Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fields White Unto Harvest: A Harvest-Home Sermon

Sermon on Psalm 147:1, 7-14; Matthew 13:3-9, 18-30; John 4:34-38; and Revelation 14:14-15.  Delivered 28 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

Year after year, we and our neighbors sow seeds into the soil beneath our feet – an act of faith in the regularities of God's providence in nature, and in his willingness to bless us with enough to survive.   And year after year, by God's blessing, we reap a harvest.  Some years, the harvest is sparse.  Other years, the harvest is abundant.  So far as I've heard, this year is quite fine: a good harvest, a satisfying harvest, a harvest worth celebrating.   So as we celebrate the Harvest Home, we thank the Lord our God for the fruitfulness of our labor, and for the practical wisdom that comes from his Wisdom, Jesus Christ, and for the Holy Spirit who always bears righteous fruit whenever he's sown in the human heart.

The Old Testament knows of various harvest festivals – some for the grain harvest earlier in the year, some (like the Feast of Tabernacles) for the other harvests later in the year.   Leviticus 23 outlines all of them, and in speaking of the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as Shavuot or Pentecost, God reminds the Israelites to take extra care not to divorce the joys of harvest from the urgency of love. The farmers were to leave the edges of their crops unharvested and forget all about the dropped portions, so that those without farmland could come to glean.  A portion of every field was reserved for the needy, and Deuteronomy 14 shows us that one of the three Old Testament tithes was specifically to replenish the town food bank for the sake of those very same disadvantaged groups.

Today, we celebrate the Harvest Home, one of our modern harvest festivals alongside Thanksgiving.  The same spirit of Leviticus and Deuteronomy is alive and well here at Pequea, amen?  We know that joy and love go together in the harvest. We know that God doesn't bless us just for our own selves.   He blesses us to bless others.   And from the bounty that God gives us, we find ways to pour more blessings to those in need, through cooperation with ministries like Jars of Hope Food Pantry.  Today we celebrate!   Today we rejoice!  Today is Harvest Home, and we honor God as the Lord of the Harvest, the God of grace – and great is his faithfulness.  Whenever the Bible speaks of the harvesting of crops, this perspective – uniting gratitude and grace – is abundantly clear.

But the Holy Scripture speaks also of another type of harvest, one not administered by mortal hands.  We see it in the Parable of the Weeds, for which the Parable of the Soils sets the stage.   The good news of Christ Jesus is the seed for kingdom wheat – but will it find receptive ground?  Will it find soil too stony to grant it entry at all, or soil so shallow it cannot resist the trials of the heat of life, or soil too preoccupied with the thorns and thistles of worldly prosperity?   Or will it find soil devoted alone to it, soil deep and rich and fertile for the kingdom's growth?   Only then will it bear fruit – thirty times, sixty times, a hundred times over, a yield fit for the kingdom of God.  What has it found in your heart?  In your neighbor's heart, in your brother's and sister's heart, in your wife's or your husband's heart, in your son's and your daughter's heart?  Do their hearts need plowing, fertilizing, and weeding as the gospel-seed is scattered anew?  Take heart: the Spirit is at work in mighty and mightily surprising ways, and the prayers of God's saints here may avail much.  Here, in this story, the evangelistic ministry is planting the gospel seed, and the discipling ministry of preaching and teaching and loving is tending mercifully to the crop – but as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, even in the best soil and under the best farmers' and gardeners' care, all praise and thanks for the growth goes to God alone.

But the Parable of the Weeds – now there's a new complication.  Before, in the Parable of the Soils, the thorny weeds were a pre-existing condition, afflicting the growth of the kingdom within each heart.  Here, the weed is of a different sort: a counterfeit and competitor within the community, within the church.   False wheat.  Poison darnel, the infamous 'tare'.   Looks almost just like the wheat, until the wheat and darnel ripen and make manifest what they each truly are.  In this age, the kingdom-field grows both: true wheat, the sincere believers, and false wheat, growing in the same place, going to the same building, putting food on the table at the same potlucks, listening and teaching in the same classes – but grown, not from gospel-seed, but from another kind.

