Sunday, October 26, 2014

Unwise Leaders, Paraded Sin, and the Branch of the LORD: A Reformation-Sunday Sermon on Isaiah 3-4

Sermon on Isaiah 3-4 (specifically, Isaiah 3:1-9, 13-15; 4:2-6) and Galatians 3:23-29.  Delivered 26 October 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The third installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 2.

The third chapter of the prophecies of Isaiah, that great fifth Evangelist, is no rosy picture. He could not afford to be gentle with an out-of-control Judah. No, Isaiah's verbal arts paint a damning portrait of a society degraded to its roots, locked in a ruinously unstable state. God speaking through Isaiah has to warn that, in the exile that will come as punishment upon them, all competent political, military, and spiritual leadership will be snatched away to a foreign land. Remaining is a competence vacuum, filled by the untaught, uninstructed, unwise, inexperienced. Leadership becomes a synonym for corruption.

Society is in turmoil: the young rise up against the old, the shameless rise up against the dignified, the camps of Occupy Jerusalem litter the heaps of rubble – and in the vicious cycle of uprising and oppression, the poor and vulnerable are put through the grinder. The people aren't content to sin in quiet and make a hypocritical display of goodness. No, they celebrate their sin, christening it as good, patting themselves on the back for being so clever. Violence, theft, debauchery – these are exciting, these are a distraction, these are survival, these are glorified. But how can a society survive like this? How can a society function when, politically and spiritually, those it calls leaders aren't good examples to imitate? How can a society survive this level of drastic mismanagement? It may squeak by, but it can't very well thrive – yet such was the state of Judah at the outbreak of crisis, as Isaiah foresaw.

Over two thousand years later, another man found himself in a situation not so unlike Isaiah's. In this later time, society had again become corrupt. The earthly potentate of the western church, the pope, had become one among any number of worldly princes, and made war with them as often as peace. The notoriously corrupt Pope Alexander VI openly had numerous mistresses and installed various friends and relatives as high-ranking church officials. His successor, Pope Julius II, was often fueled by jealousy, had fathered a daughter out of wedlock while still a cardinal, and presented himself as a new Julius Caesar to lead a new Christian empire in military victory.

The practice had long since emerged that the pallium – the special vestment marking out high-ranking bishops – required the 'donation' of a massive fee, and so joined with other factors that made church offices essentially available for purchase for those with the right connections and social standing. Meanwhile, the church authorities had developed a theology in which, to cover up the punishment for our sins, a special 'indulgence' – access to the treasury of excess 'goodness' built up by Jesus and by saints – could be doled out in exchange for various religious acts – including 'charitable' gifts to church leaders. Between the need to pay for building opulent churches, and the need for church leaders to pay off debts incurred when they bought their office, this set the stage for indulgences – a remission of punishment for the dead in purgatory or the living in advance of purgatory, but easily understood as forgiveness of sins and thus a license to sin with impunity – to be sold by men like Johann Tetzel.

Like Isaiah before him, a man dared to challenge his corrupt society. A monk, theologian, biblical scholar – his name was Martin Luther. It's no wonder that he read Isaiah 3 as “a prophecy for our age against princes and bishops” and suggested that “the sin of our countrymen is greater than the sin of Sodom was”. Initially, infuriated by Tetzel's dealings, Luther only meant to offer up for discussion 95 searching questions about anti-Christian practices he felt must surely be a local mistake – but when his questions went viral thanks to the wonders of Gutenberg's printing press, he found himself forced into a confrontation with the powers-that-be. He asked, if indulgences work the way they supposedly do, why wouldn't loving church leaders give them out freely as quickly as possible? Luther argued:

Any Christian whatsoever who is truly repentant enjoys full remission from penalty and guilt, and this is given to him without letters of indulgence. Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God without letters of indulgence. […] Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better action than if he buys indulgences; because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man; whereas, by indulgences, he doesn't become a better man, but only escapes certain penalties. […] The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. […] Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells; and let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

Luther's challenge did not go unnoticed. In the year 1520, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine, threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted forty-one points of teaching within the next sixty days. Luther refused, stepped up his publishing campaign, burned a copy of Exsurge Domine that December, and went on trial before Emperor Charles V the next year, declaring his conscience to be captive to the word of God alone. He escaped arrest, went on to translate the Bible into German, married a former nun, organized congregations that dissented from the corrupt practices of the mainstream institutional church, and died in the year 1546.

