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”?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Valley of Vision: A Sermon on Isaiah 22

Sermon on Isaiah 22; Matthew 16:18-19; and Revelation 3:7-13.  Delivered on 8 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The twelfth 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; and Isaiah 19-20.

Isaiah's warnings have come against so many other nations, so many places: Assyria, Babylon, Moab, Edom, Damascus, Ephraim, back to Babylon again – but now he hits home. Now Isaiah isn't taking aim at a big pagan power. This is not a prophecy to make the hometown crowd give a standing ovation. Isaiah's got Jerusalem in the crosshairs.

Jerusalem was founded in the best place: atop Mount Zion. A mountain like that would give them a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, and that should have symbolized their spiritual vision and outward focus. But here Isaiah mocks them as living in a “valley of vision” (Isaiah 22:1) – for all their squandering of Mount Zion's virtues, they only look downward into their own petty pleasures and ignore God's message for them: a warning of “a day of tumult and trampling and confusion in the valley of vision” (Isaiah 22:5).  Today, the physical city of Jerusalem isn't pivotal to our faith, but that's because we have a new city, a new society: the church. Jesus didn't come to save an aggregate of independent souls; he came to build a community, a church, so that our spiritual maturity is affected by the way we grow or decline together.

We know and believe and confess that Jesus Christ is “fully God and fully man”, and so when it comes to the body whose head he is, it's no surprise that there's so much heaven and so much earth in us. And that's why the Reformers often talked about “the invisible church” and “the visible church”. The invisible church is made up of all who are truly transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The visible church is just what it sounds like: all those who look like they hold membership in a local church body. Some people can belong to the invisible church without being part of the visible church, like isolated believers in distant lands; and, far more commonly, people can belong to the visible church without having anything to do with the invisible church. The tares grow in the field of wheat, so the true crop is 'invisible' – until the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30).

We can rejoice, from the heavenly side, in the church's foundation. When Simon confessed the truth about Jesus being the Messiah, Jesus celebrated and nicknamed him “Peter”, or “Rocky”, and said that on the rock of this true confession, Jesus would build his church; and we have the promise that the very gates of hell would not conquer it (Matthew 16:18). We have full assurance that the church, viewed from this perspective, will always endure. Plenty of false religious movements say that the real Christian church died out within a couple hundred years, and so it's up to them to restore it. That is 100% the opposite of what Jesus promised: the church would never die out, would never abandon the faith in full apostasy. But from the earthly side, we know that sections of the visible church can lose their way, and sections of the visible church can go extinct. The global church, the invisible church – those will never die. The local church, the visible church, is called to vigilance and purity.

Isaiah's basic complaint against Jerusalem is a warning against pride. There was a phase that the people went through where they came to believe that Jerusalem was invincible, not because they actively put their faith in God, not because they actively lived holy lives, but because God just liked them anyway. They felt they had God over a barrel. They figured, “Hey, God chose Jerusalem as his city, and he put his temple here. God is a native Jerusalemite now. What God chooses, he can't unchoose; that'd be going back on his word, right?  Didn't he promise to reside in Jerusalem forever (1 Chronicles 23:25)?  So if God chose Jerusalem, then it doesn't really matter what we do. In the big picture, we're safe!” That's how they thought. Isaiah's talking to them right after they were left mostly untouched by a big disaster – the enemy army turned back – and they're all feeling pretty good about themselves.

But God didn't see things that way. Yes, he chose Jerusalem. He chose it to be a Faithful City (Isaiah 1:21, 26; Zechariah 8:3). Sure, God would work out his purposes there, but that didn't make it impregnable. What mattered to him wasn't the physical buildings of Jerusalem, because God isn't bound to those, not even to the temple they built for him. God looks upon the heart. And Isaiah warns that God is not impressed with what he's seeing.

There are segments of the visible church today that have this same old pride. They divorce God's endorsement from God's will. God calls us to be faithful to the gospel, which is a gospel of both holiness and love. As a visible local church, if we aren't faithful to the gospel of holiness, then it doesn't matter that we're called a “church”, it doesn't matter what our building's square footage is, it doesn't matter who made the stained glass windows or when, it doesn't matter what real estate we occupy, it doesn't matter which prestigious divinity school the pastor went to, it doesn't matter how trendy or hip or 'emerging' we are, it doesn't matter what policy proposals we sign off on or how our people vote or how much more sophisticated we are than the so-called fundamentalists down the street. If we don't call people to God's vision of practical holiness as the Bible sets forward for us, then God does not promise the visible church's survival!

