when sin was as black as could be”, Jesus stepped down from heaven's glory to our cold and trembling and sin-shaken earth. He lived, he fasted forty days in the desert, he taught and worked wonders and preached the kingdom of God – and then “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

He knew what was coming. He was journeying to the cross. He knew the pain, the shame, the mockery and abuse and death awaiting him. Step by step, Jesus made his way to that dark hour when he'd stretch out his arms in crucifixion. He sweated and bled and prayed as he faced up to it in Gethsemane – not because he feared the pain, not because he feared the shame, not because he feared death. No, because he dreaded the cup of the wrath of the LORD, the cup that makes the nations drunk with their own sin (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Revelation 16:19). That's why he prayed, “Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). But he also prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

At Golgotha, when the nails transfixed the incarnate God's flesh to gnarled earthly wood outside the gates of the City of Chaos, Jesus stepped into Isaiah 24 for us. There on that tree, he weathered the woes that would have shaken us to bits. There on that tree, he suffered, not for any guilt of his own, but for our guilt, our wickedness, our corruption, our rebellion (cf. Isaiah 24:6). There on that tree, he accepted the wages of our sin. Our sin is death-dealing; our sin is a millstone around our necks; our sin is world-collapsing – but Jesus stretched forth his arms and bore the world on his shoulders and held it up beneath “almighty vengeance … that must have sunk a world to hell”. Atlas is a myth, but Jesus is the truth! And because Jesus is our true Atlas, bearing the weight of all our earth-sinking sin, “we will not fear, though the earth should change … though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:2-3).

During the present season of Lent, as we carry forward in discipleship, let's remember that we don't have to carry the world on our sinful, imperfect, mortally frail shoulders. If our world is handed over to Jesus in faith, he bears it on his shoulders, and we find refuge in the Rock of Ages, cleft for us on the cross, from every earthquake and every storm. With our world on his shoulders, this “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The earth may reel and sway and tremble and fall, but this Rock does not quake. If “he alone is [our] rock and [our] salvation”, then we “shall never be shaken” (Psalm 62:2). That's the truth set before us. We don't have to live in horror; we don't have to live in a wasteland. We weren't meant to live in ourselves; we were meant to live in Christ. But Lent is a journey. We aren't at Good Friday just yet! So day by day, may we walk with Jesus, even to the end – and beyond it.

See, we know what shines on the other side of Good Friday, when the Isaiah 24 wrath is swallowed up in the Son's victory and “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) rules from the Babylonian and Assyrian east all the way to the Tyrian and Egyptian west: “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; they shout from the west over the majesty of the LORD. Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD; in the coastlands of the sea glorify the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:14-16).

And although for now “the treacherous betray; with treachery the treacherous betray”, as Judas did, we don't have to “pine away” in the face of coming judgment (Isaiah 24:17), because our LORD Jesus does reign and “manifest his glory” (Isaiah 24:23). But for now, Lent is a journey to the cross. The fickle mobs of the City of Chaos stand before us, reminding us of what could have been. And the cross that made a dark Friday dark and also good remains before us: “Let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Look to Jesus, who bore the back-breaking burden of sin for us, enduring it for the sake of the joy that's coming. “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our Salvation!” (Psalm 95:1).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Tyre and Treasure: A Sermon on Isaiah 23

Sermon on Isaiah 23; Matthew 6:19-24; and Revelation 18.  Delivered on 15 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The thirteenth 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 7-8; Isaiah 8-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; and Isaiah 22.

Neither Isaiah nor John was one to mince words, were they? John confronts us with a garish image of “the great harlot who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication”, depicting a woman “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” – and John calls her “Babylon the Great” (Revelation 17:1-5). John may have either Rome or Jerusalem foremost in mind, but more broadly she represents ungodly culture in all its forms and manifestations, seated atop all “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” during the days of her reign (Revelation 17:15).

