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).

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