Sermon on Isaiah 22; Matthew 16:18-19; and Revelation 3:7-13. Delivered on 8 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The twelfth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1; Isaiah 2; Isaiah 3-4; Isaiah 5; Isaiah 6; Isaiah 7-8a; Isaiah 8b-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; and Isaiah 19-20.
Isaiah's warnings have come against so many other nations, so many places: Assyria, Babylon, Moab, Edom, Damascus, Ephraim, back to Babylon again – but now he hits home. Now Isaiah isn't taking aim at a big pagan power. This is not a prophecy to make the hometown crowd give a standing ovation. Isaiah's got Jerusalem in the crosshairs.
Jerusalem was founded in the best place: atop Mount Zion. A mountain like that would give them a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, and that should have symbolized their spiritual vision and outward focus. But here Isaiah mocks them as living in a “valley of vision” (Isaiah 22:1) – for all their squandering of Mount Zion's virtues, they only look downward into their own petty pleasures and ignore God's message for them: a warning of “a day of tumult and trampling and confusion in the valley of vision” (Isaiah 22:5). Today, the physical city of Jerusalem isn't pivotal to our faith, but that's because we have a new city, a new society: the church. Jesus didn't come to save an aggregate of independent souls; he came to build a community, a church, so that our spiritual maturity is affected by the way we grow or decline together.
We know and believe and confess that Jesus Christ is “fully God and fully man”, and so when it comes to the body whose head he is, it's no surprise that there's so much heaven and so much earth in us. And that's why the Reformers often talked about “the invisible church” and “the visible church”. The invisible church is made up of all who are truly transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The visible church is just what it sounds like: all those who look like they hold membership in a local church body. Some people can belong to the invisible church without being part of the visible church, like isolated believers in distant lands; and, far more commonly, people can belong to the visible church without having anything to do with the invisible church. The tares grow in the field of wheat, so the true crop is 'invisible' – until the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30).
We can rejoice, from the heavenly side, in the church's foundation. When Simon confessed the truth about Jesus being the Messiah, Jesus celebrated and nicknamed him “Peter”, or “Rocky”, and said that on the rock of this true confession, Jesus would build his church; and we have the promise that the very gates of hell would not conquer it (Matthew 16:18). We have full assurance that the church, viewed from this perspective, will always endure. Plenty of false religious movements say that the real Christian church died out within a couple hundred years, and so it's up to them to restore it. That is 100% the opposite of what Jesus promised: the church would never die out, would never abandon the faith in full apostasy. But from the earthly side, we know that sections of the visible church can lose their way, and sections of the visible church can go extinct. The global church, the invisible church – those will never die. The local church, the visible church, is called to vigilance and purity.
Isaiah's basic complaint against Jerusalem is a warning against pride. There was a phase that the people went through where they came to believe that Jerusalem was invincible, not because they actively put their faith in God, not because they actively lived holy lives, but because God just liked them anyway. They felt they had God over a barrel. They figured, “Hey, God chose Jerusalem as his city, and he put his temple here. God is a native Jerusalemite now. What God chooses, he can't unchoose; that'd be going back on his word, right? Didn't he promise to reside in Jerusalem forever (1 Chronicles 23:25)? So if God chose Jerusalem, then it doesn't really matter what we do. In the big picture, we're safe!” That's how they thought. Isaiah's talking to them right after they were left mostly untouched by a big disaster – the enemy army turned back – and they're all feeling pretty good about themselves.
But God didn't see things that way. Yes, he chose Jerusalem. He chose it to be a Faithful City (Isaiah 1:21, 26; Zechariah 8:3). Sure, God would work out his purposes there, but that didn't make it impregnable. What mattered to him wasn't the physical buildings of Jerusalem, because God isn't bound to those, not even to the temple they built for him. God looks upon the heart. And Isaiah warns that God is not impressed with what he's seeing.
There are segments of the visible church today that have this same old pride. They divorce God's endorsement from God's will. God calls us to be faithful to the gospel, which is a gospel of both holiness and love. As a visible local church, if we aren't faithful to the gospel of holiness, then it doesn't matter that we're called a “church”, it doesn't matter what our building's square footage is, it doesn't matter who made the stained glass windows or when, it doesn't matter what real estate we occupy, it doesn't matter which prestigious divinity school the pastor went to, it doesn't matter how trendy or hip or 'emerging' we are, it doesn't matter what policy proposals we sign off on or how our people vote or how much more sophisticated we are than the so-called fundamentalists down the street. If we don't call people to God's vision of practical holiness as the Bible sets forward for us, then God does not promise the visible church's survival!