Are there tares in this sanctuary right now?  Are there tares on our membership rolls?  I don't know.  I hope not, I pray not, but I don't know.  To a great extent, I can't know; if I minister seventy years here, I still may never know, at least not perfectly – that's the point.  The wheat and the tares grow side by side until they ripen and make manifest what they each truly are – “by their fruits, ye shall know them” – at the time of the harvest, the great Harvest-Home of God.  Did we not just sing, “Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home”?  At the great Harvest-Home of God, the Judgment of the Last Day, the tares, which proved to not belong to the gospel-seed, receive judgment in the Lord's fire; but the wheat, the true and fruitful wheat, find salvation in the Lord's barn, a mighty refuge in troubled times.

This salvation here is the resurrection to glory, a resurrection of which Jesus Christ is the firstfruits, presented holy to God, as Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 15:20: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, and as it continues, those who belong to him will be made alive when he comes, and then he will destroy all dominion and authority and power that sets itself up against the kingdom of our God – for the tares and their devilish sower shall be no more.   And on that Day, Christ is not just the firstfruits – no, he holds also the sickle, the sharp sickle to lead the reaping of judgment, either for destruction or for salvation.  How near is that Day?  How near is the Great Harvest of Heaven and Earth?  It could be noon today.  It could be next Friday.   It could be next year.   It could be in 2020, or 2040, or yet a thousand years hence.  We don't know that any more than we can pick out a tare from wheat on sight.

But until that day, the Bible speaks of one more harvest.  The great Harvest to come yields final salvation through resurrection and glorification, but the harvest before us now is the evangelistic harvest, which yields initial salvation to be confirmed later in the Judgment-Harvest.   Jesus himself urges us to look at the fields around us.  Look at the white fields of White Horse!   Look at the fields of Gap, of Intercourse, of Blue Ball, of New Holland, of Gordonville, of Honey Brook, of all the land (named and unnamed) around us!   God has been at work in this land, in this township, in this county.  God is no absentee!  He is present, he is vibrant, he is preparing these fields for harvest – so much so that the workers are too few.  There's more harvesting to be done than harvesters actively doing it!   So, says Jesus, pray that the Lord of the Harvest would send more workers for the harvest.  We are those workers, we are called!  Are we harvesting?  Do we see, do we behold the ripeness of the fields around us?

In this season, we celebrate with thanksgiving as we and our neighbors harvest the crops of their fields, sown by human hand, tended by human hand, but grown and blessed by God.  We have much to be thankful for.  But as we harvest the crops of our fields, or as we see the large combines at work, or as we see the crop acreage shrink and shrink as the corn and tobacco come in sector by sector, don't leave your thoughts at a mere earthly level.  These times were appointed for more than that.  Think also of the work set before us – not merely to bring in the crops, but to bring the lost and ready, once they're ripe, to Jesus: a “crop of eternal life”.   The harvest is here, there's reaping to be done, so let's go forth and gather, bringing in the sheaves of souls for the High-Priestly Son to wave before God the Father on high.  And the Harvest-Home of God is coming – maybe far, but maybe near, and always nearby.

Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home;
Gather thou thy people in, / free from sorrow, free from sin;
There, forever purified, / in thy presence to abide:
Come, with all thine angels, come, / raise the glorious harvest home. Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Red as Crimson, White as Snow: A Sermon on Isaiah 1

Sermon on Isaiah 1 (specifically, Isaiah 1:1-3, 11-12, 15-18, 25-27); Hebrews 9:11-14.  Delivered 7 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The first installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

