Sunday, March 22, 2015

We Need an Atlas: A Sermon on Isaiah 24

Sermon on Isaiah 24; Matthew 27:45-51; Psalm 46.  Delivered on 22 March 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fourteenth 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; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; and Isaiah 23.

Who here likes to watch movies? I do, though more at home than in theaters. I think most people probably have a favorite kind of movie, maybe a few favorites, a genre that just fascinates them. One of my favorites is apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic film. These movies present some kind of catastrophe that envelopes the whole landscape, or maybe even the entire earth. Apocalyptic movies focus more on the devastating events themselves; post-apocalyptic movies jump into the forlorn and desolate world left behind. They confront us with the darker elements of our nature, and a lot of these movies set up a scenario where we're ultimately at fault for how things have gone so terribly wrong.

In some movies, the human race – regionally or globally – is nearly wiped out by a disease that we either released into the general public through carelessness or shortsightedness, like in 28 Days Later, or even created deliberately, like in 12 Monkeys or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In other movies, it's our refusal to be good stewards of the earth that leads to disaster, like in The Day After Tomorrow. In still others, it's our willingness to engulf the earth in a global nuclear war that brings catastrophe, like in The Book of Eli, which may be best at portraying the utter devastation we hold in our hands as well as the hope that God's precious word brings even in a wasteland.

On the heels of condemning all the wayward nations from Babylon to Tyre, and even Jerusalem itself (Isaiah 13-23), Isaiah's lethal verbal artistry reaches a fever-pitch here in chapter 24. What we have here is sort of an apocalyptic film storyboard. But the way Isaiah draws it, it's human sin itself – not just carelessness, not just malice, not just bad stewardship, not just war, but sin in its very essence – that the earth can no longer bear. What Isaiah describes is a picture of radical desolation. “The earth is completely laid waste”, he says (Isaiah 24:3), and “a curse consumes the earth” so that “few people are left” (Isaiah 24:6). The earth is “thoroughly shaken” (Isaiah 24:19), and it “reels like a drunkard” (Isaiah 24:20). It's a mess! It's a catastrophe! It's the end of the world as we know it, and no one is feeling fine.

Set in the middle of this reeling, staggering, swaying earth is the “City of Chaos” (Isaiah 24:10). Just like what John does in Revelation by summing up all pagan powers and trends into “Babylon the Great”, that's what Isaiah does here. He blends them together in one composite set to show that every human empire, every human nation, every human institution, every tribe and every tongue and every culture, every element of worldliness, has plenty of skin in the game, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Babylonians have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Moabites, Edomites, Philistines have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Egyptians and Assyrians have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Tyre has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. Even Jerusalem has sinned and falls short of the glory of God. America has sinned and falls short of the glory of God, and so does each and every one of us.

We hear that word – 'sin' – and we don't grasp how heavy it is. It's such a little word, and we're used to it. It's a nice, familiar, 'religious' word. But it should be a heavy word, a horrifying word! How about, “Each of us is completely lost”? How about, “Each of us fights tooth and nail to escape the arms of God's holy love”? How about, “Each of us is stubbornly wicked”? How about, “Each of us is chained down and enslaved by darkness”? How about, “Each of us is stuck in the mire and stewing in the filth of our uncleanness”? That's what it means: we are all party to Sin and its evil kingdom. All of us are accessories to Sin and all it does. With every individual act of sin, every choice to disobey God and spurn the reason we were made, we ratify, endorse, and sustain Adam's rebellion and all its consequences.

That's not to say we're worthless. It takes a bright glory to become so dark when it goes wrong. A fallen butterfly – that's not so bad. But a fallen bearer of God's image? A royal priest gone totally awry? No wonder the earth shakes! No wonder the earth reels like a drunkard and sways like a flimsy hut! Who can survive it? Who has the strength? Who has the stability? Who can shed and strip off their sin and flee out of the City of Chaos before the mountains fall and the rivers flood and the earth dissolves in fire and ashes?

Isaiah's picture is a very dark one, because it forces us to confront how dark human sin really is and how dreadful its consequences are. The apparent harmony between sin and fun is a mirage that can only trick us because the judgment of God is held back, stored up until “the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). In the light of God's righteousness, the intoxication of sin is nothing but bitterness (Isaiah 24:9), the noise of sin loses its melody and grows fearfully silent (Isaiah 24:8), and “the gladness of the earth is banished” (Isaiah 24:10). The City of Chaos seemed like a happy place, a fast-paced place – but “the City of Chaos is broken down; every house is shut up so that no one can enter” (Isaiah 24:10). If God isn't “in the midst of the city”, it can't stand secure (Psalm 46:5). And so, Isaiah promises, the City of Chaos won't.

During this season of Lent, we've listened attentively to Isaiah's Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23) and the challenges they bring. Babylon, the cultural force of ungodliness and the pridefulness of human works, called us to self-examination and the question, “Are we vigilant watchmen and winsome witnesses?” Moab, the heretical half-church, called us to test our teachings against the pure truth of the gospel. Damascus-loving Ephraim, the divided church, summoned us to ask, “Do we actually treat each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God? If our music style or service time or sermon length became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it?” Egypt called us to lift our hopes above fleshly yearnings for revenge and to instead dare to pray both for our persecuted fellow-believers and for their persecutors, for the blessing of knowing Christ to turn their hearts to peace. Wayward Jerusalem urged us to look outward toward our mission and to hold fast to Christ's gospel of both holiness and love – not opening what he's shut, not shutting what he's opened. And Tyre asks us, “Does our earning, our saving, our giving, our spending, serve the kingdom of God first? Do our financial habits bear witness to Jesus Christ? Do they look like something empowered by the Spirit of God?” Heavy questions. Important questions. As Lent winds down, they stick with us.