But although John calls her Babylon, he uses material from Isaiah 23. What John wants us to see is that his “Babylon the Great” is every ungodliness of these Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23), from Babylon in the east all the way to Tyre in the west, all rolled into one cesspool of sin and persecution. When Babylon the Great comes tumbling down, “the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her” (Revelation 18:11), because she – like Tyre for Isaiah and for Ezekiel – is the pinnacle of a world-economy in the service of sin.

See, ancient Tyre was the leading city of the Phoenicians for a long time, with one settlement on the mainland and another on a nearby island. It was famous for being the first serious seafaring power in the Mediterranean – not so much for naval warfare as for sending out merchants to distant shores. Up and down the Near Eastern coast, west along the northern African coast, and a hop, skip, and jump up to the southernmost reches of Europe their “ships of Tarshish” would roam, all the way to Spain and Sicily and back. If you wanted something foreign and exotic to show off, you'd buy it through the merchants of Tyre. They also specialized in making the most expensive purple dyes, which were popular among royalty and their imitators. And so Tyre's “merchants were princes”, Tyre's “traders were the honored of the earth” (Isaiah 23:8). Over a century after Isaiah's ministry, Ezekiel's lamentation over Tyre runs exhaustingly for verses and verses listing Tyre's trade with nation after nation after nation (Ezekiel 27:4-25).

Tyre was an awfully tempting thing to imitate. A couple hundred years before Isaiah, Tyre grew to international importance under the rule of Hiram, an ally of David and Solomon who sent cedar, gold, workmen, and architects to help build first a royal palace for David (2 Samuel 5:11) and then the temple of God in Jerusalem for Solomon (1 Kings 5:1-12; 9:10-14; 2 Chronicles 2:3-16). But a century later, the Tyrian king Ithobaal expanded their realm massively. Then the king of Israel married his daughter, the Tyrian princess Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31) – and, even though the Israelites kept their wedding song as Psalm 45, we all know how poorly that whole thing turned out. By Isaiah's time, Tyre was yet another of the many powers pinned down by Assyria's thumb, and its king Luli failed several times to get out from beneath it.

Still, Tyre dominated the trade of goods. Tyre still was the symbol of wealth, the peak of the world economy in its day. And for the most part, it ruled the economic world with pride and godlessness. And modern world culture is still enslaved to the spiritual economy of Tyre. Tyre is, “Get it while you can.” Tyre is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Tyre is, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Tyre is, “Bigger is better.” Tyre is Ayn Rand's slogans, “the virtue of selfishness” and “the utopia of greed.” Tyre is Gordon Gekko's line in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Tyre is human worth measured by the content of a bank account and not the content of a heart. Tyre is storing up “treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).

It isn't hard to figure out where to look for modern Tyre, either. Any way you measure it, there are three top-dogs in the world economy: the European Union, China, and the United States. We live in Tyre! We have “grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Revelation 18:3)! Our country alone accounts for about a quarter of the net worth of the entire human race. In the year 2000, Americans spent 203.7 billion dollars on entertainment products and services. In 2004, Americans spent 29.7 billion dollars in sporting goods stores and 92.9 billion dollars on soda and bottled water. In 2005, we spent 27.9 billion dollars just on candy! Nearly every part of our lives is shaped by this commercialist mentality: the very patterns of our mind and heart are molded by swallowing decades of advertising. We think the indulgence of Tyre is normal. How much of our buying and selling is bound up in selfish trinkets and toys that don't really matter, not to even mention outright sin? We buy plenty, and we sell plenty, and plenty of what we buy and sell isn't what it'd please God for us to buy and sell.