Luther wasn't perfect. He was wrong on a number of key theological points, like the relation of faith to reason and the importance of human free will. He failed to adequately challenge his political protector, Philip of Hesse, when he insisted on taking a second wife. Luther could be ill-tempered, especially as his health worsened, and once disillusioned about his hopes for leading the Jews of the German states to Jesus, his later writings about them lent support centuries later to the Holocaust.

But in his day, Luther stood as a bold witness. And cleaving to the Lord Jesus Christ in empty-handed faith, bearing faithful witness to him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life over against all opposing powers, is and has always been the robustly Christian way of resisting a corrupt world. Luther rediscovered the key: that real godly virtue, real righteousness, flows out of faith, not the other way around, because faith fulfills the First Commandment, unites us with Jesus, exchanges our sinful curse for his divine blessing, and flowers in grateful love. Standing firm in this faith, Luther withstood much of the raging tempest that the corrupt political and religious establishment hurled his way. He sparked, in short, a Reformation, one that changed the political and spiritual landscape of the whole world.

In our own time, we are also called to stand as a community of witness. Isaiah's description of society in shambles cuts awfully close today. Do we not also live in a day of often-incompetent political and religious leadership, a day rampant with foolishness and sneering, a day of cowardly compromise? How many political leaders beyond the local level come to mind when I say the words 'integrity', 'principled', 'trustworthy'? Some, no doubt; but not enough. How many denominations both engage constructively with the world and hold the gospel pure and undefiled? It's easy to fail in one or both.

In our world, do we not frequently see the poor oppressed – either demeaned, on one side of the political aisle, as being undeserving of love, support, and gentle reform, or else, on the other side of the political aisle, enabled in bad habits and exploited perpetually for political gains? Do we not see the constant manipulation of young versus old? The young dismiss the stodgy, out-of-touch, inflexible, old-fashioned ways of the elders; and the elders, in their turn, deride the young as lazy, unmotivated, ungrateful, addicted to constant change. Both caricatures are wrapped up in the same hopeless cycle, repeating itself in generation after generation.

Do we not, in our day, see the eradication of many standards of what it means to be honorable? Is ours not a time when the slogan from Judges, 'every man did that which was right in his own eyes', could in practice almost supplant 'In God we trust' as a national motto? As Luther said, the uprising of the 'base' against the 'honorable' has its roots in the self-assertion, “I'm just as good as you are”. These days, you may hear it crop up in phrases like, “Don't force your beliefs on me; don't judge me; no one can judge but God” – but heaven forbid we listen to what God actually has to say.

Do we not see, in these very days and weeks, people “parading their sin like Sodom”, not ashamed of breaking the commandments of our God for how to flourish as holy bearers of his image, but actively celebrating their so-called 'liberty' to sin? You've seen the news. The attitude grows that all who will not conform must be shamed or punished. You've seen how the court of popular opinion treats those who will not 'bow the knee to Baal', who will not offer just a pinch of incense to Caesar, who will not compromise their Christian convictions on the value of unborn human life, or the solemn nature of marriage as a God-given institution mirroring Christ and his Church, or the freedom to worship not just within the walls of our buildings, but to worship God with our lives in the public square, in the marketplace, the academy – all convictions that should be evident to fair-minded people on the basis of reason and human decency, both of which are in short supply today.

