Sunday, November 30, 2014

"God is With Us": An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 7-8

Sermon on 2 Kings 16:1-12, 18; Isaiah 7:1--8:10; and Matthew 1:18-25.  Delivered 30 November 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The sixth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, and Isaiah 6.

The day was March 2; the year was 1791. On that day, three months before the spiritual crisis that sparked the conversion of our spiritual father Jacob Albright, another man, eighty-eight years on this earth, rested now on his deathbed. He'd served the Lord for decades. When his message of love and holiness proved too radical for the pulpits, he preached in the fields, in the markets, at the factories and the mines. But he too was just a man, destined to die. His dearest friends crowded around him as he clasped their hands in his and bade each of them farewell. Then, as the minute of death came upon him, he called upon his last ounce of strength to raise up his weary arms – and in the strongest voice his fading body could muster, he uttered and uttered again his final words: “The best of all is, God is with us. The best of all is, God is with us!” And on that solid affirmation of hope, John Wesley's spirit passed into the arms of the God who was already with him, to be “at home with the Lord” until the day of resurrection will come.

Over twenty-five centuries before that dying declaration, a troubled king's doubts stood in starkest contrast with Wesley's faithful resolve. Those were dark days. About four or five years had passed now since the prophet Isaiah had beheld God in the beauty of his holiness, in the year when King Uzziah of Judah had died (Isaiah6:1). Now, the late Uzziah's grandson Ahaz rules. Ahaz had served as co-regent with his father Jotham, but it seems that Jotham's been forced into retirement by those who preferred the way Ahaz saw things. And in those days of the wayward king Ahaz, Judah's found itself in a real pickle (Isaiah 7:1-6).

These are the days when the Middle East was dominated by one people above all others: the Assyrians and their mighty empire. The other nations are pinned under Assyria's thumb as its servants. Tired of the trouble, two much smaller but significant nations drop their age-old enmity, shake hands, and agree together that the time has come for secession from Assyria's orbit. One is Aram-Damascus, now in Syria; the other is the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which Isaiah calls “Ephraim”. Refusing to pay tribute to mighty Assyria any longer, they revolt, setting off the four-year Syro-Ephraimite War. But two little nations have a tough fight ahead of them. The Philistines and the Edomites help, but there's one thorny holdout: Judah.

Ahaz, king of Judah, fears Syria and Ephraim. But he fears Assyria more. Going against Assyria is risky and unwise, so he refuses to join the Aramean king Rezin and the Israelite king Pekah in their conspiracy against Assyria. Rezin and Pekah aren't happy. The year is 735 BC when they launch a devastating and brutal invasion, hoping that if they can remove Ahaz from his throne, they can install an anti-Assyrian leader as their puppet. And faced with Syria and Ephraim ganging up on him from the north, and the Philistines and Edomites pillaging in the south, Ahaz is knocking in his boots.

Even in the midst of Ahaz's mistrust, God doesn't desert him. He sends Isaiah to him with a message of reassurance and hope: “It will not take place, it will not happen” (Isaiah 7:7). Ahaz doesn't need to sweat it; if he has faith, he and the people will have safety. Ahaz is right not to join Syria and Ephraim: they're cruising for a bruising. God promises to use the Assyrian onslaught to his own ends: they'll be like a razor to shave down the rebel kings (Isaiah7:20). And sure enough, we already read that when the Assyrians attacked Damascus, they put Rezin to death (2 Kings 16:9). The Syrian state of Aram-Damascus was split into several Assyrian provinces, but Rezin and his nation were no more. And as for the Israelite king Pekah, who only seized his crown by assassinating Israel's last king after a two-year reign, he himself got assassinated at the end of the war, and Assyria annexed most of Israel's northern territories. Second Kings recounts Pekah's reign briefly (15:23-25, 28-30):

In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah son of Menahem became king of Israel in Samaria. Pekahiah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. … One of his chief officers, Pekah son of Remaliah, conspired against him. Taking fifty men of Gilead with him, he assassinated Pekahiah, along with Argob and Arieh, in the citadel of the royal palace at Samaria. So Pekah killed Pekahiah and succeeded him as king. … He did evil in the eyes of the LORD. He didn't turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria. Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah.

What was that Jesus said about how he who lives by the sword would die by the sword (Matthew 26:52)? That was the fate of both rebel kings – a fate Ahaz shouldn't join. What's more, the northern kingdom of Israel only had a decade left after that; Hoshea would be its last king. The Assyrian king Tukulti-apil-Esharra III in his own records tell us about how he crushed the rebellion:

I laid siege to and conquered the town Hadara, the inherited property of Rezin of Damascus, the place where he was born. I brought away as prisoners 800 of its inhabitants with their possessions. … 592 towns of the 16 districts of the country of Damascus, I destroyed, making them look like hills of ruined cities over which the flood had swept. … ...Gal'za, Abilakka, which are adjacent to Israel, and the wide land of Naphtali, in its entire extent, I united with Assyria. Officers of mine I installed as governors upon them. … Israel – all its inhabitants and their possessions I led to Assyria. They overthrew their king Pekah, and I placed Hoshea as king over them. I received from them 10 talents of gold, 1000 talents of silver as their tribute and brought them to Assyria.