But a few years ago, a major study of American generosity found that one in five American Christians gave absolutely nothing to charitable causes, including but not limited to their own churches. Even among regular churchgoers, the average rose to less than 7%, with most of that coming from a tiny group of donors at the top. And the more money people make, they less they tend to give. We have all sorts of excuses, most of them madly detached from reality. Actively church-involved Evangelical Christians are demonstrably more generous than virtually every other group in America – which is sadly not saying all that much. But nowhere is it written in the Gospel, “Be thou a little bit better than everyone else.” It is written, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me” (Mark 10:21). We buy plenty, and we sell plenty, but giving is a distant third. We say we serve God, but the church of Tyre usually tries splitting the difference with Mammon – and “you can't serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

We have sure knowledge from God that everything that exalts itself against God won't last forever (Isaiah 2:17). Either it will humble itself, or it will be humbled. Either it will serve the Lord, or it will pass away. God may give ungodliness a long leash, but it has a length and an end. Who today lives in fear of the Assyrian Empire? Who today goes out of their way for a T-shirt with “Made in Tyre” stamped on the tag? The Titanic was unsinkable – so it's no surprise it sank. We can't get ahead in the long run: “When goods increase, those who eat them increase” (Ecclesiastes 5:11).

We can't predict how or when any idol may pass away. But we do know the why: “The LORD of hosts has planned it – to defile the pride of all glory, to shame the honored of the earth” (Isaiah 23:9). The Bible tells us that “those who trust in their riches will wither” (Proverbs 11:28). Tyre trusts in its riches, so it has to wither. And every element of the godless economy has to wither: “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste” (Revelation 18:19). “With your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth; now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters; your merchandise and all your crew have sunk with you” (Ezekiel 27:33-34). And “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Babylon the Great will fall, and that means the fall of modern pagan Tyre also.

But there is hope! The close of the chapter imagines an alternative ending to the story, the possibility of another era under a new king (Isaiah 23:15). Just as pagan Egypt had hope of salvation (Isaiah 19:18-25), so did pagan Tyre – and so does everything Tyre represents. Tyre doesn't have to mean an Ethbaal or a Jezebel; Tyre can be the Tyre of Hiram, supporting the people of God and building the temple of God and bringing gifts to God. But Tyre can't do it on her own, under her own power. It has to be the work of God. “The LORD will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade” (Isaiah 23:17). If Mammon meets Jesus face-to-face, can Mammon serve the Lord? If Tyre sees God, can Tyre be born again? Isaiah hopes yes! But what would that mean?

That's the question, isn't it? What would it mean for the economy to revolve around God? Well, “her merchandise and wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD” (Isaiah 23:18). Think about that: an economy of stewardship, where the Spirit of the LORD gives God's wisdom for every financial decision, where the value of every good is measured by how it serves the kingdom, where love replaces greed, where the goal is to provide for the work of building up a holy people and healing society and creation, and where it's a heavenly portfolio that grows by leaps and bounds.

How can we be part of that economy – an economy in the service of the kingdom? It doesn't start with us. It starts with God, who works through us, if we're the body of Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27). Now, this is not one of those “fundraising” sermons most every pastor and most every church is afraid of. I'm not the televangelist who made news this week telling his parishioners to buy him a new 60-million-dollar private jet. I'm not here to tell you that your salvation hinges on how much you give to this particular church. The local church isn't the only place to give, and the local church itself has to decide where to give. No, how we serve the kingdom economy isn't a matter of laying down the law; it's a matter of following the Spirit. For each of us, the matter is between us and the Spirit. We aren't all in the same place. Blind adherence to the letter of the Law isn't enough; we have to follow the Spirit. The kingdom economy is his doing.

When the Bible talks about being “spiritual”, it isn't using the watered-down meaning we bandy about today: you know, “religious”, but without the God-given structure. The word “spiritual” is often better rendered as “Spirit-driven”. We can have more than a “purpose-driven life”; God calls us to have a Spirit-driven life. Paul tells us that “a natural man” – literally, a person whose life is lived under the power of his or her own soul – can't listen for God's will through what the Spirit reveals; but “he who is spiritual” – literally, a person whose life is lived under the power of God's Spirit and so is motivated by the same Spirit who spoke through the prophets and apostles – “appraises all things” in accordance with God's will, for “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Once made new in Jesus, we recognize his Spirit's leading through holy living by faith and through a rich understanding of what the Spirit has already said to the churches.