This is not a call to “take America back” – as if we ever 'had' it! As if our history weren't so much a series of trade-offs, one set of trendy sins for another! As if our pretense at civil religion couldn't so often be summed up under the phrase, “This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isaiah 29:13)! No, this is not a call to “take America back”, but to give back to our village, our town, our county, our state, our nation, our world. To give what? To give our witness – like Isaiah, like Luther. To forsake compromise, to stand firm in “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), to remain faithful, and to not just tell but show that true life is found in Jesus Christ and his love – and “if you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15).

Isaiah and Luther both knew that our hope is not to be found merely in reforming outward habits, in dropping external bad habits for externally better habits. That's important, but we need reform of the heart. Our hope involves binding ourselves to accountability to another kingdom, the world of the heavenly Zion, the kingdom of the Branch of the LORD – Jesus Christ. While the world – and the worldly even in compromised churches – disdain Christ and his faithful ones as “a dried-up tree trunk”, Luther recognized with Isaiah that “they are not regarded as such before God”, for “the kingdom of Christ is now glorious in the spirit”. Only this Branch, restoring the intimacy of God's protection of the Israelites in their exodus, can give protection. Luther commented:

The Christian has no other cover than Christ; he does not rely on the arm of flesh, for there is no salvation in man, nor on good works, for they are not good in the presence of God. The Christian should teach and act in such a way that he may dare to stand in the presence of God. But the faithful are supported by the Word alone. […] Faintheartedness is not made strong with hands but by the Word of God, which alone heartens and causes to stand. If you trust in men, you will have help neither from them nor from God, who forsakes those who forsake Him. For the Word of God is the exceedingly strong tower of Zion and the pavilion of God offering protection in prosperity and adversity.

As Isaiah shows in his fourth chapter, we must come to grow through union with this Branch – to be Christ's twigs, bearing glorious fruit by faith, which secures our life-giving connection with the Branch. Only the life of the Branch, made real in us, gives clean fruit, glorious fruit acceptable to the LORD our God. Only by living faith – not a dead and fruitless faith, but a living faith made perfect in love – makes us righteous through that Glorious Exchange: our unrighteousness for the righteousness of Christ in God. And only when we are righteous by faith may we inherit Isaiah's promise and “enjoy the fruit of our deeds” (Isaiah 3:10).

We must let Jesus Christ, the Branch of the LORD, be our “Mediator, Leader, Teacher, Priest”, our “Pillar and the Cloud”, and “yet that cloud will not appear except through the Word which protects and goes before, and we follow”, as Luther rightly commented. In all things, we must witness to Christ's ways, careful to be faithful to him and his teaching, and in being a community of witness, to hold ourselves, one another, and those charged with leadership accountable to the Holy Branch. Do we so witness? Are we living as examples of how faith brings the righteousness of God? How is our witness today, this week, this month?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"The LORD Alone Shall Be Exalted in That Day": A Sermon on Isaiah 2

Sermon on Isaiah 2 (specifically, Isaiah 2:1-5, 12-22); Revelation 6:15-17.  Delivered 12 October 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The second installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

When God taught us through the first chapter of Isaiah's beautiful “Fifth Gospel” last month, we saw a strong warning – for Judah and for us today – against a “divided, compartmentalized heart” that tries to “let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship”.  Judah was mired in sin – all mankind is mired in sin – and the only hope is true atonement and true repentance, for “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”.  We remember that:

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. […] 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 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.

That prophecy gives way to a new oracle, a portrait of the nations finally being eagerly drawn toward God's kingdom.  What we have in the second chapter of Isaiah is not merely some far-off utopia, a scene of things after Christ's return.  No, its perfection may await that long-desired day, but the world of Isaiah 2 lies before us.  We don't have to wait for “the last days”, for we know that “in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2).  And what can we say of the true Mount Zion?  Is it only a future reality?  Hebrews 12:22 says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”.   What is this great mountain that looms so large in Isaiah's view?