But the same is true if we aren't faithful to the gospel of love. If we don't have love, then until the cows come home we can speak in tongues and prophesy and unfold mysteries and teach accurate theology and give to charity and support social justice or God-and-country politics or whatever all we want, but if we don't have love, then the whole thing nets us zilch (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Remember, the people of Jerusalem were focused inward. They were supposed to look out, but they looked in. How many churches are there whose finances, energy, and attention are almost totally tied up with what goes on between the stained glass windows? How many churches are stuck in survival mode, when Jesus says that the greatest love is to lay down one's life for others (John 15:13)? Is a loveless church somehow better than an unholy church? Or is an unholy church without the gospel really a big improvement on a loveless church? Aren't both at risk of God's warning: “He has taken away the covering of Judah” (Isaiah 22:8)?

But in spite of it all, the people of Jerusalem in Isaiah's day had put all their focus, not into seeking the Lord, but into building up their defenses – walls and pools and tunnels, all designed to withstand a siege from enemy armies and keep the people safe. Their trust was in their fancy workmanship (Isaiah 22:9-10). Isaiah sees a problem here: all this construction, all this care, all this meticulous planning, “but you didn't look to the One who did it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11). Churches can build and build to their heart's content, but what's it all about? How many churches in this country with their old Gothic stonework can't fill more than a couple of their dozens upon dozens of pews on a Sunday morning? How many newer churches define themselves by how much they resemble a mall or an airport terminal? How many churches think their capital campaign will be their salvation? Building can be good, building can be fine, but what kind of building is most important: adding new facilities, or raising high a spiritual temple on the Church's One Foundation?

Here at Pequea, we've been doing plenty of 'building' ourselves lately. We've had a lot of focus over the past few months on strengthening our infrastructures. With careful changes to the church bylaws, we've cleared the way for streamlined educational ministries. We've built a church newsletter, going out month by month to keep us on the same page. We've built a church website and social media accounts to extend our church into cyberspace. I'm convinced that all of these are very good secondary things that we're right to have done. But they are secondary, and if we lose sight of that, then we've gutted them of meaning. Do we put first things first? We invest in infrastructure, but do we invest in discipleship? Are people deepening their spiritual maturity from one month to the next because this church is here? Do we have regard for the One who planned the church long ago? Are our eyes fixed on Jesus above all else – not an idea, but the living person who beckons us deeper into the mysteries of the faith and the mission of God? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then why are we here? If the answer is no, what word does God have for us other than, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)?

But back to Jerusalem. The people were in a sorry state. They should have taken their situation seriously. They were in a crisis. And they were in denial. Instead of disciplining themselves, instead of committing themselves to God, they threw a party! We know the motto: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13). They threw a party, but this was no time for a party. It was a time for “weeping and mourning … and putting on sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12), a time to be humbled before God and admit that we're ash cycling back to ash and that only he can save us, “for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jeremiah 6:26). They thought it was Mardi Gras. But their lives depended on Lent.

I imagine you can tell a lot about a person depending on how they react to the news that they only have a month or a week to live. Do they talk about making the most of what they have left, and enjoying the pleasures of life? Do they say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”? Or do they devote themselves to prayer and fasting, to being spiritually ready to stand before God and to leaving a healthy legacy behind on earth? And you can tell a lot about a church by how they use their time. In many segments of the church today, the focus is not on the gospel. The focus is not on the spiritual needs of the people in the church. The focus is not on being Jesus to the community. The focus is on feeling nice, getting a quick emotional high to last through the week. The focus is on being entertained and amused.

This is a serious sickness in the American church. It's poison. Lent reminds us that it really isn't about our entertainment. It doesn't matter if we're entertained. It doesn't matter if we're amused. It doesn't matter if we 'feel' like worshipping God. It isn't about our fleeting emotional states; it's about the abiding truth of the abiding God who wants us to abide in him. It isn't about us. It's about Jesus grafting sinners into his body, making them a holy people, and training them up as a royal priesthood for the salvation of the world.

