Sunday, May 3, 2015

Killing Leviathan: A Sermon on Isaiah 27

Praise be to God, Christ is risen! Jesus is the victor over the “deserted and forsaken” City of Chaos (Isaiah 24:10; Isaiah 27:10-11), the deceitful empire of sin. For us, called out from the City of Chaos, he bore the sin that breaks the earth and so saved the world for us (Isaiah 24). Jesus is the God who feeds his people and swallows up death forever and wipes all tears from our eyes (Isaiah 25). Jesus is the Lord who pulls up the dead to the heights of his resurrection-life and founds a strong and holy city for the people of God (Isaiah 26). And now, at the climax of this arc, Isaiah offers us four more reasons to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and to bow the knee and confess that Easter matters and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God (Philippians 2:10-11).

First, the resurrection is the climax of God's answer to our sin. Our sin is a problem – now there's an understatement! Sin is the opposite of faith. Sin is the opposite of obedience. Sin is the opposite of worship. When we faithfully and obediently worship God, we proclaim with our words and actions that our minds, hearts, souls, and strength are lovingly devoted to one Lord and are consecrated to the service of his sole kingship (cf. Mark 12:29-30). When we sin, we proclaim with our actions that our devotion to God isn't absolute, and that there's room for our mind or heart or soul or strength to sacrifice to some other power – we render to a fraud what belongs to one God (cf. Matthew 22:21).

That's what idolatry is all about. Maybe the idol today is our greed, for greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5) – we want to pretend that ownership trumps stewardship, and we demand to have more than we'll realistically use for godly purposes. Maybe the idol today is our personal ideology – we want to subordinate the Bible to our experience or our pet theories, rather than holding firmly to scripture, holding loosely to good ideas, and letting go of anything contrary to Christ's gospel of holy love. Maybe the idol today is simply our pride – we want to be legislators unto ourselves, choosing a path for our own, writing our own rules, setting ourselves up as judge and jury – either overzealous judges, enforcing our personal views on others, or absentee judges, negating the commandments of God through willful neglect. But sin and idolatry are bound up together, so the guilt of sin is portrayed as altars and poles – the cultic objects used for idol-worship in Old Testament times (Isaiah 27:9). Our addiction to these altars and poles keeps us in exile from God's presence and from the promised rest to which God invites us (Isaiah 27:8; cf. Hebrews 4:9-11). It takes away our understanding and enslaves us with lies (Isaiah 27:11), keeping us from the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).

Usually, when we think about God addressing the problem of our sin, we think about the cross. And we're right to do that. Paul writes explicitly that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3), and that he was “handed over to death for our trespasses” (Romans 4:25). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “by the grace of God”, Jesus died to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus himself described his death as giving his life as “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And Paul works out how, by our old sinful selves being pinned to Christ on the cross, they were buried in his tomb to stay there, separated from the lives we now live (Romans 6:6-7).

But the Bible says more. Paul tells us that Jesus “was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). And that's a crucial part of how we're saved! Without Jesus rising from the dead, we can't be set right. It's not just evidence that the cross worked, though it is that. Jesus was raised so that we could be set right in the sight of God, so that we could be made new. If our old selves are buried in his tomb, the only way to separate us from that mass of sin is for us to get out of the tomb – to leave death and return to life, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and “we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). Without the resurrection of Jesus, it wouldn't be possible to be separated from our sins. To be buried with our sin and stay put – that's just death, the same death that's the inevitable payment for sin (Romans 6:23). To be buried with our sin and not stay put – that's newness of life. That's how we can “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). But if we're living in life, and sin is dead in death, then how can we keep walking in it? We can't; it doesn't match. To persist in idolatry when the idols are smashed and dead and buried – that's just nonsense. But a fallen man or woman is an expert on putting nonsense into practice. With sin dead, it has no claim to lordship (Romans 6:14). Jesus is Lord, because he lives forever; sin is not lord, because sin is dead! So “don't let sin exercise lordship in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12).

Don't cling to your incense altars and sacred poles (Isaiah 27:9). Nothing is too special: even the brazen serpent Moses made in the desert had to be ground to dust when the people made it an idol (2 Kings 18:4; cf. Numbers 21:5-9). The symbol cannot be allowed to eclipse the reality, which is Christ (John 3:14-15). And just so, every idol is the perversion of a symbol of what God has in store for us. To idolize our greed is to pervert the symbol of stewarding the limitless riches of God and storing up true treasure through the obedience of faith (2 Timothy 1:14; Matthew 6:19-21). To idolize our experience or our ideas is to pervert the way our perspectives, submitted to Christ, enrich the wisdom of the church by expressing the fuller range of gifts and graces that he distributes. To idolize our pride is to pervert the priestly kingship for which he made us, and which we'll live out as glorified “kingdom and priesthood serving our God” to “reign on earth” (Revelation 5:10). We don't want to fester in the darkness of the shadow; we want to flourish in the light of the substance.

