Sermon on Isaiah 23; Matthew 6:19-24; and Revelation 18. Delivered on 15 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The thirteenth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1; Isaiah 2; Isaiah 3-4; Isaiah 5; Isaiah 6; Isaiah 7-8; Isaiah 8-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; and Isaiah 22.
Neither Isaiah nor John was one to mince words, were they? John confronts us with a garish image of “the great harlot who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication”, depicting a woman “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” – and John calls her “Babylon the Great” (Revelation 17:1-5). John may have either Rome or Jerusalem foremost in mind, but more broadly she represents ungodly culture in all its forms and manifestations, seated atop all “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” during the days of her reign (Revelation 17:15).
But although John calls her Babylon, he uses material from Isaiah 23. What John wants us to see is that his “Babylon the Great” is every ungodliness of these Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23), from Babylon in the east all the way to Tyre in the west, all rolled into one cesspool of sin and persecution. When Babylon the Great comes tumbling down, “the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her” (Revelation 18:11), because she – like Tyre for Isaiah and for Ezekiel – is the pinnacle of a world-economy in the service of sin.
See, ancient Tyre was the leading city of the Phoenicians for a long time, with one settlement on the mainland and another on a nearby island. It was famous for being the first serious seafaring power in the Mediterranean – not so much for naval warfare as for sending out merchants to distant shores. Up and down the Near Eastern coast, west along the northern African coast, and a hop, skip, and jump up to the southernmost reches of Europe their “ships of Tarshish” would roam, all the way to Spain and Sicily and back. If you wanted something foreign and exotic to show off, you'd buy it through the merchants of Tyre. They also specialized in making the most expensive purple dyes, which were popular among royalty and their imitators. And so Tyre's “merchants were princes”, Tyre's “traders were the honored of the earth” (Isaiah 23:8). Over a century after Isaiah's ministry, Ezekiel's lamentation over Tyre runs exhaustingly for verses and verses listing Tyre's trade with nation after nation after nation (Ezekiel 27:4-25).
Tyre was an awfully tempting thing to imitate. A couple hundred years before Isaiah, Tyre grew to international importance under the rule of Hiram, an ally of David and Solomon who sent cedar, gold, workmen, and architects to help build first a royal palace for David (2 Samuel 5:11) and then the temple of God in Jerusalem for Solomon (1 Kings 5:1-12; 9:10-14; 2 Chronicles 2:3-16). But a century later, the Tyrian king Ithobaal expanded their realm massively. Then the king of Israel married his daughter, the Tyrian princess Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31) – and, even though the Israelites kept their wedding song as Psalm 45, we all know how poorly that whole thing turned out. By Isaiah's time, Tyre was yet another of the many powers pinned down by Assyria's thumb, and its king Luli failed several times to get out from beneath it.
Still, Tyre dominated the trade of goods. Tyre still was the symbol of wealth, the peak of the world economy in its day. And for the most part, it ruled the economic world with pride and godlessness. And modern world culture is still enslaved to the spiritual economy of Tyre. Tyre is, “Get it while you can.” Tyre is, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Tyre is, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Tyre is, “Bigger is better.” Tyre is Ayn Rand's slogans, “the virtue of selfishness” and “the utopia of greed.” Tyre is Gordon Gekko's line in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Tyre is human worth measured by the content of a bank account and not the content of a heart. Tyre is storing up “treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
It isn't hard to figure out where to look for modern Tyre, either. Any way you measure it, there are three top-dogs in the world economy: the European Union, China, and the United States. We live in Tyre! We have “grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Revelation 18:3)! Our country alone accounts for about a quarter of the net worth of the entire human race. In the year 2000, Americans spent 203.7 billion dollars on entertainment products and services. In 2004, Americans spent 29.7 billion dollars in sporting goods stores and 92.9 billion dollars on soda and bottled water. In 2005, we spent 27.9 billion dollars just on candy! Nearly every part of our lives is shaped by this commercialist mentality: the very patterns of our mind and heart are molded by swallowing decades of advertising. We think the indulgence of Tyre is normal. How much of our buying and selling is bound up in selfish trinkets and toys that don't really matter, not to even mention outright sin? We buy plenty, and we sell plenty, and plenty of what we buy and sell isn't what it'd please God for us to buy and sell.