Back to Jerusalem. You know it's serious when Isaiah has to start naming names! God singles out a man named Shebna, the “steward” or “palace administrator” (Isaiah 22:15). Whoever was the steward controlled access to the king. Shebna was basically second-in-command of Judah. That kind of power comes with plenty of responsibilities. Shebna should have been living as an example of wisdom, planning carefully to help Judah ration supplies and stay on the spiritual straight-and-narrow. But Shebna did nothing of the sort. Instead, he lavished resources on building a magnificent tomb for himself (Isaiah 22:16)!

It's painful to say, but there are a lot of church leaders who are a lot like Shebna. We're called with a wonderfully high calling, handed immense responsibilities to lovingly lead the people of God to greater holiness and maturity. But there are church leaders who abuse their position for selfish gain. There are church leaders who lord their status over others. Some of you are here to find healing after being wounded by the Shebnas of the modern church.

Like Shebna, many of these modern church leaders have turned away from their mission and are only building tombs. They may be using their position in the church to exalt the modern culture of death that fights against the value and respect to be accorded to all human life. They may be using their position to advocate for death-dealing false doctrines. They may glory in the “dead works” from which the Bible tells us to repent and be purified (Hebrews 6:1; 9:14). Or they may simply be dealing in dead spirituality instead of a living relationship with the living God. Like the scribes and Pharisees, their souls and ministries can be “like unto whited sepulchers, which … are within full of dead men's bones” (Matthew 23:27). I'm no Isaiah to be naming names, but there are entire denominations whose leadership is dominated by Shebna lookalikes and whose ministries have little to nothing in common with the gospel. But all of these are just construction projects for tombs.

But praise God, we have a Savior who knows his way out of tombs! Amen? Isaiah confronts Shebna with stern warnings of judgment (Isaiah 22:17-19), and we know that he was demoted to just being Hezekiah's royal scribe (Isaiah 36:3; 37:2). In 1871, an inscription at a cave outside Jerusalem was found: it marked “the tomb of Shebna, the royal steward”. In Shebna's place comes a replacement, Eliakim, a more responsible and honorable man (Isaiah 22:20-21). And to Eliakim was entrusted the stewardship of the palace and the “key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). That's a lot of responsibility (Isaiah 22:23)! But even Eliakim couldn't bear the weight of the full load (Isaiah 22:24-25).

Our hopes do not hinge on Shebna, and they do not hinge on the many modern Shebnas. Our hopes do not hinge on Eliakim, nor any of the modern Eliakims – faithful church leaders committed to the gospel. A prominent Baptist pastor named Thom Rainer once tried an experiment and asked the deacons of his church to calculate the minimum time he should devote to some pastoral tasks each week. When he tallied all these minimum expectations up, they came to 114 hours. When everything hangs on any mortal peg, even a faithful one, the burden will fall. No mortal Shebna or mortal Eliakim is our hope and trust.

But there is a greater Eliakim who is our hope – and his name is Lord Jesus. He is “the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7). Jesus has the true authority committed to his hand, for all authority in heaven and earth belongs to him (Matthew28:18); and Jesus truly shall be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isaiah 22:21). He's opened the door for us to press onward to seeing our salvation made perfect (Revelation 3:8), and he shared with his apostles his authority to declare what behaviors and attitudes are 'open' for the people of God and which ones are 'shut' (Matthew 16:19).

There are plenty of churches, sad to say, that try so hard to open what Jesus has shut. These churches may pride themselves in being “affirming”, “inclusive”, “open” – but Jesus and his teachings define the contours of Christian love, not our own whims and desires and agendas. The gospel is for all people, but it calls us all to the same hard road and the same narrow gate (Matthew 7:14). There are many behaviors and attitudes that the Bible – properly understood and properly applied – shuts out. Don't be tempted by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)

But there are also many churches that try very hard to shut what Jesus has opened. These churches may pride themselves on being exceptionally holy. Paul tells of us people who insisted on making Christianity out to be rules on top of rules on top of rules: “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:3). There are a lot of things that the Bible – again, properly understood and properly applied – leaves wide open for believers. There are issues God has declined to settle for us; we can worship with different music, speak in different languages, look different. Holiness is not looking like an extra from Leave It to Beaver; holiness is reflecting Jesus in the Spirit. The mark of a Christian isn't having the right style of hair or unpierced ears or unmarked skin. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

This is Lent, a time for reflecting on the state of our faith and our Christian lives. Better than literal sackcloth and ashes, it's a time to “loose the bonds of injustice”, to “let the oppressed go free”, to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Jesus has most definitely left that open. Against “the fruit of the Spirit … there is no law, and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24). Lent is a time to ask ourselves whether we're putting any obstacles in the way of the Spirit's ongoing work in us. Those obstacles need to be nailed to his cross and left there.