Ultimately, there are two paths in front of us as believers. One is to live a contradiction: to confess with our mouths that Jesus is risen and to confess with our hands that sin is risen. How often do we try to burrow back into the grave where our sin was abandoned? How insistent are we to sign 'spiritual graverobber' as our occupation? Throw down your shovels! We don't need them! There's a better way. The other path is to endure in offering ourselves to God for righteousness, living in keeping with the truth of the gospel. And that where does that path lead? What would a human life look like when all the false altars are crushed like chalk and all the sacred poles are toppled for firewood (Isaiah 27:9)? When the altars are chalk dust and the poles are ash, the gentle breeze of the Spirit blows where it wills and carries them all away (John 3:8). That's the process of sanctification, making us holy through the spring-cleaning of our dusty souls.

Present your false altars and sacred poles to Christ, hand them over to be crushed, and the Spirit will blow them away – maybe not all at once, maybe gradually, but the Spirit is faithful, because this Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God who was faithful to raise Jesus from the dead. “Come, my people, enter your chambers and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past,” God warns (Isaiah 26:20). What door? “I am the door,” Jesus says, “I am the gate” (John 10:9). Only by hiding in his resurrection, hiding within his risen life as separated from our buried sin, are we both spared from God's judgment on sin and made clean by the Spirit's faithful labor – just as Jesus wants us to be (Ephesians 5:26-27), thanks be to God!

Second, the resurrection revives the vineyard of the Lord. Remember, early in his ministry Isaiah preached a parable about God's vineyard, the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). God cared it, God tended for it, God fulfilled his end of the bargain to the full, but the vines only grew rotten grapes (Isaiah 5:2-4) – nothing but injustice, bloodshed, cries of distress (Isaiah 5:7). So what did God do? The vineyard was ripe for judgment: “I will remove its hedge, and it will be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled down; I will make it a waste … and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns” (Isaiah 5:5-6). Where's the hope in that? Nowhere.

How does the resurrection make a difference? Because Jesus is the Father's True Vine (John 15:1). The Vine is not dead! The Vine is alive! Well, so what? So this: a branch on a dead vine will die and wither; just watch and wait. Without a living vine to force nutrients and growth into the branch, the branch is absolutely hopeless, no matter how free from disease it might be. A permanently dead vine is no help at all – worse than no help. But the True Vine is not dead. A branch on a living vine has a chance. But what about a branch on a resurrected vine – a Vine that will never die, can never die? A branch abiding in that Vine doesn't have a chance; it has a guarantee!

The old vineyard was corrupt at its roots, so God judged it, tearing down its hedge and wall. But not so with this vineyard. On account of the risen Jesus, God proclaims, “I have no wrath” (Isaiah 27:4). How beautiful is that? Instead of inviting the beasts to ravage it and mow it down, God will water us constantly, guarding us night and day from destruction – because the LORD is our keeper (Isaiah 27:3). We will be pruned, but not torn down. Under the protection of God, the vineyard will flourish. With the Father as the vinedresser, Jesus will pump his resurrection-life into us. If the Vine is alive, won't the branches share the Vine's life? If the Vine is glorious, won't the branches share the Vine's glory? If the Vine is risen, won't the branches be assured eternal life through resurrection too? And won't the Spirit that fills the True Vine also fill his true branches?

It's because of the resurrection that we can share his Spirit. And with the Spirit, the Spirit that blows away the dust of our pagan altars, we can bear fruit. Any branch abiding in the Vine will “bear much fruit” (John 15:5), but only branches that abide can be fruitful. The chosen branches are appointed to bear lasting fruit (John 15:16). The point of raising up an everlasting vine is, Isaiah says, so that Israel's shoots will “fill the whole world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6). And what fruit did God look for that unrenewed Israel didn't give? Justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). What fruit does the Spirit naturally grow? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” – those are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

If we're abiding in the risen Christ, that means filling the entire world with his Spirit's fruit. How are we doing with that? Are we filling the world with justice and peace? Look at Baltimore, look at Los Angeles, look at Syria and Libya and Iraq and Yemen – are we as the Vine's branches actually filling the world with justice? How about patience? Are we filling the world with that, modeling patience and helping the world to grow in it? How about generosity? How about self-control? How about gentleness and kindness? What are we actually doing to fill the world with that fruit? Are we at least filling Lancaster and Chester Counties with this fruit? Or are we holding back our buds, privatizing our faith and ceding the public square over to fruitlessness? Abide in the Vine; be his branches; fill the world with his Spirit's fruit.

Third, the resurrection means gathering. Isaiah already told us about how the temple atop Mount Zion – the church founded on the rock of testimony to Jesus – would send forth the instruction of God – the gospel – and draw all the nations there to be taught (Isaiah 2:2-3), so that justice would rule the nations and the teaching of God's peace would replace the teaching of worldly war when Christ is King (Isaiah 2:4). Here, the lost people of Israel are brought back from Assyria and Egypt and the other lands of their exile, and gather back to “worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:12-13). Both show the same motion: those who were lost and scattered will gather around the holy mountain, and there they will learn and worship.

