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).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Half-Church and the Halved Church: A Sermon on Isaiah 15-18

Sermon on Isaiah 15-18 (15:1-2; 16:4-6, 11-13; 17:1-4, 7-8; 10a; 18:3, 7); John 17 (17:1-3, 17-18, 22-23); and Ephesians 4:3-6.  Delivered 1 February 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The tenth 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, and Isaiah 13-14, 21

Two weeks ago, we heard how Isaiah started his oracles against the nations by warning Babylon, the cultural center of the world. Now in these chapters, Isaiah targets the sorts of nations who often drew together in alliances against the bigger empires – the kinds of nations who might try to draw Judah into their schemes. Isaiah 15-16 address Moab. The Moabites descended from Abraham's nephew Lot through sinful dysfunction (Genesis 19:30-37). They came to live across the Dead Sea from Judah, in the land where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood. The Moabites spoke almost the same language, they wrote much the same way, and they sometimes had friendly relations with Abraham's offspring. They might not be Israel's brethren, but they sure are close cousins. Indeed, as a great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth, King David was one-eighth Moabite! So when Isaiah pronounces judgment on Moab, he feels torn with compassion: “My heart cries out for Moab”, he says (Isaiah 15:5).

And yet Isaiah does have to warn of God's judgment, that Moab's pride will bring its fall, and “those who survive will be very few and feeble” (Isaiah 16:14). Moab was seldom a friendly nation. It was the Moabite king Balak who hired Balaam to curse God's people (Numbers 22-24; Joshua 24:9), and when that trick failed, it was Moabite women who sought to seduce the Israelites away from God (Numbers 25:1-3; Revelation 2:14). In the days of the judges, yet again the Israelites strayed after “the gods of Moab” (Judges 10:6); and after the days of the judges, Solomon's marriages to Moabite wives led him to build a shrine for the Moabite god Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7). Moab was not God's people. For all their similarities, they were the very opposite; they were the counterfeit, the seducer, turning God's people into a half-church.

There are plenty of visible heresies, serious distortions of the gospel – we think of groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and so on. These are religious movements springing out of a Christian heritage but denying fundamental parts of the faith. For all their imitation of the faith, “when Moab presents himself, when he wearies himself upon the high place, when he comes to his sanctuary to pray, he will not prevail” (Isaiah 16:12). But we can't pretend that heresy is something that only happens “out there”, in some external group we can point to and say, “That's where the heresy is.”  The oracles against the nations call us to examine ourselves: Have we run astray after the Moabites? Have we been seduced by the half-gospel of a half-church?

One popular false doctrine today is denying the resurrection – not the resurrection of Jesus, mind you, but the physical, bodily resurrection of every believer. The basic creed of our faith says that we “believe … in the resurrection of the body” – it's right up there alongside believing in “the forgiveness of sins”. And yet, if you ask so many Christians what the future holds, it's bidding the body goodbye for good and going to heaven. But the Bible says so little about “going to heaven”, and so much more about a new creation where heaven and earth will be one. Denying the resurrection of the body was one of the heresies of Corinth: “How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead? If there's no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn't been raised; and if Christ hasn't been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14), Paul says, but the risen Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). We have this certain hope: these bodies sown in the earth will rise again, “the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52), powered not just by the human soul but by the Spirit of God who gives them glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and so our humble bodies will be like Christ's glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Believe in the resurrection of the body; don't be a Moabite.

Another popular false doctrine today is what one Old Testament scholar calls “an evangelical version of an ancient fertility religion” (Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 270), and that's the Word-of-Faith message spread by most televangelists – people who teach that if you just have enough faith, by which they mean enough money to give them, then God wants you to be happy and free from suffering and rich. But when the Bible speaks of earthly 'prosperity', it's talking to people for whom prosperity means having enough to eat and enough to provide for your families, not people who dream of driving a Ferrari and living on hundred-acre estates. Jesus invites us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3), not our daily filet mignon! God invites us to define the good life as the holy life. Paul said that “we boast in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and he had harsh words for the televangelists of his day – flashy, successful preachers he sarcastically called “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). The credentials of his ministry, he said, were his afflictions for the sake of serving Jesus, not the multiple homes and private jet and millions of dollars that some televangelists have. A study was done of the devotional messages and sermons of one popular televangelist who promises “your best life now”, and he almost never even mentions Jesus Christ. But every Christian preacher in the New Testament shouts aloud the praises of Jesus Christ – thanks be to God! Follow the prophets and the apostles; don't be a Moabite.

A third popular false doctrine today comes in two versions, the 'left' and the 'right'. And that's thinking that the Bible is just plain irrelevant to some major area of our lives, when really it calls us to holiness in our whole lives. On the 'left' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about human sexuality and marriage in today's world. We might not want to hear what the Bible has to say about the meaning of marriage, or about focusing sexual expression only in that holy union. We might not want to hear what Jesus and Paul actually said about marriage and divorce. We might lightly dismiss them if we don't want to hear the will of a God we can't tame. But God didn't send his Son into the world to tickle our ears with unsound teaching (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3); he sent his Son into the world to heal its brokenness and make unholy people holy (John 3:16-17). The Bible shows us that God made us for lasting faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman, who signify Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32), or else a celibate single life for the sake of gospel service (Matthew 19:12).