But a few years ago, a major study of American generosity found that one in five American Christians gave absolutely nothing to charitable causes, including but not limited to their own churches. Even among regular churchgoers, the average rose to less than 7%, with most of that coming from a tiny group of donors at the top. And the more money people make, they less they tend to give. We have all sorts of excuses, most of them madly detached from reality. Actively church-involved Evangelical Christians are demonstrably more generous than virtually every other group in America – which is sadly not saying all that much. But nowhere is it written in the Gospel, “Be thou a little bit better than everyone else.” It is written, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me” (Mark 10:21). We buy plenty, and we sell plenty, but giving is a distant third. We say we serve God, but the church of Tyre usually tries splitting the difference with Mammon – and “you can't serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
We have sure knowledge from God that everything that exalts itself against God won't last forever (Isaiah 2:17). Either it will humble itself, or it will be humbled. Either it will serve the Lord, or it will pass away. God may give ungodliness a long leash, but it has a length and an end. Who today lives in fear of the Assyrian Empire? Who today goes out of their way for a T-shirt with “Made in Tyre” stamped on the tag? The Titanic was unsinkable – so it's no surprise it sank. We can't get ahead in the long run: “When goods increase, those who eat them increase” (Ecclesiastes 5:11).
We can't predict how or when any idol may pass away. But we do know the why: “The LORD of hosts has planned it – to defile the pride of all glory, to shame the honored of the earth” (Isaiah 23:9). The Bible tells us that “those who trust in their riches will wither” (Proverbs 11:28). Tyre trusts in its riches, so it has to wither. And every element of the godless economy has to wither: “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste” (Revelation 18:19). “With your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth; now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters; your merchandise and all your crew have sunk with you” (Ezekiel 27:33-34). And “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Babylon the Great will fall, and that means the fall of modern pagan Tyre also.
But there is hope! The close of the chapter imagines an alternative ending to the story, the possibility of another era under a new king (Isaiah 23:15). Just as pagan Egypt had hope of salvation (Isaiah 19:18-25), so did pagan Tyre – and so does everything Tyre represents. Tyre doesn't have to mean an Ethbaal or a Jezebel; Tyre can be the Tyre of Hiram, supporting the people of God and building the temple of God and bringing gifts to God. But Tyre can't do it on her own, under her own power. It has to be the work of God. “The LORD will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade” (Isaiah 23:17). If Mammon meets Jesus face-to-face, can Mammon serve the Lord? If Tyre sees God, can Tyre be born again? Isaiah hopes yes! But what would that mean?
That's the question, isn't it? What would it mean for the economy to revolve around God? Well, “her merchandise and wages will be dedicated to the LORD; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the LORD” (Isaiah 23:18). Think about that: an economy of stewardship, where the Spirit of the LORD gives God's wisdom for every financial decision, where the value of every good is measured by how it serves the kingdom, where love replaces greed, where the goal is to provide for the work of building up a holy people and healing society and creation, and where it's a heavenly portfolio that grows by leaps and bounds.
How can we be part of that economy – an economy in the service of the kingdom? It doesn't start with us. It starts with God, who works through us, if we're the body of Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27). Now, this is not one of those “fundraising” sermons most every pastor and most every church is afraid of. I'm not the televangelist who made news this week telling his parishioners to buy him a new 60-million-dollar private jet. I'm not here to tell you that your salvation hinges on how much you give to this particular church. The local church isn't the only place to give, and the local church itself has to decide where to give. No, how we serve the kingdom economy isn't a matter of laying down the law; it's a matter of following the Spirit. For each of us, the matter is between us and the Spirit. We aren't all in the same place. Blind adherence to the letter of the Law isn't enough; we have to follow the Spirit. The kingdom economy is his doing.
When the Bible talks about being “spiritual”, it isn't using the watered-down meaning we bandy about today: you know, “religious”, but without the God-given structure. The word “spiritual” is often better rendered as “Spirit-driven”. We can have more than a “purpose-driven life”; God calls us to have a Spirit-driven life. Paul tells us that “a natural man” – literally, a person whose life is lived under the power of his or her own soul – can't listen for God's will through what the Spirit reveals; but “he who is spiritual” – literally, a person whose life is lived under the power of God's Spirit and so is motivated by the same Spirit who spoke through the prophets and apostles – “appraises all things” in accordance with God's will, for “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Once made new in Jesus, we recognize his Spirit's leading through holy living by faith and through a rich understanding of what the Spirit has already said to the churches.