It begins now as we call all nations to come be discipled in the Master's Way. But it also means an act of God. The exile will be undone through Christ, and in the end, “all Israel will be saved,” after “the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25-26). What's more, the literal exile of death will be over. Where are God's people more lost than in the grave where they rest? But, Isaiah says, “a great trumpet will be blown” (Isaiah 27:13), and so “the dwellers in the dust” will “awake and sing for joy” when “the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isaiah 26:19), as we learned last week, “for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). When “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven”, then “he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31), and Christ will “descend from heaven with the sound of God's trumpet, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). God does it for all the faithful – he loves the whole community of the redeemed – and he gathers them “one by one,” loving each on an individual level (Isaiah 27:12).

And where will they gather? The holy mountain. For what? Because “on this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines … and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples … He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8), at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), once “his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). Why does the resurrection matter? Because it's a risen Lord who returns with his risen life to raise and gather his whole people as a risen bride for the Great Feast that unites a risen Christ and a risen Church as one risen flesh and spirit in eternal bliss and resurrection joy. Exile ends where communion is fulfilled, for the Lamb of Resurrection “came to seek out and to save the lost”, the wayward and self-exiled (Luke 19:10) – thanks be to God!

Fourth and finally, the resurrection guarantees the final defeat of Leviathan: “On that day, the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). Who is Leviathan? Who is this dragon? The last book of the Bible treats us to a symbolic vision of “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads”, who opposes the birth of the Son who will “rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:3-5). The same “great dragon” is called “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Yes, Isaiah already prophesies that the LORD will slay Satan (Isaiah 27:1).

As we look back, that isn't news. In the original story of the “ancient serpent”, God introduces the gospel by offering assurance that, though the Serpent's offspring will wage war against the Woman's offspring, the ultimate Offspring of the Woman will deliver a costly but fatal blow to the Serpent, crushing his head (Genesis 3:15). Paul stresses that the divine Son of God is also the one who enters humanity by being “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus is the ultimate victory over the Serpent. He flexed his power by casting out demons, saying that if he casts out demons by the finger of God, then it means that the kingdom of God has arrived in him (Luke 11:20) – meaning that the Serpent's rule of lies is crumbling, because the world is about to witness God's style of kingship. Jesus gained triumph already at the cross, disarming the dark powers and exposing them to public shame (Colossians 2:15) – but only because the cross and the resurrection are bound up together. It's the resurrection-life of Jesus that makes him the reigning Lord now, able to command the church's present resistance to Satan now (James 4:7).

And we know how the story ends. The dragon fails to thwart God's plan (Revelation 12:1-6), he's cast down to the earth (Revelation 12:7-9), he knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12), and he makes war against all those on earth “who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). The dragon may win some battles, but his war is lost. The dragon is bound in a pit for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2-3) – some see that as a literal thousand years after the Second Coming, some see it as a literal thousand years before the Second Coming, others see it as a symbolic thousand years that we're already in – and then he gets one last hurrah (Revelation 20:7). But it won't work, because the City of God does not lose. The dragon and his offspring come to fight “the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and consumed them” (Revelation 20:9), and the Dragon is banished to the Lake of Fire for good (Revelation 20:10). That's the last we hear of the Dragon, as Isaiah already said: The LORD “will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah27:1).

How does the resurrection make a difference? If Jesus were still dead, then Leviathan is in charge – forever. If Jesus were still dead, then so is the hope of God's kingdom. If Jesus were still dead, then the cross would be the Dragon's victory. But because Jesus is alive, having passed through death into glorious life, the cross belongs to the victory of God! The Dragon's best weapon, the power of death, was turned against him at the victory of the cross and resurrection, “so that through death [Jesus] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The cross and resurrection disarm the Dragon, striking him down with a wound he can't shake off or ignore. Jesus will win – it's guaranteed. Jesus will crush his head – it's absolutely certain. And if we share in resurrection-life by having faith in Jesus, then we'll be part of his victory: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet” by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 16:20).

So the resurrection matters! Jesus matters! Because he is risen, faith can separate us from our sin, and he can send the Spirit to sweep away the crushed idol-altars, justifying and sanctifying us to be fit citizens of the City of God. Because he is risen, he feeds his life into us and makes us flourish to fill the whole earth with holy fruit that grows in the Spirit. Because he is risen, he raises the dead and gathers all the lost to come and worship at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, to be united deathlessly with him for eternity and to share fully in the life of God. And because he is risen, he reigns as Lord to crush Satan under our feet, slaying and abolishing the Dragon for good so that he can torment, persecute, and deceive us no more, and we will never again be distracted from the Truth who lovingly gazes into our eyes and wipes away our tears one by one. And because he is risen now, we can faithfully forsake our sin now, and be filled with the sanctifying Spirit now, and bear fruit for society now, and call the nations to worship now, and confidently resist the Serpent's crafty wiles now. Christ is risen – thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in him (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

No comments:

Post a Comment