But on the 'right' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about economics and ecology, about money and nature. We might want to condemn the poor as lazy and keep our money for our own use – but the Bible stands in our way. We don't subsidize those who refuse to contribute to society (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but we're called to always be ready to err on the side of generosity, since although Jesus Christ had heaven's riches, “yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” in everlasting life (2 Corinthians 8:9). Should we earn what we can? Sure, if we're committed to the entirety of John Wesley's advice: “Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can” (Sermons 50.3.1) – and Wesley said that if you've got enough food to eat and clothing to wear and a place to lay your head, and then anything more that isn't strictly necessary, that's riches (Sermons 87.1.1). That might not be as far off as we'd like. And God called us from the very start to tend the world as his holy garden (Genesis 2:15). He gave us charge of it, and we have a charge to keep. If we mistreat the poor, if we're stingy, if we destroy the earth around us – that's the morality of Moab, not the love of Christ.

Finally, a fourth popular false doctrine is the neatly packaged way we sometimes understand the gospel itself. In America, we're all about individualism; we constantly think in individual terms, and we insist that religion is some 'private' thing. I remember when I became a believer. In the late 1990s, as a boy, I was at an evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It terrified me into the arms of Jesus. The entire thing was rooted in fear. I saw it again a few years ago, and it just made me sad. For them, the gospel was all about a last-minute escape from hellfire. In their skits, no non-believer ever had any serious objections or questions, and no believer struggled with anything. The whole thing was about securing a place in heaven to escape hell, if only you'd just once pray a little prayer and be enrolled in the Book of Life (cf. Revelation 20:15). The Christians in the skits weren't disciples; they're just marks in a heavenly ledger, waiting in an earthly lay-away until death makes the delivery.

No guidance was offered on how to find a healthy church, no mention was made of baptism, no mention was made of growing in the faith, no mention was made of being held accountable by a group of believers. That's barely even evangelism, let alone discipleship – the drama never even suggested that there was anything worth doing between “getting saved” and dying. Zero discipleship. But it reflects the way a lot of Christians think of the faith. We get sucked into the rhetoric of Jesus as our “personal Savior” – something that involves just me and Jesus in our own private world. Jesus redeemed a community, not a mere collection. To tell the gospel, we have to tell the whole story – the story of creation on a good course, humans given a mission, the mission abandoned, creation broken, and our own complicity in sin, and then Jesus as the climax of God's saving work to restore us to our mission here and now and to heal creation itself one day. God can use our half-gospels – I'm living proof of that... but he calls us to “fully proclaim the gospel of Christ” (cf. Romans 15:19).

So we have to reject heresy, we have to reject false teaching, we have to turn away from the “pride of Moab”, for “his boasts are false” (Isaiah 16:6). But there's hope for the half-church. In the days of Moses, the word of God demanded that no Moabite could be admitted to the Lord's assembly because of how they tried to curse and seduce Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3; Nehemiah 13:1-2). But Isaiah offers hope for the outcasts of Moab. And that hope is the same as Judah's hope: that “a throne shall be established in steadfast love in the tent of David, and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right” (Isaiah 16:5). Who is that ruler? Jesus Christ – not Christ as reimagined by this group or that group, but the Christ who is the Truth unaltered. We need to examine our teachings: Are we believing and living as half-Christians or whole-Christians, as a half-church or a whole-church?

A half-church is tragic, but so is a halved church. Isaiah 17 looks like it's supposed to be about Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-2), but in just a couple verses, Isaiah shifts gears and spends all his time talking about Israel, the Northern Kingdom, which he likes to call “Ephraim”. The day will come, Isaiah says, when Israel – the Israel that pitted itself against Judah – will lose its fortresses and have its glory brought low (Isaiah 17:3-4). In their idolatry and in fighting Judah, they have “forgotten the God of their salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your Refuge” (Isaiah 17:10). The Northern Kingdom was a living symbol of what it means for God's people to be broken in two, to be divided, to exist in a state of schism. When they weren't being the half-church, they still show us a halved church.

A central point of biblical faith is that there is one God – period. And Jewish writers saw this as a very practical truth, more than just some nice theory. If there is only one God, then his law, his temple, his people, his salvation – all of those should stay singular and united, just as God is. The book of 2 Baruch argued that if there's only one God, then there can only be one Law, and one people defined by obedience to that Law (2 Baruch 48:24; 85:14). The Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo both argued that if there's only one God, then there should be “only one temple for one God”, and that all worship should center there because God is “the common God of all men” (Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.193; cf. Philo, Special Laws 1.67).