In the face of dominance like that, it's easy to see why Ahaz would be scared. He certainly shouldn't join Rezin and Pekah in going down to their doom. But, Isaiah says, neither should Ahaz cozy up to Assyria's raw power. Pulled first one way, then the next, choosing sides here is a lose-lose situation. The only win is Option #3: lean on God's covenant with David, trust in God alone, and wait for the storm to pass. “If you don't stand firm in your faith”, Isaiah warns, “you won't stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). He has one job: lay low, don't meddle, cling to God, and most definitely to not go fawning all over how great and wonderful Assyria is. Stay in the gentle waters; don't wade into the flood (Isaiah 8:6-7). Allying with Assyria and becoming one of her tributaries can only bring even more trouble down the road – and the record of 2 Kings bears that out abundantly.

Ahaz, alas, isn't convinced. So Isaiah makes him a bold offer: to ask for a sign of his choice, a small thing or a big thing, to prove that God is behind this (Isaiah 7:10-11). Ahaz tries to refuse (Isaiah 7:12). He pretends it's because he respects God too much – but that's a lie, and Isaiah sees right through it. Ahaz's so-called faith is nothing but bad faith: he's already made up his mind to seek his salvation, not in Almighty God, but in mighty Assyria. Isaiah promises a sign anyway – a sign ultimately not given just to Ahaz, but to the whole “house of David” (Isaiah 7:13).

This whole section of Isaiah is united by a series of signs, all revolving around children with important names or titles. So Isaiah's prophecies here twice point out the birth of a child who acts like a stopwatch, a timer until the promise encoded in his name comes to pass. In Isaiah 7:14, the birth of Immanuel is a sign of salvation: his name means, “God is with us” – so why fear, when faith's an option? But in Isaiah 8:3, the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz promises judgment on Syria and Ephraim, judgment that will spill over onto Judah since Ahaz is so determined to worm his way into the situation. For 'Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz' is a sign of judgment: his name means, “Quick to plunder, speedy to spoil” – so there's plenty to fear, when faith is rejected.

In Isaiah's initial and immediate thinking, both names are probably for his son: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is probably the first fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14-16. The wording of Isaiah 8:3 suggests that Isaiah has just married a new wife – perhaps Shearjashub's mother died – so she is the 'maiden' who conceived and gave birth to a child. After all, if Isaiah really was a grandson of King Joash of Judah, his son would belong to the “house of David”. But before we're even out of these chapters, Isaiah can see that it doesn't stop there.

His son, a sign from God, points forward to a greater 'Immanuel'. He foreshadows an 'Immanuel' who isn't just a sign of God's presence with us, but the reality of that presence, the actual fact of God being with us. He points to the truer and fuller Immanuel, the personal imminence of God our Savior, who declares, “Before me there was no god formed, nor will there be one after me: I, even I, am Yahweh” – Jehovah, the LORD – “and apart from me, there is no Savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed – I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses that I am God” (Isaiah 43:10-11). That Savior is our Savior, our 'Immanuel'. As John Oswalt writes, discerning how the sign to Ahaz becomes a sign to the whole house of David for centuries to come (Oswalt 1:227):

Ultimately, Immanuel is the owner of the land, the one against whom Assyria's threats are ultimately lodged, the one upon whom deliverance finally depends. That cannot be Isaiah's son, nor even some unknown son of Ahaz. It can only be the Messiah, in whom all hope resides. It is as if Isaiah, plunging deeper and deeper into the dark implications of his sign, is suddenly brought up short by the deepest implication: God is with us and, best of all, will be with us, not merely in the impersonal developments of history, but somehow as a person.

The best of all is, God is with us.” As we've gathered here this morning to begin celebrating Advent, the start of the Christian year, we've placed ourselves in Isaiah's shoes. His heart beats with that heartfelt song, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” We stand at Isaiah's side, peering over his shoulder into the dim centuries ahead of him, as he awaits a day when all the foibles and frailties of even God's anointed kings would finally give way to the true Anointed King, the Messiah. Beyond his own son, beyond the kings who come and go, he looks forward into the misty future – and there he can again say, “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Only that holy King could come and give us clean lips and a pure heart (cf. Isaiah 6:7; 2 Timothy 2:22).

Standing at Isaiah's side, we look forward to the day when all the petty powers of this life – our Syrias, our Ephraims, our Philistines and Edomites, and all the little and large frustrations that conspire to bring us down – cannot taunt us nor daunt us. We look forward to the day when the terrible but transitory superpowers of the world – Assyria, Rome, and the dreadful empire of godless society – cannot break the trust that, in the true Immanuel, God really is with us.