Remember the dream that the prophet Daniel will interpret for Nebuchadnezzar: the great worldly powers are a statue of declining value – gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay – but there comes “a rock cut out, but not by human hands”, which “struck the statue” and so “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35). This rock, says Daniel, becomes a mountain because “in the times of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed”, which “will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44) – and as Christ, the great Rock, himself said during the days of his earthly ministry, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The Mountain is Christ, expanding his kingdom throughout the whole earth: he is the true Mount Zion, the highest of mountains, exalted above all the hills of our petty idols and vain desires.

Jesus Christ, then, is the mountain of the LORD's temple – and is himself the cornerstone of that temple, in union with his people. As Paul says, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16).  Paul asks, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).  But it is only in Jesus Christ that “the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). Peter also testifies that, along with the great living Stone who is Christ, we “like living stones are being built into a temple of the Spirit” (1 Peter 2:5).

When Isaiah foresees a grand mountain of the LORD's temple, then, what he sees in the days of the New Covenant is Christ and his kingdom crowned with the church as a holy temple. And “the law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” – that is, in our own day, the message of the gospel will go forth from us, or through us from its heavenly source, and into all the world. That is our calling: to “disciple all nations”, which happens when we go, and when we baptize them into the pure faith in the Triune God, and when we teach them the whole of Christ's doctrine and practice (Matthew 28:19-20).

What is the effect of the gospel spreading through all the earth?  What does it look like when it gets brought to fruition?  God himself will “judge between the nations”, and with God as the Judge to adjudicate all disputes, what need will there be for war?   So “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – swords and spears, the weapons of warfare and good for nothing other than death and destruction, will be permanently useless – and thus “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”.  That is a world that can be achieved only by the gospel-message from the heavenly Zion.  That is a world that can be achieved by the kingdom of God.  And as we watch our world falling apart in warfare all around us, that is a world I want to live in.

The gospel is not a message of war – save in the endless warfare of the Savior against sin itself – for “our struggle is not against flesh and blood”, but rather is against “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). The gospel is a message of peace, though it may bring a sword in this rebellious world – a sword, not against unbelievers, but wielded by them against us (Matthew 10:34).  And in our day more than ever, that sword is all too sharp and all too active.

We live now in a world where the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State brutally persecutes Christians and many others throughout portions of the Middle East under its control. We live now in a world where the constant strife between Israel and Palestine claims civilian lives on both sides. We live now in a world where Boko Haram still holds countless Nigerian schoolgirls hostage. And who can forget the Syrian civil war, and the ethnic violence in South Sudan, and continuing war in eastern Ukraine, and in places even our twenty-four-hour news cycle hasn't taught us. Nor is it limited to foreign shores: our own soil is stained with blood, brutality, oppression, bitterness, resentment, envy, hatred, discord. Our whole world is sucked into an endless cycle of violence begetting violence, wrath spawning wrath. This is nothing new: the rock in the hand of Cain has filled the earth for far too long. But the Rock of our Salvation came to exhaust all the wrath of evil, so as to fill the earth with a peaceable kingdom – and the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), crying not for vengeance but for peace through justice and love.

That is the message we're called to proclaim: the gospel of peace, going forth from us, the LORD's temple – not founded upon our own strength or wisdom, but solely and securely upon Christ our Sure Foundation. But just as in Isaiah's day, the hope for Israel and Judah was only through a painful scourging of the wickedness from their midst – salvation always comes through judgment.   Salvation for the Hebrews came only by the ten plagues upon Egypt.  Salvation from false prophets and outward idolatries came only by the pains of exile and return.   Salvation from sin and the idolatries of the heart comes only by the death penalty: by the nailing of the sinful character of Adam in us to the cross, not in our own person, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, whose divine and sinless life made way for him to have God judge our sin in his death: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The old Adam died in the Last Adam's death, that new people in us might live through his risen life.