But the same is true if we aren't faithful to the gospel of love. If we don't have love, then until the cows come home we can speak in tongues and prophesy and unfold mysteries and teach accurate theology and give to charity and support social justice or God-and-country politics or whatever all we want, but if we don't have love, then the whole thing nets us zilch (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Remember, the people of Jerusalem were focused inward. They were supposed to look out, but they looked in. How many churches are there whose finances, energy, and attention are almost totally tied up with what goes on between the stained glass windows? How many churches are stuck in survival mode, when Jesus says that the greatest love is to lay down one's life for others (John 15:13)? Is a loveless church somehow better than an unholy church? Or is an unholy church without the gospel really a big improvement on a loveless church? Aren't both at risk of God's warning: “He has taken away the covering of Judah” (Isaiah 22:8)?
But in spite of it all, the people of Jerusalem in Isaiah's day had put all their focus, not into seeking the Lord, but into building up their defenses – walls and pools and tunnels, all designed to withstand a siege from enemy armies and keep the people safe. Their trust was in their fancy workmanship (Isaiah 22:9-10). Isaiah sees a problem here: all this construction, all this care, all this meticulous planning, “but you didn't look to the One who did it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11). Churches can build and build to their heart's content, but what's it all about? How many churches in this country with their old Gothic stonework can't fill more than a couple of their dozens upon dozens of pews on a Sunday morning? How many newer churches define themselves by how much they resemble a mall or an airport terminal? How many churches think their capital campaign will be their salvation? Building can be good, building can be fine, but what kind of building is most important: adding new facilities, or raising high a spiritual temple on the Church's One Foundation?
Here at Pequea, we've been doing plenty of 'building' ourselves lately. We've had a lot of focus over the past few months on strengthening our infrastructures. With careful changes to the church bylaws, we've cleared the way for streamlined educational ministries. We've built a church newsletter, going out month by month to keep us on the same page. We've built a church website and social media accounts to extend our church into cyberspace. I'm convinced that all of these are very good secondary things that we're right to have done. But they are secondary, and if we lose sight of that, then we've gutted them of meaning. Do we put first things first? We invest in infrastructure, but do we invest in discipleship? Are people deepening their spiritual maturity from one month to the next because this church is here? Do we have regard for the One who planned the church long ago? Are our eyes fixed on Jesus above all else – not an idea, but the living person who beckons us deeper into the mysteries of the faith and the mission of God? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then why are we here? If the answer is no, what word does God have for us other than, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)?
But back to Jerusalem. The people were in a sorry state. They should have taken their situation seriously. They were in a crisis. And they were in denial. Instead of disciplining themselves, instead of committing themselves to God, they threw a party! We know the motto: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13). They threw a party, but this was no time for a party. It was a time for “weeping and mourning … and putting on sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12), a time to be humbled before God and admit that we're ash cycling back to ash and that only he can save us, “for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jeremiah 6:26). They thought it was Mardi Gras. But their lives depended on Lent.
I imagine you can tell a lot about a person depending on how they react to the news that they only have a month or a week to live. Do they talk about making the most of what they have left, and enjoying the pleasures of life? Do they say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”? Or do they devote themselves to prayer and fasting, to being spiritually ready to stand before God and to leaving a healthy legacy behind on earth? And you can tell a lot about a church by how they use their time. In many segments of the church today, the focus is not on the gospel. The focus is not on the spiritual needs of the people in the church. The focus is not on being Jesus to the community. The focus is on feeling nice, getting a quick emotional high to last through the week. The focus is on being entertained and amused.
This is a serious sickness in the American church. It's poison. Lent reminds us that it really isn't about our entertainment. It doesn't matter if we're entertained. It doesn't matter if we're amused. It doesn't matter if we 'feel' like worshipping God. It isn't about our fleeting emotional states; it's about the abiding truth of the abiding God who wants us to abide in him. It isn't about us. It's about Jesus grafting sinners into his body, making them a holy people, and training them up as a royal priesthood for the salvation of the world.
Back to Jerusalem. You know it's serious when Isaiah has to start naming names! God singles out a man named Shebna, the “steward” or “palace administrator” (Isaiah 22:15). Whoever was the steward controlled access to the king. Shebna was basically second-in-command of Judah. That kind of power comes with plenty of responsibilities. Shebna should have been living as an example of wisdom, planning carefully to help Judah ration supplies and stay on the spiritual straight-and-narrow. But Shebna did nothing of the sort. Instead, he lavished resources on building a magnificent tomb for himself (Isaiah 22:16)!
It's painful to say, but there are a lot of church leaders who are a lot like Shebna. We're called with a wonderfully high calling, handed immense responsibilities to lovingly lead the people of God to greater holiness and maturity. But there are church leaders who abuse their position for selfish gain. There are church leaders who lord their status over others. Some of you are here to find healing after being wounded by the Shebnas of the modern church.