It's all a lot to deal with! It's a lot to live up to! On our own, we can't do it. Like a New Year's resolution, we fall short of the glory of God in every case. None of us measure up in ourselves. Lent is a time when we have to discipline ourselves and take stock and stare unflinchingly at the hopelessness of our own corrupt hearts and souls. Our sin is a heavy thing – heavy enough to snap our spines, break our resolve, and weigh down our worlds 'til they crash through the floor of creation into the unending and unforgiving abyss. We struggle to fight it, we struggle to resist, but ultimately we have to despair of ever doing it under our own power. Under our own power, the struggle is in vain. We can't bear up the heavens and the earth. Our shoulders aren't strong enough.

What we need is an Atlas. I don't mean the book of maps. In Greek mythology, there was a Titan named Atlas, one of the enemies of the gods of Olympus. As punishment after they defeated the Titans in war, the gods cursed Atlas with a burdensome job: to stand at the west end of the earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders, using only his own strength to keep heaven and earth from crashing together. So in ancient Greek statues, Atlas is shown with the celestial sphere on his shoulders; in time, we started sculpting him holding up the earth and keeping it firmly in place. Atlas has shoulders up to the task. But Atlas is just a myth. Atlas can't really hold our world together. And with all our coping mechanisms, all our worry and care, all our graceless rituals, all our decent citizenship and family ties, all our mighty achievements and good deeds, all our climbing the corporate ladder and ruthless self-promotion and questing to leave a legacy, still neither can we. Because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

Yet the bad news of Isaiah 24 isn't meant to be God's last word. No, wrath is not the end; grace is the end. If we think Lent is only a season about ourselves and our self-improvement, we've completely missed the point! Lent is not about us and what we can or should do on our own strength. Lent is about Jesus, and he is God's Word, the Word to end all words. “One day when sin was as black as could be”, Jesus stepped down from heaven's glory to our cold and trembling and sin-shaken earth. He lived, he fasted forty days in the desert, he taught and worked wonders and preached the kingdom of God – and then “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

He knew what was coming. He was journeying to the cross. He knew the pain, the shame, the mockery and abuse and death awaiting him. Step by step, Jesus made his way to that dark hour when he'd stretch out his arms in crucifixion. He sweated and bled and prayed as he faced up to it in Gethsemane – not because he feared the pain, not because he feared the shame, not because he feared death. No, because he dreaded the cup of the wrath of the LORD, the cup that makes the nations drunk with their own sin (Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Revelation 16:19). That's why he prayed, “Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). But he also prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

At Golgotha, when the nails transfixed the incarnate God's flesh to gnarled earthly wood outside the gates of the City of Chaos, Jesus stepped into Isaiah 24 for us. There on that tree, he weathered the woes that would have shaken us to bits. There on that tree, he suffered, not for any guilt of his own, but for our guilt, our wickedness, our corruption, our rebellion (cf. Isaiah 24:6). There on that tree, he accepted the wages of our sin. Our sin is death-dealing; our sin is a millstone around our necks; our sin is world-collapsing – but Jesus stretched forth his arms and bore the world on his shoulders and held it up beneath “almighty vengeance … that must have sunk a world to hell”. Atlas is a myth, but Jesus is the truth! And because Jesus is our true Atlas, bearing the weight of all our earth-sinking sin, “we will not fear, though the earth should change … though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:2-3).

During the present season of Lent, as we carry forward in discipleship, let's remember that we don't have to carry the world on our sinful, imperfect, mortally frail shoulders. If our world is handed over to Jesus in faith, he bears it on his shoulders, and we find refuge in the Rock of Ages, cleft for us on the cross, from every earthquake and every storm. With our world on his shoulders, this “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The earth may reel and sway and tremble and fall, but this Rock does not quake. If “he alone is [our] rock and [our] salvation”, then we “shall never be shaken” (Psalm 62:2). That's the truth set before us. We don't have to live in horror; we don't have to live in a wasteland. We weren't meant to live in ourselves; we were meant to live in Christ. But Lent is a journey. We aren't at Good Friday just yet! So day by day, may we walk with Jesus, even to the end – and beyond it.

See, we know what shines on the other side of Good Friday, when the Isaiah 24 wrath is swallowed up in the Son's victory and “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) rules from the Babylonian and Assyrian east all the way to the Tyrian and Egyptian west: “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; they shout from the west over the majesty of the LORD. Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD; in the coastlands of the sea glorify the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:14-16).

And although for now “the treacherous betray; with treachery the treacherous betray”, as Judas did, we don't have to “pine away” in the face of coming judgment (Isaiah 24:17), because our LORD Jesus does reign and “manifest his glory” (Isaiah 24:23). But for now, Lent is a journey to the cross. The fickle mobs of the City of Chaos stand before us, reminding us of what could have been. And the cross that made a dark Friday dark and also good remains before us: “Let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Look to Jesus, who bore the back-breaking burden of sin for us, enduring it for the sake of the joy that's coming. “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our Salvation!” (Psalm 95:1).

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