And ultimately, the salvation of the world will require the judgment of all that is sinful within it.  Either that sin is done away with in Christ's cross, or it remains to be addressed in the judgment that is to come.  There is indeed a day in store when all that is exalted will be humbled, and all human pride will be brought low, and the idols will all disappear, revealing their worthlessness. What we have here is no different than what Mary sang in her beautiful Magnificat, the song of how Christ's birth changes the world: God “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; / he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. // He has brought down rulers from their thrones / but has lifted up the humble. // He has filled the hungry with good things / but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

God will reverse the fortunes that we have claimed.  What we've claimed for ourselves, we will have to give up; what we've been content to leave in the hands of God, that he will distribute freely.   The day is coming!  Maranatha!  When the LORD rises to shake the earth, the self-exalted have good reason to wish to hide and to throw their idols by the wayside.  But no earthly mountain, no earth-bound rock, can shield anyone from the omnipotent justice of God – no more than any idol can.  There is only one Rock, only one Mountain that offers a true Refuge – because only one Rock, only one Mountain, has already borne all the wrath of God and been raised up to tower over all the hills that shall surely be brought low.  Only in Christ is there hope of salvation – and that is the message that goes forth from God's temple to all the nations.

The gospel out of Zion calls forth with a challenge.  Will we humble ourselves, and let God exalt us in Christ in his due time? Or will we exalt ourselves, and resist vainly that day when God humbles us against our will?  Will we choose gospel humility, or will we cast our lot with the vile idols in their promised humiliation?  Jesus Christ chose humility: though he existed rightfully in all the divine glory, being the eternal Word of God, he emptied himself to take on the indignity of a human servant, and he obeyed his Father's will even in humbling himself all the way to the “slaves' punishment”: a painful, shameful, naked death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Paul advises us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Let us not exalt ourselves, let us not boast like the idols of human pride and status, but let us humble ourselves – for just as “God exalted him to the highest place” and made public that Christ bears the name of God himself (Philippians 2:9), so through the humility of faith “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him” (Ephesians 2:6).

We here, living in humble faith, are God's temple, a shining city on a hill – more than a hill, but the highest of mountains, Christ the King.  His kingdom is the mountain of the temple of the LORD, to which all nations must be drawn for the wisdom of God's design for human life.  But how will they learn, if no one tells them?   How can the nations be taught peace – not just mere détente, not just an unsteady truce, but the real peace of holy love – if the instruction of the gospel fails to go forth from Zion?   The message will go nowhere unless this temple sends forth heralds of good news!

Are we here at Pequea EC founded securely upon this mountain and no other?  Are we shining as a temple, bright and unmistakable?   Do we beat our swords into plowshares?   Does the word of the LORD go forth from us into the world that needs so desperately to hear it – not just distant lands, but here in the towns and countryside all around us?  Have we tossed all idols aside to the moles and bats?  Have we humbled ourselves, forsaken our worldly ambitions, and set our minds on things above, where our life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2)?  Do we in word and in deed, in thought and in attitude, proclaim the exaltation of one and only one name – the name of Jesus Christ?

Christ in us, the peace of the Spirit, is the one and only hope of the world.  That good news is not easy to hear and obey.  It threatens all idols and the self-assured dignity of human pride.  Every high and lofty thing naturally resists this truth in one way or another: spiritual strongholds, governments, political parties, big business, corporate media, the ivory tower, the social elite, sometimes even the church itself. But all the high and lofty things – “all the towering mountains and all the high hills” – will be brought low, and “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day”.

Only our God will stand tall, while all the debris of failed earthly aspirations and crushed worldly boasts settles into holes and joins the rest of the guano where all idols belong.   Jesus Christ is LORD, crowned with many crowns, and he alone will be exalted!  In all our living, in all our working, in all our resting, in all our preaching, in all our teaching, in all our believing, in all our suffering, in all our rejoicing, in all our hoping, in all our loving, may Christ the LORD alone be exalted!