Lent is also a time to examine our church. Do we have the spirit of Shebna or the Spirit of the living God? Do we look more like Jerusalem as the “Valley of Vision”, or do we look more like “the New Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven” (Revelation 3:12)? Jesus calls us to keep his word of patient endurance (Revelation 3:10) and to “hold fast to what [we] have” been given: the gospel of holy love, kept complete – no more, no less – so that “no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:11). We can overcome through faith and self-discipline in following Jesus; that's what Lent is all about. If we have the heart of Jesus, and if we stand firm upon the Rock, then we don't have to sink into the “valley of vision”. We can have real vision, looking to our God and out at the people who need the life we've found in Jesus. We can stay the course and live out our mission, and we have this hope from our Lord himself: “If you overcome, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God … and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:12-13).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Blessed Be Egypt, My People": A Lenten Sermon on Isaiah 19-20

Sermon on Isaiah 19-20 (Isaiah 19:1-3, 11-13, 17-25; 20:1-6); Matthew 5:11-12, 43-45; 28:19-20; Romans 12:12-14, 19-21; Revelation 11:15-17).  Originally scheduled for 15 February 2015, but as the service was canceled due to inclement weather conditions, now rescheduled to be delivered instead on 22 February 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The eleventh 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; and Isaiah 15-18.

As we geared up for Lent, we've considered what Isaiah had to say against Babylon, the cultural center of the world. We've heard what Isaiah had to say about the half-church like Moab and the halved-church like seduced and divided Israel. And now in these chapters, Isaiah turns his attention to Egypt, that great nation that forever lived in Jewish memory as the original oppressor of God's people, the land that took them in but only to enslave them. Yet in the desert's freedom, the complaining children of Israel famously longed to go back to Egyptian slavery: “If only we'd died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we'd died in the wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? … Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3). Rather than turn their hearts to God, “in their hearts they turned back to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Abusive Egyptian protection was the first reflex for a timid chosen band too fearful for faith in the proven arm of their God.

And now, in Isaiah's day, Egypt returns to Judah's awareness. Judah was still looking for ways to resist Assyrian power – ways that didn't involve trusting God alone. See, God called Judah's trust on him to be so total that, politically, they'd be the Switzerland of the ancient world: no formal alliances, no aggression, no need to get involved except as God himself directed. At one point, Judah was pressured by Syria and Israel to join up with their alliance. Now, Judah is faced with the prospect of teaming up with two other major powers: Egypt and Ethiopia. In those days, the Ethiopian kings had actually conquered Egypt, so the two went together under the Ethiopian-born pharaoh Piye. That's what we glimpsed in Isaiah 18: ambassadors from Ethiopia, Egypt's new rulers, making sweet talk to the Judean court.

Judah finds herself tempted. Egypt was pretty strong in its own right. Sure, the Syro-Ephraimite coalition two decades earlier proved to be a lost cause, but maybe resting on great Egypt now would be the winning ticket? Isaiah warns no. Isaiah 20 tells us that, for three years starting around 711 BC, he went around naked as a slave, making his own body a symbol of the dire fate that would befall those who joined in this new project (Isaiah 20:1-5). And sure enough, although the revolt in the Philistine chief city Ashdod did have backing from several nations, the revolt failed, and the Philistines all fell under Assyria's heavy hand. It's a shame that no one had the wisdom to listen to Isaiah.

The Assyrian chronicles give us the backstory. Assyria had tried to quash threats from Ashdod's petty chief Azuri by removing him from power and replacing him with his more pro-Assyrian younger brother Ahimiti. But in revolt against Assyrian rule, the people of Ashdod had toppled Ahimiti and replaced him with an ethnic Greek chieftain Iamani. A number of Assyria's subject-nations – they list the Philistines, Judah, Edom, Moab, and various island countries – were seduced by this Greek through “countless evil lies” to fight Assyria, and “Pharaoh, king of Egypt” was bribed to be an ally. In these years, Sargon II's histories record, even Egypt sent tribute to Assyria. Yet when Sargon's army came near, Iamani ran away to Egyptian territory, gaining refuge from Piye's brother, Pharaoh Shabaka. The Assyrians conquered Ashdod and other Philistine cities like Gath, and the Assyrian general became king there. Several years later, Pharaoh Shebitku – Piye's son and Shabaka's nephew – came to power and, terrified of Assyrian brutality, turned over the refugee Iamani to be led away in “fetters, shackles, and iron bands” to Assyria. Decades later, Assyria finally invaded Egypt and took many captives, including plenty of young Ethiopian royals. Isaiah's vivid portrait came to pass.