Sometimes, I've wondered what it would be like to live in the world of the Old Testament prophets, or even to be one of those prophets.  When you picture a prophet in Old Testament times, what images go through your head?  For me, I often think of a John-the-Baptist type of figure: someone hairy, wild, unwashed, untamed.  Dressed in strange clothes, saying strange words, doing strange things.  Spending months in the deserts, coming back to scream fire-and-brimstone in the streets to a people unwilling to listen.  Always coming from the outside, from the fields or the hills, called to criticize the constant wrongdoing of the kings and queens, the city-dwellers, the large landowners.  Hated, disliked men that the 'respectable' worldly people wanted to avoid.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were like that.  But Isaiah didn't quite fit that mold.  The ancient rabbis had a tradition that his father Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah – and if that's true, then Isaiah was King Uzziah's cousin, and an elder relative of the next three kings during whose reigns Isaiah ministered.  The first twenty years of Isaiah's ministry in Judah overlapped with Hosea's ministry in Israel, and Micah's forty-year ministry all took place while Isaiah was still at work.  But while Micah was from the little country village of Moresheth-Gath, Isaiah lived in the capital city, in the palace, in the halls of power – the prophet-chaplain to the king's court.  Second Chronicles 36:22 suggests that Isaiah may have served as an official royal historian and scribe.

Isaiah stands among the other prophets as proof that God doesn't call just one kind of person.  He calls both the 'simple' and the educated; he calls both the poor and the rich; he calls both the country-folk and the city-slickers; and he uses both the young'uns and the elders.  The Old Testament prophets remind us of Jesus' mixed choices of apostles – both a handful of simple fishermen and a trained scribe; both a former tax-collector and a former terrorist; both country-dwellers and, eventually, a man trained in Jerusalem in the leading rabbinic 'seminary' of his times.  The gospel is preached by all sorts, because the gospel is for all sorts, and it stretches people of every personality and opinion to be open to the parts that are bigger than them, bigger than us.  We most fully embody the gospel when we work together as a diverse church – not all brain, not all heart, not all hands, not all ear or eye or mouth, but a whole body filled with all its functions, all Christ's gifts and graces.

The same is true in the prophets who ministered under the Old Covenant and foreshadowed the New.  And although each of those prophets has a message that, in ways we may never expect, points forward to the gospel, Isaiah is in a way the king of them all.  The Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called "the Fifth Gospel".  The church father Jerome called Isaiah "more of an Evangelist than a Prophet".  There's a reason the New Testament writers loved to quote and reference Isaiah when they preached.  Many prophets foreshadowed Jesus in one respect or another, but Isaiah's preaching is saturated in Jesus from angle after angle.  The first five chapters serve as an introduction to most or all of the themes of the whole book of Isaiah – and what a set of themes they are!

Here, Isaiah paints a sketch – small compared to the grand masterpieces drawn cosmically large later in his collection of oracles and visions – of a rebellious Judah, a nation gone wrong.  The chosen people of God have a collective bout of amnesia as to where they came from.  They became a nation by the grace of God, who rescued them from Egypt, who tended them in the desert, who raised them in the Holy Land as his own children – but now the chosen nation as a whole, God's own children, are too idol-frenzied to even remember which God is really theirs.

In our day, it's easy to point the finger at a secularized America outside our walls and say, "You were a nation appointed by God, who gave you prosperity in the New World, who shepherded you through the Revolution, who safeguarded your 'unalienable rights', who set you free to be a light to the nations, who made you strong and victorious over all the nations of the earth – but now you, you out there, have forgotten God."  Some of this is true, both the good and the bad, but we must not forget who really are the 'nation whose God is the Lord' - that is, the church – and who really is the Light to the Nations, and who really rules a victorious kingdom over all the nations – that is, Jesus Christ.

But more than that, pointing fingers of blame is easy, with our wrists and elbows straight.  It's safe when they only point away.  But that isn't the good news of Jesus; it's the bad news of the Pharisees.  When fingers are pointed, gospel humility means that wrists and elbows always start bent – so that the finger points first at ourselves, acknowledging the planks in our eyes before we speak a word about the sawdust in anyone else's.