In Romans 3, Paul argues that if there's only one God, then God must be the God of the Jews and the God of the Gentiles; and if God is the God of both, then both Jews and Gentiles need the same salvation and have to get it in the same way, through faith (Romans 3:28-30). In short, one God means one way to be saved – which is the opposite of a lot of trendy religious thought then and now. The only way to be saved is on the basis of faith through Jesus the Faithful One. In John 17, this is the same approach Jesus takes. If there's one God, then there should be only one people; his people should be defined by their unity. But here, the oneness of God is defined as the Father and the Son being one God. The inner life of God is eternally bound together in intimate love, and so Jesus calls us to be one community in love. The Trinity isn't some abstract and irrelevant doctrine; it underscores the whole Christian life as a life of holy union with each other. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul waxes eloquent in showing the same thing. If there's only one “God and Father of all”, and if there's only “one Lord” over us, and if there's only “one Spirit” who animates us, then we need to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3), living as “one body” defined by “one baptism” into “one faith” and “one hope of your calling”. To claim Christianity but not be united in these, is to bear an impossibly contradictory witness.

Now, Israel didn't keep their God-given unity, but instead fractured into two nations through the secession of the northern tribes, leading to centuries of occasional civil war. Just the same, in many ways the church today sins against its God-given unity. With the church splintered into many denominations, there are some who refuse to hold spiritual communion with one another, refusing to welcome each other to the Lord's table – as if it were their table to forbid whom they wished! The Roman Catholic Church won't welcome outsiders to the table. The Eastern Orthodox won't welcome Roman Catholics or Protestants to the table. Some Protestant churches won't admit Catholics, Orthodox, or even other Protestants to the table. And beyond just the table, do we actually treat each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God made by Jesus Christ?

And how easily we break unity! Over two centuries ago, Jacob Albright converted and joined a Methodist class-meeting. As he matured in the faith, he felt God passionately calling him to serve the Lord as a traveling preacher, just like the circuit-riding itinerants of the Methodists. But he had his own mission field: the Pennsylvania Dutch, those who literally couldn't receive the gospel of holiness from an English-speaking Methodist. But the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to commission him; they had no use for reaching Germans. A few decades later, our own John Dreisbach asked the legendary Methodist bishop Francis Asbury to consider a merger, to pool resources. Asbury refused. German was a dying language in America, he said, and not worth the time. So unity didn't come – even after, with just a few more decades, even the Methodists established a German conference of their own. Time passed, and powerful bishops arose in the Evangelical Association. They made unity contingent on obeying their unlawful whims rather than keeping the solemn promises embodied in our Discipline. So twice the majority forced the minority to choose: obey certain bishops and follow them anywhere, or obey the Discipline and lose their property. Twice they chose the second, becoming the Evangelical Congregational Church. We didn't want a worldly unity under a tyrant; we wanted the perfect unity that comes from love (Colossians 3:14).

But still, there's a lot of unity lacking. Sunday mornings are still probably the most segregated time in America. Most churches do not represent the diversity of the communities they claim to serve. At my former church, there were quite a number of people who broke fellowship with the congregation over musical style in worship. Not that it changed entirely: they just slightly shifted the ratio of hymns and contemporary music. Some of the older members left the church because there weren't enough hymns any more; others left the church because there were still too many hymns for their taste. In both cases, our focus is no longer on God's glory. We have to ask ourselves: If our music style became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it? If our service time or sermon length became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it?

I know that there are people who have dropped out of even this loving church simply because they were offended by this or that decision that was made. Rather than try to talk to anyone, rather than wait until better days, they simply broke away and left and have no desire to return. I know that there have been other people who have been concerned by weaknesses of the church – but after all, no church is perfect, none is fully matured in every area of discipleship. But rather than stay and help the church to grow and become even more Christ-like, they broke away and left and have no desire to return. Some have found new congregations, and we wish them well and hope they can grow there just as we grow here. But I know plenty of other believers who, hurt or offended in a church, dropped out entirely and insist they don't need to fellowship with other believers – there's that individualist half-gospel again. Now, there are times to leave an abusive local church that dishonors the gospel, as some of you sadly know from experience. But to leave a church that isn't resolutely closed to the Spirit's leading? How does that live out “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? How does that witness that the Father and the Son are one? In our hearts, are we a whole church, or a halved church?

Yet there is hope for the halved church. They will “regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 17:7), and then they won't be focused on divided agendas of their own making, the “work of their hands, and they will not look to what their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 17:8). The halved church can be made whole. We need to adopt this motto: “Not our will, but God's will be done” (cf. Luke 22:42). And what is God's will for us? That we may be “completely one” (John 17:23), and may be united – for what? To be “sent into the world” on a mission (John 17:18). As Lent nears, may we resolve to be a whole church with the whole gospel for the whole world (cf. Lausanne Covenant 6). So “go, you swift messengers” (Isaiah 18:2), in the unity of God's church! Go even “to a people feared near and far”, and to “all inhabitants of the world” (Isaiah 18:2-3), so that from all nations, offerings will be brought to “the place of the name of the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 18:7). Go and “disciple all nations” with the whole teaching of the whole gospel (Matthew 28:19-20), and live as one holy church built on Jesus, the church's one foundation (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:11).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Put On the New Self": An Epiphany Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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