But for Isaiah, this isn't just some little skirmish: it sheds light on God's point of view. Why trust in Egypt? What does Egypt have to offer? Big armies? So what? Deep wisdom? Hardly. What about the might and the wisdom of the God who sits enthroned over all nations, Egypt and Assyria alike? In this embarrassment for Egypt, Isaiah catches a glimpse of the dread and the hope that God holds out to Egypt in one and the same hand. Isaiah knows that God isn't the God over the Jews alone; he's the God of the nations and invites them to be saved through trusting him (Romans 3:28-30).

But in its pagan folly, Egypt needs first to be humbled by a visit from the LORD “riding on a swift cloud” (Isaiah 19:1) – just as the Word of the LORD, living as the Son of Man, was to “come with the clouds of heaven with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26; cf. Daniel 7:13) and “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). So God visits judgment on Egypt to topple and crumble her idols and everything they stand for, and to dissolve the unjust structures of Egypt's society (Isaiah 19:1-10), and to show that Egypt's so-called worldly 'wisdom' is a lie that can't cope with his glory (Isaiah 19:11-14).

But God's judgment is never, on this side of eternity, without a hopeful goal. Isaiah sees hope, not just for a faithful Judah, but for an Egypt with a newfound faith. Paul described some believers as having “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and that's what Isaiah holds out for the Egyptians. Even in their great centers of once-pagan worship, they'd “swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 19:18). Egyptian false worship would give way to “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), with a holy altar and a holy pillar committing God's presence to memory and to life (Isaiah 19:19).

Through a change in Egypt's once-hard heart, now melted soft as their liquidated idols, Egypt would therefore be made a people with promises like Israel's promises. The story of the exodus started when “the Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out; out of slavery, their cry for help rose to God” (Exodus 2:23), because the Egyptians were their oppressors from whom they needed a savior to deliver them. Throughout the Old Testament, the nation and individuals cry out to the LORD in times of deep distress (1 Samuel 7:8; Psalm 18:6; Joel 1:14). From the first, the Egyptians were the reason why Israel had to cry out to the LORD for help; but now, in a new state of salvation, the Egyptians themselves can cry out to this very same God, who would deliver them too (Isaiah 19:20).

Because of that, Isaiah describes the Egyptians as bringing thank-offerings to God, just as Israel did, because now they'll “know the LORD on that day” (Isaiah 19:21), pointing to the time of promise when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; cf. Habakkuk 2:14). Not only will the Egyptians forsake their idols, but they will actually have a living relationship with God, just like Israel does. And Israel was told that, as children of the living God, they'd be subject to his discipline when they went astray – not to destroy them, but to help them: “As a parent disciplines a child, so the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Just so, here Egypt shares in that same hope of being subject to God's discipline (Isaiah 19:22), not as vessels of wrath as the Pharaoh of the Exodus had been (Romans 9:14-24), but as children molded by discipline and crafted by the hand of divine mercy (Hebrews 12:5-8).

But again, this isn't some private thing to be kept in their hearts and sectioned off from everyday life, like our Babylonian culture tells us a good pet religion ought to be. Far from it! Egypt's turning to God is matched by Assyria's turning to God. And because they turn to the same God, the God who sends his Son as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), so the warfare between Egypt and Assyria is overcome by fellowship in worship (Isaiah 19:23). The blessing God gives here shows that Egypt and Assyria are both fully included (Isaiah 19:24-25). They aren't second-rate nations on the fringes of God's plan. No, God blesses them with the same words that Israel always knew as her own. God sent Moses on a mission, saying, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10) – but now, 'my people' refers to converted Egypt itself (Isaiah 19:25)! And throughout Isaiah, it's the offspring of Jacob whom God calls “the work of my hands” (Isaiah 29:23; 45:11; 60:21) – except here, it isn't Israel, it's big, bad Assyria, now humbled and serving the LORD (Isaiah 19:25). Israel isn't out in front; Israel is “the third” (Isaiah 19:24).