For instance, the Spirit tells us that Jesus traded heaven's riches for earthly poverty so that we could be made rich in the Spirit through his poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9). The Spirit tells us about “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). Yet the Spirit tells us that no one can “obtain God's gift with money” (Acts 8:20). The Spirit reminds us that the Pharisees who opposed Jesus were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14), and that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to become rich, some have wandered away from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:10). The Spirit urges us, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5); and, “if riches increase, don't set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). The Spirit tells us that “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one doesn't have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). The Spirit tells us that “each of you must give as you've made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And it's about more than giving: it's about godly wisdom for how we earn, how we save, and how we spend, too. The Spirit guides each of us according to the same vision and the same mission but also according to our varied hearts and our varied circumstances.
An early Christian bishop named Irenaeus discussed how having the Spirit means that we've moved beyond what the Law teaches, not by doing less, but by going beyond it. The Law doesn't need to teach us not to commit adultery if the Spirit's already led us into chastity. The Law doesn't need to tell us not to murder if the Spirit's calmed our anger. The Law doesn't need to tell us, “An eye for an eye”, if the Spirit has already led us to love our enemies. The Law doesn't need to tell us not to covet if the Spirit's made us “those who have no care at all for earthly things, but store up the heavenly fruits.” And, he says, the Law “will not require tithes of him who consecrates all his possessions to God, leaving father and mother and all his kindred and following the word of God” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 96). The Spirit ultimately wants to take us beyond where the Law left off – but the Spirit starts where we are. Same vision and mission, varied hearts and circumstances. And if John Wesley spoke according to the Spirit's wisdom, then he teaches us (“The Dangerof Riches” I.1; II.7; “The Use of Money”, III.1, 4, 6-7):
Whatever is more than [food and clothing] is, in the sense of the Apostle, riches; whatever is above the plain necessaries, or at most conveniences, of life. Whoever has sufficient food to eat, and raiment to put on, with a place where to lay his head, and something over, is rich. … But the Apostle does not fix the charge, barely on possessing any quantity of goods, but on possessing more than we employ according to the will of the Donor....
Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can. … Calmly and seriously inquire: In expending this, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting herein, not as a proprietor, but as a steward of my Lord's goods? Am I doing this according to his Word? In what Scripture does he require me to do so? Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ? Have I reason to believe that, for this very work, I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just? … Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor, in soul or body … Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire, to gratify either the desire of flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly … And then, give all you can, or in other words, give all you have to God. … “Render to God,” not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's … by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can no longer be stewards; in such a manner as the oracles of God direct, both by general and particular precepts; in such a manner, that whatever ye do may be “a sacrifice of sweet-smelling savor to God”... But employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men!
Throughout Lent, Isaiah's Oracles Against the Nations have reminded us where our focus should be. We don't put our trust in the glories of unredeemed culture, or the plans of ungodly nations and groups, or the wisdom of this world, or in the wealth of the nations, or even in ourselves as the church without thought to our foundation (Oswalt 1:437). No, our trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father and who sends us his Spirit to guide us as a church. And Jesus really is Lord! As Abraham Kuyper reminded us in 1880, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry: 'Mine!'”
So here's our next Lenten question. Does our economic behavior – our earning, our saving, our giving, our spending – serve our own interests first, or the kingdom of God first? When Christ points to it and says, “Mine!”, do we obey him? Are our financial habits a living parable of the gospel? Do they bear witness to Jesus Christ? Do we portray the beauty of Christ so convincingly that the economy's movers and shakers want to be Hirams? Do our economic choices and attitudes look like something animated merely by our own souls, or something empowered by the Spirit of God? Has the Spirit given us wise heads and generous hearts for all our economic behavior? Can it be said of us that “[our] merchandise and [our] wages will be dedicated to the LORD; [our] profits will not be stored or hoarded” (Isaiah 23:18)? Are we ships of Tarshish without a harbor (Isaiah 23:10), or do we really mean what we say when we sing, “Take my life and let it be / consecrated, Lord, to thee. … // Take my silver and my gold, / not a mite would I withhold. … // Take myself, and I will be / ever, only, all for thee”?