Like Shebna, many of these modern church leaders have turned away from their mission and are only building tombs. They may be using their position in the church to exalt the modern culture of death that fights against the value and respect to be accorded to all human life. They may be using their position to advocate for death-dealing false doctrines. They may glory in the “dead works” from which the Bible tells us to repent and be purified (Hebrews 6:1; 9:14). Or they may simply be dealing in dead spirituality instead of a living relationship with the living God. Like the scribes and Pharisees, their souls and ministries can be “like unto whited sepulchers, which … are within full of dead men's bones” (Matthew 23:27). I'm no Isaiah to be naming names, but there are entire denominations whose leadership is dominated by Shebna lookalikes and whose ministries have little to nothing in common with the gospel. But all of these are just construction projects for tombs.
But praise God, we have a Savior who knows his way out of tombs! Amen? Isaiah confronts Shebna with stern warnings of judgment (Isaiah 22:17-19), and we know that he was demoted to just being Hezekiah's royal scribe (Isaiah 36:3; 37:2). In 1871, an inscription at a cave outside Jerusalem was found: it marked “the tomb of Shebna, the royal steward”. In Shebna's place comes a replacement, Eliakim, a more responsible and honorable man (Isaiah 22:20-21). And to Eliakim was entrusted the stewardship of the palace and the “key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). That's a lot of responsibility (Isaiah 22:23)! But even Eliakim couldn't bear the weight of the full load (Isaiah 22:24-25).
Our hopes do not hinge on Shebna, and they do not hinge on the many modern Shebnas. Our hopes do not hinge on Eliakim, nor any of the modern Eliakims – faithful church leaders committed to the gospel. A prominent Baptist pastor named Thom Rainer once tried an experiment and asked the deacons of his church to calculate the minimum time he should devote to some pastoral tasks each week. When he tallied all these minimum expectations up, they came to 114 hours. When everything hangs on any mortal peg, even a faithful one, the burden will fall. No mortal Shebna or mortal Eliakim is our hope and trust.
But there is a greater Eliakim who is our hope – and his name is Lord Jesus. He is “the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7). Jesus has the true authority committed to his hand, for all authority in heaven and earth belongs to him (Matthew28:18); and Jesus truly shall be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isaiah 22:21). He's opened the door for us to press onward to seeing our salvation made perfect (Revelation 3:8), and he shared with his apostles his authority to declare what behaviors and attitudes are 'open' for the people of God and which ones are 'shut' (Matthew 16:19).
There are plenty of churches, sad to say, that try so hard to open what Jesus has shut. These churches may pride themselves in being “affirming”, “inclusive”, “open” – but Jesus and his teachings define the contours of Christian love, not our own whims and desires and agendas. The gospel is for all people, but it calls us all to the same hard road and the same narrow gate (Matthew 7:14). There are many behaviors and attitudes that the Bible – properly understood and properly applied – shuts out. Don't be tempted by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)
But there are also many churches that try very hard to shut what Jesus has opened. These churches may pride themselves on being exceptionally holy. Paul tells of us people who insisted on making Christianity out to be rules on top of rules on top of rules: “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:3). There are a lot of things that the Bible – again, properly understood and properly applied – leaves wide open for believers. There are issues God has declined to settle for us; we can worship with different music, speak in different languages, look different. Holiness is not looking like an extra from Leave It to Beaver; holiness is reflecting Jesus in the Spirit. The mark of a Christian isn't having the right style of hair or unpierced ears or unmarked skin. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
This is Lent, a time for reflecting on the state of our faith and our Christian lives. Better than literal sackcloth and ashes, it's a time to “loose the bonds of injustice”, to “let the oppressed go free”, to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Jesus has most definitely left that open. Against “the fruit of the Spirit … there is no law, and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24). Lent is a time to ask ourselves whether we're putting any obstacles in the way of the Spirit's ongoing work in us. Those obstacles need to be nailed to his cross and left there.
Lent is also a time to examine our church. Do we have the spirit of Shebna or the Spirit of the living God? Do we look more like Jerusalem as the “Valley of Vision”, or do we look more like “the New Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven” (Revelation 3:12)? Jesus calls us to keep his word of patient endurance (Revelation 3:10) and to “hold fast to what [we] have” been given: the gospel of holy love, kept complete – no more, no less – so that “no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:11). We can overcome through faith and self-discipline in following Jesus; that's what Lent is all about. If we have the heart of Jesus, and if we stand firm upon the Rock, then we don't have to sink into the “valley of vision”. We can have real vision, looking to our God and out at the people who need the life we've found in Jesus. We can stay the course and live out our mission, and we have this hope from our Lord himself: “If you overcome, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God … and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:12-13).