Indeed, this prophecy of hope climaxes with Egypt and Assyria both sharing the special status that used to be Israel's alone: being God's elect, being the chosen people – “Those who were not my people, I will call 'my people'; and she who was not beloved, I will call 'beloved'” (Romans 9:25; cf. Hosea 2:23). The persecutor becomes the elect. It plays out on the national stage the story of Paul: a zealous opponent of God's people, boasting in his own wisdom, but humbled by a glimpse of the truth and God's judgment, and through that judgment being changed from a persecutor into God's worshipful witness in the earth. And just so, Egypt and Assyria join Israel in being “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24).

And there really was a time when Egypt was a Christian land. In the first decades, the church gained a presence there; tradition has it that Mark gets the credit, founding the church of Alexandria. Throughout the next centuries, Alexandria became a beacon of the gospel. After the Roman Empire ended persecution of Christians, many Copts – native Egyptians – converted. Plenty of the great saints of Christian history lived in Egypt: St. Antony, the desert hermit; St. Athanasius, the courageous bishop who defied the world; St. Moses the Black, a murderous bandit-chief God's grace made into a monk of peace. And there was a time when Assyria was a Christian land. Early in the second century, the Assyrian people – by now a borderland between Rome and Parthia – had started to turn to Jesus. We know plenty of early Assyrian believers, like the theologian Tatian and the sublime hymn-writer Ephrem. For a time, two major divisions in the Christian world were the Coptic Church and the Assyrian Church.

Both still exist today, but neither Egypt nor Assyria can be called a Christian land. In days of severe infighting among supposedly Christian peoples, in the seventh century, armies from Arabia swept across a large portion of the known world, driven by a new religion called Islam. In the year 642, just a decade after the death of Muhammad, his close friend and second successor Umar had brought Egypt under his control, and the year after that, he took the whole Persian Empire. Umar died the next year, and over the centuries, people surrendered in their spirits to the political power that their Muslim overlords wielded. Though the church has continued to press forward and thrive in the cracks, never since has there been a Christian society in Egypt or Assyria.

More Jesus-followers are martyred today than were martyred in the days of pagan Rome. More believers suffer insult, mockery, and outright violence than even the darkest days of those ancient persecutions. The Middle East is especially rife with states and groups that persecute believers simply on account of the gospel they cherish, and these groups rule with violence and terror. Over the past couple years, Egypt has been thrown into a great upheaval as the military, secular groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood have all jockeyed for control.

Just a couple weeks ago, America's president submitted papers for a formal authorization of war against the so-called Islamic State – ISIS, a group whose hyper-radical version of Islam is too lawless even for al-Qaeda's tastes, let alone for nations like Iran, Egypt, and Jordan. Last year, ISIS launched a massive campaign of violence against Assyrian Christians, driving them out of the Iraqi city of Mosul – which the Assyrians still call 'Nineveh' – for the first time in 1600 years; and over the past two months, a few thousand Assyrian Christias formed a militia called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units to fight back. Recently, ISIS also beheaded twenty-one Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach; and now they belong to the ranks of the martyrs beneath God's heavenly altar (Revelation 6:9-10), those who have "conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they didn't cling to life even in the face of death" (Revelation 12:11). In the spectrum of modern Islamic practice, from the peaceful to the militant, ISIS is the extreme of the extreme; and, as one Muslim-turned-Christian-theologian reminds us, ISIS-style terrorism terrorizes and kills other Muslims more than any other group, sending countless souls to the grave in the heartbreaking absence of the gospel. Last September, ISIS left no question about its aspirations: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah the Exalted”, they trumpeted. But we know that their wisdom will fail and their swords will crumble in the light of God's glory.

Jesus told us that we'd be persecuted in one form or another: maybe insult, maybe mockery, maybe social pressure and exclusion, but maybe prison sentences and terror attacks and torture unto death. In the light of all this, how did Jesus call his people to respond to persecution? Jesus tells us not to feel crushed by it all. When we are mocked, slandered, or attacked for no other reason than living like Jesus and teaching what he taught us, that isn't a curse; he tells us to think of it as a blessing (Matthew 5:11-12). Jesus calls us to show love, not just to our friends, not just to our acquaintances, but even to people who hate us with a deadly hate. Jesus calls us to pray God's converting and healing blessings on those who persecute us. Because Jesus calls us to have God's heart, and God sends the sun and the rain even on the wicked (Matthew 5:43-45).