But we don't just look forward. In Advent, we look back to look forward. We look back, because we know how these things came to pass. We don't just know that Immanuel would be born: we know his name. We know that he is Jesus, the Son of God – but also the legal son of Joseph, a descendant of King David through King Ahaz (Matthew 1:9,16). We know that his mother was not just any maiden, but indeed the Virgin Mary – and so, not just partially but fully, it has come about that “the virgin conceived and gave birth to a son”, a son to save us from our sins – our Immanuel, our God with us (Matthew1:23).

Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, was chosen for a great purpose: to give birth to, and nurture, and raise, the Anointed King born as a sign to the whole “house of David”. This was how our “long-expected Jesus” came into the world, “born to set [his] people free”. He was not just “incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and made man”, but as the holy creed of our faith likewise declares, he was and is the “only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”. We don't just say it – we sing it!

True God of true God,
Light of Light Eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the virgin's womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him:
Christ the Lord!

Jesus, our Savior forever, is the very presence of the uncreated God with us. Jesus is God on our side against everything that wants to harm us – including our own sinful habits. Our Immanuel – “Light from Light Eternal”, but now made flesh – was “born [his] people to deliver, born a child and yet a king, born to reign in us forever”. And because we truly trust in him to bring his “gracious kingdom”, we don't have to fear when the principalities and powers, like Syria and Ephraim, gang up on us. Nor do we have to go running to worldly powers to save us from the powers of this world! We don't overcome the flames by starting a bigger fire. We don't avoid drowning in the creek by breaching the dam that holds back the ocean! No, we have a far better help: God with us.

When setback after setback gangs up on us and piles on, we can easily feel intimidated and hopeless, just as Ahaz did. And we have the choice set before Ahaz, for the sign has been given: we can surrender to the easy fix with which our fears tempt us, or we can hold firm in faith to the God who is with us. We don't have to go running to Assyrian arms. We don't have to stay caught in our destructive coping mechanisms. We don't have to hedge our bets, as though God were distant or insufficient. We don't have to render to Caesar out of what belongs to God, as Ahaz did to pay tribute to Assyria (Mark12:17; 2 Kings 16:8; 2 Chronicles 28:21). We don't have to pervert our altars, as Ahaz did to flatter and imitate Assyria (2 Kings16:10-16). We don't have remodel the temple of God to fit in either with our forefathers' well-intentioned tastes or with the latest fashions in pop paganism (cf. 2 Kings 16:17-18). No, we don't have to conform to every whimsical, johnny-come-lately agenda that exalts mortal pride above the immortal Creator's loving design.

Instead, we have this promise: “God with us”. If you've felt afraid, if you've felt tempest-tossed, if you've felt harried and harassed and worn down, remember: “God with us”. If you've longed from the depths of a tired heart in an aching and ailing body for things to be different, well, Advent is all about grasping through that longing to the solution in this promise: “God with us!” So few words, such immense power. God – with us! “Holy, holy, holy” – with us! The one whose glory fills the whole earth – with us! “The King, the LORD Almighty” – with us! He sends us, but he doesn't send us away. No, “the best of all is, God is with us”.

Advent is all about rediscovering that ancient but ever-present promise: “God with us”. We don't have to fear Syria and Ephraim, and we don't have to fear Assyria. We don't have to fear setbacks, and we don't have to fear the ebb and flow of the tides of ungodliness. From all our “fears and sins”, Immanuel truly has come to “release us”; we lay all our sins and all our fears on him. So, “let us find our rest” in him by faith! We don't have to fight. We don't have to wear ourselves out. That isn't our calling. Our call is to bear patient and steady witness. It may be true that “hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good will to men”. But the virgin has conceived and given birth to a son, a son who is truly Immanuel, the long-awaited Messiah. And so there “pealed the bells more loud and deep: / 'God is not dead, nor does he sleep; / the wrong shall fail, the right prevail / with peace on earth, good will to men'”.

But why? Why does all the welkin ring? Why do the herald angels sing? How comes there “peace on earth and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled”? How could such a thing possibly be? One reason, and only one, is our answer: because this “offspring of the virgin's womb” is none other than “the Incarnate Deity / pleased as man with men to appear: / Jesus, our Immanuel here”. There is only one reason, one promised sign wrapped up in the promise's truth. From beneath Bethlehem's starry sky, through all the shameful agonies of Calvary, through the gloom of the night-wrapped tomb, to the beauty of new life, and finally to the right hand of the Majesty on high, “the best of all is, God is with us” – and “lo”, says Jesus, our Immanuel, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew28:19-20).

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Glory of the Thrice-Holy King: A Heritage-Sunday Sermon on Isaiah 6

Sermon on Isaiah 6; Leviticus 19:1-2; and John 12:34-41.  Delivered 16 November 2014 (Heritage Sunday for my denomination) at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fifth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, and Isaiah 5.

If the first five chapters of the Book of Isaiah serve as an introduction to its themes, now here we have the real crux of the book. The sixth chapter is a gamechanger; it's Isaiah's call to ministry; it may be the most significant event in Isaiah's life. All sixty chapters that follow hinge upon this one and are in answer to this one. Isaiah has already spoken of “the fearful presence of the LORD, and the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:19), but does he really know what it means to call God “the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah5:24)? What will happen when, like Job, Isaiah can finally say, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5)?