For instance, the Spirit tells us that Jesus traded heaven's riches for earthly poverty so that we could be made rich in the Spirit through his poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9). The Spirit tells us about “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). Yet the Spirit tells us that no one can “obtain God's gift with money” (Acts 8:20). The Spirit reminds us that the Pharisees who opposed Jesus were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14), and that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to become rich, some have wandered away from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:10). The Spirit urges us, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5); and, “if riches increase, don't set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). The Spirit tells us that “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one doesn't have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). The Spirit tells us that “each of you must give as you've made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And it's about more than giving: it's about godly wisdom for how we earn, how we save, and how we spend, too. The Spirit guides each of us according to the same vision and the same mission but also according to our varied hearts and our varied circumstances.

An early Christian bishop named Irenaeus discussed how having the Spirit means that we've moved beyond what the Law teaches, not by doing less, but by going beyond it. The Law doesn't need to teach us not to commit adultery if the Spirit's already led us into chastity. The Law doesn't need to tell us not to murder if the Spirit's calmed our anger. The Law doesn't need to tell us, “An eye for an eye”, if the Spirit has already led us to love our enemies. The Law doesn't need to tell us not to covet if the Spirit's made us “those who have no care at all for earthly things, but store up the heavenly fruits.” And, he says, the Law “will not require tithes of him who consecrates all his possessions to God, leaving father and mother and all his kindred and following the word of God” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 96). The Spirit ultimately wants to take us beyond where the Law left off – but the Spirit starts where we are. Same vision and mission, varied hearts and circumstances. And if John Wesley spoke according to the Spirit's wisdom, then he teaches us (“The Dangerof Riches” I.1; II.7; “The Use of Money”, III.1, 4, 6-7):

Whatever is more than [food and clothing] is, in the sense of the Apostle, riches; whatever is above the plain necessaries, or at most conveniences, of life. Whoever has sufficient food to eat, and raiment to put on, with a place where to lay his head, and something over, is rich. … But the Apostle does not fix the charge, barely on possessing any quantity of goods, but on possessing more than we employ according to the will of the Donor....

Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can. … Calmly and seriously inquire: In expending this, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting herein, not as a proprietor, but as a steward of my Lord's goods? Am I doing this according to his Word? In what Scripture does he require me to do so? Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ? Have I reason to believe that, for this very work, I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just? … Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor, in soul or body … Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire, to gratify either the desire of flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly … And then, give all you can, or in other words, give all you have to God. … “Render to God,” not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's … by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can no longer be stewards; in such a manner as the oracles of God direct, both by general and particular precepts; in such a manner, that whatever ye do may be “a sacrifice of sweet-smelling savor to God”... But employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men!

Throughout Lent, Isaiah's Oracles Against the Nations have reminded us where our focus should be. We don't put our trust in the glories of unredeemed culture, or the plans of ungodly nations and groups, or the wisdom of this world, or in the wealth of the nations, or even in ourselves as the church without thought to our foundation (Oswalt 1:437). No, our trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father and who sends us his Spirit to guide us as a church. And Jesus really is Lord! As Abraham Kuyper reminded us in 1880, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry: 'Mine!'

So here's our next Lenten question. Does our economic behavior – our earning, our saving, our giving, our spending – serve our own interests first, or the kingdom of God first? When Christ points to it and says, “Mine!”, do we obey him? Are our financial habits a living parable of the gospel? Do they bear witness to Jesus Christ? Do we portray the beauty of Christ so convincingly that the economy's movers and shakers want to be Hirams? Do our economic choices and attitudes look like something animated merely by our own souls, or something empowered by the Spirit of God? Has the Spirit given us wise heads and generous hearts for all our economic behavior? Can it be said of us that “[our] merchandise and [our] wages will be dedicated to the LORD; [our] profits will not be stored or hoarded” (Isaiah 23:18)? Are we ships of Tarshish without a harbor (Isaiah 23:10), or do we really mean what we say when we sing, “Take my life and let it be / consecrated, Lord, to thee. … // Take my silver and my gold, / not a mite would I withhold. … // Take myself, and I will be / ever, only, all for thee”?