Through his messenger Paul, Jesus calls us to be patient in the face of suffering, not lashing out because of anger (Romans 12:12). We aren't supposed to curse those who persecute us. Nor are we just supposed to ignore them. We're supposed to actively seek to bless them (Romans 12:14). It broke my heart the other week when a senator said, about detainees at Guantánamo Bay, that as far as he's concerned, “every last one them can rot in hell”. That sounds a lot like cursing one's persecutors. But on the other hand, four years ago, on a day of violent clashes between protestors and the Egyptian government, a crowd of Coptic Christians formed a human chain around Muslims doing their prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo. That sounds a lot like loving one's neighbor. A wish of hellfire or a risky act of protection – who here looks most like a follower of Christ?

Jesus warns us through Paul not to descend to the same evil paths that the persecutors walk, not to try to outdo them with evil (Romans 12:17). Instead, we should be working toward peace. Not all of it depends on us – they may attack us anyway, they may hate us anyway – but our goal should be to live as people of peace (Romans 12:18). Vengeance doesn't belong in our hands; it's best left in God's hands, to either mete out in his own timing or to resolve at the foot of Christ's cross (Romans 12:19). We're meant to actively bless our persecutors, being generous in a way that, by its very defiance of their hate, invites them to replace their hate with God's love (Romans 12:20). Cursing our persecutors is easy and comes natural to sin-stricken hearts; blessing our persecutors is a work of the Spirit of God's love. And so the godly way to handle persecution is to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Our ultimate hope is for the day when “the kingdom of this world … becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). That's what we want to see happen. We want every nation, every group, to get the Isaiah 19 treatment. Can you dream of it? Can you imagine: “Blessed be ISIS my people, and Iran the work of my hands”? Can you imagine: “There will be an altar to the LORD in the center of the land of Iraq”? Can you imagine: “The LORD will make himself known to the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Israelis will worship Christ with the Palestinians”?

Our hope and our prayer is for every idol to fall by the wayside. Our desire and our prayer is for a clear pathway for every persecutor of the church – every persecuting person, every persecuting group, every skeptic, every scoffer – to be raised up like a Paul. Our commitment is to bless them, not by supporting or enabling their evil deeds or sinful attitudes, but by leading people made in God's image onward to the healthy wholeness that God's Spirit gives. As Christians, our struggle isn't really against flesh and blood, after all (Ephesians 6:12). Discipleship is the major mode of God's war on the powers of darkness, because that is the only kind of war that uses the sword of the Spirit alone (Ephesians 6:17). We are called to disciple every demographic – not just individuals, making “disciples from all nations”, but we are called to “disciple all nations”, all peoples (Matthew 28:19). We are called to disciple Iraq, to disciple Iran, to disciple Syria, to disciple Boko Haram, to disciple al-Qaeda, to disciple ISIS. Actively bless them. That's a daring calling! But is it any more daring now than when those words passed the lips of the risen Christ into the ears of Matthew and John and Thomas and Peter?

Ash Wednesday has come and gone now. Lent is here, a time of self-denial and self-scrutiny in light of the gospel. Lent is a time for the Spirit's circumcision of our hearts to be renewed afresh (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29). Lent is a time for recommitting ourselves to the cause of Jesus Christ – not the domesticated Jesus we want, but the radically challenging Jesus who died and rose and lives and reigns! This is the Jesus who says, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). And in our sinful flesh, we find that so hard, so undesirable. But that's what Lent is for: to help us shape up where we shrink back from the call of Jesus.

So I have a Lenten challenge for us. This is what I feel God placing upon my heart for us. Every remaining day of Lent, let's devote ourselves to praying for ISIS. Pray for al-Qaeda, pray for Boko Haram, for Hezbollah, for Hamas, for the Muslim Brotherhood. Pray that God would prevail in their lives to bring Christ to them and turn them to the Prince of Peace. Pray also for the many nonviolent non-Christian organizations in our own backyard, and share Jesus with them; and pray for those who personally offend you. But pray for converting and healing blessings to fall from God's hands upon the persecutors who terrorize the world, and pray strength and peace upon the people who live in terror, especially our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith - Copts, Assyrians, and all others. Pray for them all! Can you imagine the work that God might do if we would all actually pray together? “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). So “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).