When confronted with a vision of God, one might have expected Isaiah to, at least in retrospect, writing or editing his prophecies years later, give some sort of description. Even if just symbolized in a vision, what did God look like? But Isaiah doesn't tell us anything about his face, his hands, anything. Much earlier, in Exodus 24, the elders of Israel “went up and saw the God of Israel” – and the sole detail they could report back was that his feet rested on something like blue pavement, blue as the sky. If their gaze could even go higher, they gave no indication. Neither does Isaiah – he only says that the lowest hem of God's robe filled the entire temple.

For the elders, and for Isaiah, the holiness of God was far beyond anything they could adequately put into words. Unquestionably, God was Other than they had ever imagined, totally beyond comparison, beyond description, defying explanation, immense. The holiness of God manifested itself to Isaiah in a terrifying purity – not just ritual purity, but raw and unadulterated righteousness – that struck fear in his heart and made his hair stand on end. But that very same holiness, that very same blazing sanctity, naturally evokes a response. From the impure Isaiah, it calls for an anguished outcry – he is overwhelmed, he is undone, the dice are cast, the fate is sealed, the mortal wound is dealt. But from the seraphim, those six-winged flames of fire that shield even their sinless eyes from gazing directly on God, it calls for “songs of loudest praise” without ending. It calls for “some melodious sonnet / sung by flaming tongues above”. It calls for a declaration that God is not merely holy, but holy three times over, holy to the uttermost extreme: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts! The whole earth is filled with his glory!”

I saw the Lord in light array'd,
And seated on a lofty throne,
The Invisible on earth displayed,
The Father's co-eternal Son.
The seraphim, a glittering train,
Around his bright pavilion stood,
Nor could the glorious light sustain,
While all the temple flamed with God.
Six wings each heavenly herald wore;
With twain he veil'd his dazzled sight,
With twain his feet he shadowed o'er,
With twain he steered his even flight.
One angel to another cried,
Thrice holy is the Lord we own,
His name on earth is glorified,
And all things speak the great Three One.”         (Charles Wesley, in Poetical Works 3:133)

Isaiah isn't left to be merely overwhelmed; the cry of the seraphim interprets the awe and majesty of the event. Only at the interpreted vision does the temple shake; the real power is in the fusion of experience and verbal witness. It's no accident, by the way, that Isaiah tells us when this happened to him. It was in the year when King Uzziah died. One of the precious few decent kings – more than a decent king, a good king, a righteous king, an inspiring king who brought restoration to the land – and now he was no more. In his days as in ours, a good leader is hard to find, and hard to replace. For someone like Isaiah, the loss of Uzziah's noble influence must have raised some powerful questions. But there in the temple – the very temple that Uzziah had unwisely invaded eleven years earlier, and punished with leprosy – Isaiah sees, not just one more mortal king, but the King, the LORD Almighty, who reigns as king forever (cf. Psalm 10:16).

Incidentally, when John takes up Isaiah's commission and applies it to the gospel of Jesus Christ, he does something radical: he says, “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him”.   Who is 'him'?  Jesus.  The glory Isaiah saw?  That belonged to Jesus.  The LORD Isaiah beheld?  Behold the one we know as Jesus. Jesus is not some created being, nor even some second-tier god.  He's “the Father's co-eternal Son”.  Jesus is bound up intimately and eternally in the unique life of the one and only God, Yahweh, the God of Hosts, the one enthroned between the cherubim.  My Jehovah's Witness friends haven't showed much success in whittling Isaiah 6 and John 12 down small enough to fit into their beliefs.

But back to Isaiah. He had probably done at least some preaching before this vision – but here, confronted with the holy presence of God himself, everything changed. Before, he had lambasted Judah as a sinful nation, as if he stood outside of it, as if he were some neutral observer. He rightly denounced sin, he rightly taught righteousness – but he was right in the way that a Pharisee is right, which only goes so far.  As one Old Testament scholar and gifted commentator, John Oswalt, writes, “Prophetic anouncement is not enough. Personal confrontation is necessary” (Oswalt 1:182). But now, now Isaiah sees the holiness of God. Now, overwhelmed with a holy God, he sees that the difference between righteous prophet and the wicked masses is nothing compared to the gap between any sinful creature and the All-Consuming Fire that had to be gentle in breathing the stars into their slow simmer. All Isaiah's righteousness, he at last saw for filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). He's sickened to his stomach as he realizes with revulsion how far he falls short. He wasn't set over against the people, somehow above them, looking down from a self-made throne; he was of a piece with them: a man of unclean lips, living amidst a people of unclean lips.

He spake: and all the temple shook,
Its doors return'd the jarring sign;
The trembling house was fill'd with smoke,
And groan'd beneath the Guest Divine.
Ah woe is me! aghast I said,
What shall I do, or whither run?
Burden'd with guilt, of God afraid,
By sin eternally undone!
A man I am of lips unclean,
With men of unclean lips I dwell;
And I the Lord of Hosts have seen,
The King of heaven, and earth, and hell.
I cannot see his face and live;
The vision must my death foreshow –          (Poetical Works 3:134)

Isaiah recognizes his impurity, his sin, his guilt – and he gives up hope. He harbors no illusions about the prospect of works-righteousness, no illusions about earning or meriting anything from God. Seeing God's holiness leaves no room for that. This being Heritage Sunday, I'd be remiss if I didn't relay the words of Jacob Albright when he, too, found himself convicted of his radical impurity before a holy God (Reuben Yeakel, Albright and His Co-Laborers, 26-27):

My condition struck me with fear. God's judgments appeared before my imagination; I was very much depressed in spirit, so that none of the attractions of sensuality afforded me pleasure. The feeling of my unworthiness increased daily, until finally, in my thirty-third year, upon a certain day in the month of July, 1791, it reached a crisis which bordered on despair. I felt so weak, and my sins so many, that I could not comprehend how a Judge, who judgeth a righteous judgment, could possibly allow me to escape the abyss of damnation. The anxiety of my soul increased every moment, so that I was ready to exclaim: “Ye mountains, fall upon me, and ye hills, cover me.” How deeply I regretted my past life, and how widely different I would have lived, could I have lived it over again! I not only realized my great sinfulness, but this knowledge of sin was followed by keen sorrow, whereupon I immediately formed the resolution in future to forsake my evil ways, and so to order my life, that I could at least quiet my conscience, although I had no hope of pardon for the offences which I had committed against my Creator.

Like Albright, Isaiah gave up that seemingly vain hope. But God doesn't! Then as now, God is the God of hope. A messenger from God comes to him, because God takes the initiative. A fiery messenger brings a fiery cure: a coal from the altar. God sears Isaiah's sins away – I bet it was painful, I bet it burned and scorched, just as tearing away sinful habits often does to us – and Isaiah becomes something he hadn't been before: clean. A pure message should come by way of a pure mouth – and henceforth they could. Clean lips can't help but join the seraphim in praising this godliest of gods, the one God. Isaiah's life would never be the same. Meeting the holy terror of God undid him, but the mercy and grace of God made him new.

I cannot see his face and live;
The vision must my death foreshow –
A seraph turn'd, and heard me grieve,
And swift to my relief he flew....
Upon my mouth he gently laid
A coal that from the altar glow'd;
Lo! This hath touch'd thy lips,” he said,
And thou art reconciled to God.
His offering did thy guilt remove,
The Lamb who on that altar lay;
A spark of Jesus' flaming love
Hath purged thy world of sin away.”          (Poetical Works 3:134-135)

Once clean, Isaiah is ready to actually, directly hear God – the first time the LORD speaks in this chapter. The prophet is ready to become a prophet in the fullest sense: a human member invited into the inner circle of heaven itself, the Divine Council, the deliberations of Almighty God among his angels. The Lord asks who should be sent, who would be willing to go. Isaiah isn't asked directly, nor is he commanded; he volunteers. To quote John Oswalt again (Oswalt 1:186):

Having believed with certainty that he was about to be crushed into non-existence by the very holiness of God and having received an unsought for, and unmerited, complete cleansing, what else would he rather do than hurl himself into God's service? Those who need to be coerced are perhaps too little aware of the immensity of God's grace toward them. … Such a grateful offering of themselves is always the cry of those who have received God's grace after they have given up hope of ever being acceptable to God.

How true that is!  Now that Isaiah's clean, he's gratefully eager to serve.  Millennia later, as the years went by, Jacob Albright's own conversion, his own encounter with both the holiness and the grace of God, bore similar results. Albright said (Yeakel, 48-49):

A burning love to God and all his children, and towards my fellow-men generally, pervaded my being. Through this love, which the peace of God shed abroad in my heart, I came to see the great decline of true religion among the Germans in America, and felt their sad condition very keenly. I saw in all men, even in the deeply depraved, the creative hand of the Almighty. I recognized them as my brethren, and heartily desired that they might be as happy as I was. In this state of mind I frequently cast myself upon my knees, and implored God with burning tears, that he might lead my German brethren into a knowledge of the truth, that he would send them true and exemplary teachers, who would preach the Gospel in its power, in order to awaken the dead and slumbering religious professors out of their sleep of sin, and bring them again to the true life of godliness, so that they, too, might become partakers of the blessed peace with God and the fellowship of the saints in light. In this way I prayed daily for the welfare of my brethren. And while I thus held intercourse with God, all at once it seemed to become light in my soul; I heard, as it were, a voice within, saying: “Was it mere chance that the wretched condition of your brethren affected your heart so much? Was it chance, that your heart, yea, even your heart, was so overwhelmed with sympathy for the salvation of your brethren? Is not the hand of Him visible here, whose wisdom guides the destiny of individuals, as well as that of nations? What, if his infinite love, which desires to lead each soul into Abraham's bosom, had chosen you, to lead your brethren into the path of life, and to prepare them to share in the mercy of God!” I now began to realize more peace and more assurance. I felt a holy confidence that my prayers were acceptable, and I heard, as it were, the voice of God: “Go, work in my vineyard; proclaim to my people the Gospel in its primitive purity, with energy and power, trusting in my fatherly love, that all those who hear and believe shall have part in my grace.”

As for Albright, so too for Isaiah: Faith doesn't stop short of mission.

I heard him ask, “Whom shall I send
Our Royal Message to proclaim,
Our grace and truth, which never end?” –
Lo! here, thy messenger I am.
Send me, my answering spirit cried,
Thy herald to the ransom'd race:
Go then,” the voice divine replied,
And preach my free unbounded grace.
Go forth, and speak my word to all,
To every creature under heaven;
They may obey the gospel call,
And freely be by grace forgiven.
They may, but will not all believe:
Yet go, my truth and love to clear;
I know they will not all receive
The grace that brings salvation near.”          (Poetical Works 3:135)

Isaiah's calling wasn't an easy one. His commission was not rosy. He was called, first and foremost, not to heal the people against their will, but to reveal God's true character to them – everything about God that they didn't want to accept. He had the promise, right up front, that his message would not help his generation; it would only make them more stubborn to resist God. Though his heart would surely break for them, his words would seal their doom. They were addicted to idolatry, and they would cling to it all the more, preferring the seeming safety of the idols to a God who shakes his temple and strips forests bare. As is only natural, those desperate for blind idols would become blinder and blinder; those itching for deaf idols would be “never understanding”; those yearning for the hard rigor of their idols would be just as stony and inanimate, insensible to the living whispers of God's grace.

But through it all, Isaiah persevered. His generation would fall, true, except for the smallest remnant. Success in his lifetime was not the goal he was called to meet. Faithfulness – that's the goal he was first and foremost called to meet, just as for us today. Yet his glorious message, though hurtful to his contemporaries, would bless generation after generation to come. For them, it would be a great witness, and stand as a lasting testimony.

Isaiah has a lot to teach us. As a church – I'm not talking about Pequea EC, I'm talking about American Christianity in general – we've lost sight of God's holiness. Sure, we give it lipservice just fine. We profess that God is a holy God. But do we viscerally grasp, with every cell in our bodies and every meditation of our minds and hearts, the overwhelming intensity and immensity of God? We aren't called to conform to this world. We aren't called to make the gospel easy and inconsequential, as if carrying a cross were a light-hearted matter. We aren't called to cater to the fashionable tastes and preferences of a sin-addicted age. Neither was Isaiah, nor Albright. Now, true, we're called to contextualize the gospel, to communicate it effectively and persuasively and lovingly, and to help the wounded and vulnerable tenderly approach the God of mercy who welcomes them with open arms. But this same God, revealed in Christ, is the God high and exalted, the God whose very robe dwarfs his temple, the God whose holiness shakes the earth and enraptures wary angels. It's that balanced tension – the God of this exalted glory really is the God of such humble and compassionate mercy – that blows my mind, and it should do the same for you too. But playing with fire is infinitely safer than playing around with God's holiness. The only safe path is the road strait and narrow: we are called to be pure, to be other – to be in this present age, yes, but not of this age.

But this call to be holy comes hand-in-hand with confession: In ourselves, we aren't. In ourselves, we are, each and every one of us, unclean. We're moths divebombing a high-voltage bug zapper. Our iniquity needs first to be taken away by the burning ember of the Spirit, brought from the altar of Christ's cross. Freshly made clean, we are called to say together, “Here we are; send us!” But is it any surprise when Jesus answers us, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21)? Is it any surprise when Jesus adds, “As you're going, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I've commanded you” (Matthew28:19-20)? Through this Great Commission, “Here we are; send us!” becomes “Here we go, the sent ones!” We're sent – but are we going? Compelled by God's holiness, touched by the purifying flame, how can we not join the seraphic witness? May we, too, be cleansed and enraptured by the unfathomable holiness of God; and may we not neglect to persevere in our commission. Let us pray:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Israel's Sour Grapes and the True Vine: A Sermon on Isaiah 5

Sermon on Isaiah 5 (specifically, Isaiah 5:1-8, 11-13, 15-16, 20-24); Jeremiah 2:21-22; Psalm 80:8-11, 14-19; and John 15:1-8.  Delivered 9 November 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fourth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, and Isaiah 3-4.

The first four chapters of Isaiah introduce so many themes: To a wayward people, Isaiah points them to the true atonement, deeper than bulls and goats, which takes crimson sins and makes them whiter than wool. Isaiah calls us to repent of our hypocrisy, living and thinking one way on Sunday and another Monday through Saturday. In the darkest times, days of corruption and evil, Isaiah points us to the Branch of the LORD, to the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, to the mountain of the LORD's temple, to the word of gospel-peace going forth from the people founded securely upon Jesus Christ, the church's one foundation.