America has been blessed, truly and greatly and beautifully blessed, but the church has been spiritually chosen.  In the church – not just this congregation, but the church, the whole church - do we remember the grace of God, who rescued us from the 'Egypt' of our sins, who tends us in our present roaming through this worldly wilderness, and who made us his own children and will reveal us as such when he raises us from the dead in the Holy Land of the whole new creation?  Or do our modern idols – our work, our leisure, our pleasure, our money, our success, our social status, our independence, our privacy, our personal opinions – crowd out the God of grace?

Isaiah has those very concerns.  The ox knows who owns it, and the donkey knows who manages it, but does the church know the God who adopted his children?  Through Isaiah, God poses a biting challenge.  It's easy, in a so-called Christian land, to let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship.  We might assume that "going to church" is just one part of life, a compartment all its own, unrelated to how we treat our neighbors, our families, our bosses, our employees.

Judah had the same problem.  That's why God had to remind her that her whole multitude of sacrifices were pointless if they came from a divided, compartmentalized heart.  It isn't in the mere physical blood of sacrificial bulls and lambs and goats that God was pleased; it was in the heart of repentance and justice and faithful love that those sacrifices were supposed to reflect.  The bloody sacrifices were just the outward vessel, a symbol of their inner meaning – but without a wholesale commitment to God and to righteousness, they rang hollow, because they were hollow.  Outward piety became just perfunctory.  Today, we lift up a sacrifice of praise, and make ourselves living sacrifices – but if our heart is divided, if we compartmentalize godliness to an hour or two on Sunday mornings, then our words and our lives are also hollow.  And if we run to and fro with hollow lives, then all our worship is just "trampling God's courts".

But God offered Judah a radical and reasonable offer – reasonable, because God stoops to dialogue with his wayward people, to help them think clearly and rightly so that their lives can be shaped by the Divine Reason who the Gospel of John tells us was with God in the beginning, and whom we know as Jesus Christ.  But the offer is also radical, because it is an invitation to repentance.  And repentance is a radical thing.  For people as far astray as Judah was then, it was no less than an about-face, a trade of all that they actually were for all that they were supposed to be.

God called Judah – and he calls us today, when we sin – to "stop doing wrong" and instead "learn to do right".  We should minister in justice to a needy world around us, defending the oppressed, all those pushed to the margins by the systems of society.  Isaiah's words point forward to the true washing from sin, and the true righteousness of God: Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the one who truly "settles the matter".  Our sins were like scarlet, they were red as crimson – bold, unseemly, visible to God and others.  They were vivid stains, blots on our lives.  But through Jesus, God fought our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness.  Here in Christ, God is fully pleased: all the many bulls and lambs and goats give way to the one Son of God, the Wisdom of God, who makes his people understand.

Christ Jesus purges all our dross, everything unworthy in us – the process of sanctification, making us holy.  Again and again, he restores his church from its confused and wayward and distracted state.  He calls us back to repentance, back to holiness, back to revival.  The idols fall, and the church stands upon its one foundation: Jesus Christ, her Lord.  The church stands as Zion, the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, pointing forward to when she is fully unveiled as the New Jerusalem, dressed as a spotless bride for her Divine Bridegroom, eager with intense longing for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus.  We can repent – we must repent – and turn back to him.  We must remember the grace of God, and that we did not earn it through our lifestyle or our worship.  God offers his costly grace to all, though not all receive it.  He offers his grace to adulterers like David, to murderers like Moses, to cowards like Simon Peter, to persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, to terrorists like Simon the Zealot and like the two convicted terrorists between whom our Savior died – and, yes, even to us.  All equally, thoroughly, desperately in need of Jesus.

But this grace of God did not leave them as adulterers, murderers, cowards, persecutors, or terrorists.  No, no, it sought and found them where they were and led them out of their sinful pasts into the hope of glory.  And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words.  This grace lays claim to all of these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.  Grace is freely given, grace greater than all our sinful stains – but how?  The hymnwriter Robert Lowry said it best (Gospel Music [1877], no. 7):
What can wash away [our] stain?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make [us] whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
Nothing can for sin atone – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that [we] have done – Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
This is all [our] hope and peace – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all [our] righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes [us] white as snow,
No other fount [we] know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus!