Sunday, October 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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