What we have here in Isaiah 5 is probably one of the first sermons of Isaiah's long prophetic ministry, maybe delivered before the death of King Uzziah, probably at the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major feasts when the people of Judah would have made their pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Like many a poet and bard throughout history, I can see Isaiah walking the streets of the holy city, gazing out at the makeshift booths, offering to sing a love song, a song about a loved one's vineyard.

But that love song becomes a lawsuit. In Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, he describes Israel as a vineyard specially chosen by its Owner. He did everything for the vineyard, everything a vine could ask for. Good soil? He planted it on a fertile hillside. Clear soil? He cleared it of stones. Good stock? Isaiah calls it “the choicest vines”. Protected? He built a wall, he built a watchtower, he built a winepress. And he looked for juicy grapes, the reason he planted the vineyard – but there were none (Isaiah 5:2-4).

We know Isaiah, we know his themes, we can see where he's going. But it probably took his first audience plenty by surprise! The vineyard owner is God. The vineyard is all of Israel (Isaiah 5:7). God did everything for Israel, more than they ever could have asked – he delivered them from Egypt, he planted them in the Promised Land, he cleared away the stony Canaanite peoples, he protected them from trouble. And all he wanted were good grapes, good fruit, the fruit of holy life. They weren't planted as an end in themselves, the final stop of God's rivers of blessing. No, they were planted with a purpose.

For all God did for them, you'd think he'd see those good grapes! But no – no, instead there are bad grapes, corrupt grapes. Literally, grapes worth nothing because they rot and they stink. Isaiah points out the contrast with a pair of puns: instead of mishpat, rightful judgment or justice, Israel gave God nothing but mispach, bloodshed; and instead of tsedaqah, righteousness, Israel gave God nothing but tseaqah, cries of distress. So there will be consequences. The wall of protection, gone; the nourishing blessings of heaven, withheld; the beasts, invited.

In his sevenfold woes, Isaiah paints a vivid portrait of Israel once again out of control. They have no respect for God; they're obsessed with leisure and partying; they're arrogant; they greedily grasp for more and more of God's land, stealing it away from the poor; and their degraded state leads to moral chaos, classifying good things as evil and evil things as good – a total subversion of right and wrong. An all-too-familiar picture today. Later, when the prophet Jeremiah picks up on the vineyard image, he stresses the inability of human effort to fix it: No matter what remedies they try, the vine stays stained, corrupt, filthy from the inside-out (Jeremiah 2:22). And so the nation was slated for devastation – Isaiah 5 ends with a call to the ungodly Gentile empires to come and do what they do best: be beastly.

Some time later, maybe decades, maybe centuries, someone wrote Psalm 80 to pick up where Isaiah left off. “How long, O LORD, God of hosts”, the psalmist asks, “will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” (Psalm 80:4). Israel was one vine, plucked out of Egypt, planted in a cleared field, it filled the land, it towered over the cedars and the mountains – why does it go unprotected, why is it left to the boars and the bugs? The confused groan of God's people: Not yet fully grappling with their sin, yet desperate to be delivered – and hopeful. There's hope in a new shoot from the vineyard, a 'son of man' raised up at God's right hand; and only if God is with that man, can it be honestly said, “Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name” (Psalm 80:18).

Centuries went by, and the imperial beasts of Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome had their field day on that fertile hillside, ravenously ruling over God's oft-rebellious people. The vineyard of Israel didn't have a great track record. From a worldly point of view, it'd be hard to make a case for putting much stock in it. But now we come to John 15, where Jesus unfolds the new truth. He, the Son of Man, is the remedy for Isaiah 5 and the answer to Psalm 80. The Vineyard of Israel was full of sour grapes – but not him. He isn't a replacement, an alternative; he's the fulfillment. Jesus is the True Vine, just as his Father is and has always been the Divine Vinedresser (John 15:1). Jesus is the True Israelite, the One-Man Remnant, the Messiah, who was born of Israel to fulfill everything Israel was called and chosen to do and be.

Israel under the Old Covenant was so often a corrupt vine with stinking grapes – and they found the truth that no soap, no powder, no effort wrought by human hands, could ever make them clean. The stain of their guilt, all the bloodshed and distress, still remained before the Lord, only covered over and hidden from view by the blood of bulls and rams. No, they were no clean vine, and their branches were unclean – but Jesus, the True Vine, declares to his branches: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

There, there we have it – what no ritual remedy could do, no works of the Law could do, was accomplished, finished, done while we were blinking, before we even took notice. “Already clean” – because the Voice of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, declared it so. “Already clean” – because Jesus taught his people the New Law and wrote it on their hearts, not by quills on parchment but by the Spirit of God on human lives. “Already clean” – because “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:25-26). “Already clean” – when we drink in his word, when we turn to it again and again, when we learn his teachings and ways, when we inundate our souls with the spiritual flood of his purifying word, for “the words of the LORD are pure words, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Jesus is the True Vine – and we are his branches, if we belong to him. Do we belong to him? How do we belong to him? By faith. We are united to Jesus through faith, for by trusting him, by clinging loyally and devotedly to him, we are grafted into him by the Spirit. Now, is this some easy-believism, a mere lip-service, a rote recitation of a creed uttered lazily on the lips but not really reflecting the mind and heart? No, no, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), but this is a living faith, a truly engaged and committed surrender to Jesus. In that faith, we cleave to him and open ourselves fully for his life to flow into us, to be lived in us – the Spirit, the nutrients of living witness, being nurtured by the Father through the Son into our lives, and expressed in great, big, juicy grapes of righteous mercy and holy love.

We can't bear those by ourselves – “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine” (John 15:4). If it doesn't proceed from faith, our vital connection with our Vine, then it's corrupted by the stinking stain of sour sin, for “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). No, the path of human initiative is a downward road – paved with good intentions though it may very well be. We must remain in the Vine, drawing all our life from the Vine. If we don't keep drawing our life from the Vine, partaking of his Holy Spirit through living relationship, then what? Then we wither; then we bear no fruit. “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). Don't shoot the messenger – that's what the Vine says, and he would know. But if we are his branches, then we are already clean, already forgiven – forgiven, not because of our fruit, but in order to bear fruit!

So many religious traditions, so many natural human impulses, tell us that God will love and forgive us if only we can live up to his commandments, if only we can do the right rituals in the right way, if only we can say the right words and do the right things, if only we can be just a bit less sinful than the guy across the street. Such is legalism, such is moralism, such is works-righteousness. So many of our guilty instincts are wrapped up in this idea that, if a dead branch starts budding, that will qualify it to be added to the tree. That's a lie from the devil's own lips, filled with just enough half-truth to sidetrack us.

God doesn't love us 'if only we...', he doesn't forgive us 'if only we...' – God loves us and forgives us already, he cleanses us already, 'so that we...' Cleansing comes first, so that we can be part of the Vine; and only after we're the Vine's branches can the right fruit begin to grow. We don't obey to be redeemed, or even believe and obey to be redeemed; we believe to be redeemed to obey. Faith in the crucified-and-risen Christ meets the holiness of God's Spirit head on, and the explosive collision lights up the darkness with the fire of divine love.

That's the beauty of, “Already clean”. That's the beauty of, “Remain in me”. The beauty is, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). Israel under the Old Covenant didn't and couldn't – the soil was right, but the vines went wrong. Israel under the New Covenant is the holy church of God, the branches of a holy Vine, the true Israel: Jesus Christ and all his branches. Jesus is determined that his branches should bear fruit; it's an inevitable result of being his branches, being an earthly extension of his messianic life. That's what it means to be rightly called a Christian: to suffer pruning with him, so that we can share in his glorious fruit as we together with him glorify the Father (John 15:8; cf. Romans 8:17). He bears his fruit through us, once we're already in him by faith.

If we abide in him, if we cleave to him in faith, then we will bear fruit – if we let his life flow through us. We can try to block it, of course. We can refuse to be open. We can choke ourselves on our own stubborn stupidity, acting like we don't depend on him for everything. We can live as though the Christian walk were anything but Spirit-fueled. So often, that's just what we do, and we risk choking the spiritual life out of ourselves. Or, we can learn the blessed wisdom of just abiding – a disciplined openness to the Spirit of the Son, through which his life floods us and, although pruned for our own health, we bear abundant fruit to the glory of God.

When the frantic chaos of the world encroaches, we can clear time and space for God's gift of sabbath rest. When worldly voices vex and perplex, we can drown them out with the word of God, returning again and again to the scriptures. When the thorny troubles and cares threaten to choke the seedling of the kingdom, we can seek God's peace by anchoring our will in his through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines. When pride and self-sufficiency tempt us with their vision, we can humble ourselves and answer Christ's call: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Instead of bloodshed, cries of distress, greed, selfishness, pride – instead of any of these sour grapes, lo, behold, there are justice and righteousness, where we are chosen and appointed to be filled with the joy of the Lord and to love one another, just as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves his branches.

Beasts may ravage, but all their savagery can only be an instrument of God's pruning – and “if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). This True Vine of Israel, raised up from the dead, will never die, can never die – he lives and grows forever, and his eternal life flows through all his branches, the new Israel, the new way to be human. We, united with him, are planted for a purpose. Isaiah said, “I will sing to my beloved a song about his vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1) – how much more should we sing to all the world a song about the Father's True Vine, the Branch of the LORD, Jesus Christ, in whom we abide and bear much loving fruit to the Father's glory?

Lord, when this vine in Canaan grew,
Thou wast its strength and glory too!
Attack'd in vain by all its foes,
'Till the fair Branch of promise rose.

Fair Branch, ordain'd of old to shoot
From David's stock, from Jacob's root;
Himself a noble vine, and we
The lesser Branches of the Tree:

'Tis thy own Son; and he shall stand,
Girt with thy strength, at thy right hand;
Thy firstborn Son, ador'd and blessed
With pow'r and grace above the rest.

O! for his sake, attend our cry,
Shine on thy churches, lest they die;
Turn us to thee, thy love restore,
We shall be sav'd, and sigh no more.            (Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David [1791], 66).