Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Half-Church and the Halved Church: A Sermon on Isaiah 15-18

Sermon on Isaiah 15-18 (15:1-2; 16:4-6, 11-13; 17:1-4, 7-8; 10a; 18:3, 7); John 17 (17:1-3, 17-18, 22-23); and Ephesians 4:3-6.  Delivered 1 February 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The tenth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, Isaiah 8b-9, Isaiah 10-12, and Isaiah 13-14, 21

Two weeks ago, we heard how Isaiah started his oracles against the nations by warning Babylon, the cultural center of the world. Now in these chapters, Isaiah targets the sorts of nations who often drew together in alliances against the bigger empires – the kinds of nations who might try to draw Judah into their schemes. Isaiah 15-16 address Moab. The Moabites descended from Abraham's nephew Lot through sinful dysfunction (Genesis 19:30-37). They came to live across the Dead Sea from Judah, in the land where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood. The Moabites spoke almost the same language, they wrote much the same way, and they sometimes had friendly relations with Abraham's offspring. They might not be Israel's brethren, but they sure are close cousins. Indeed, as a great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth, King David was one-eighth Moabite! So when Isaiah pronounces judgment on Moab, he feels torn with compassion: “My heart cries out for Moab”, he says (Isaiah 15:5).

And yet Isaiah does have to warn of God's judgment, that Moab's pride will bring its fall, and “those who survive will be very few and feeble” (Isaiah 16:14). Moab was seldom a friendly nation. It was the Moabite king Balak who hired Balaam to curse God's people (Numbers 22-24; Joshua 24:9), and when that trick failed, it was Moabite women who sought to seduce the Israelites away from God (Numbers 25:1-3; Revelation 2:14). In the days of the judges, yet again the Israelites strayed after “the gods of Moab” (Judges 10:6); and after the days of the judges, Solomon's marriages to Moabite wives led him to build a shrine for the Moabite god Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7). Moab was not God's people. For all their similarities, they were the very opposite; they were the counterfeit, the seducer, turning God's people into a half-church.

There are plenty of visible heresies, serious distortions of the gospel – we think of groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and so on. These are religious movements springing out of a Christian heritage but denying fundamental parts of the faith. For all their imitation of the faith, “when Moab presents himself, when he wearies himself upon the high place, when he comes to his sanctuary to pray, he will not prevail” (Isaiah 16:12). But we can't pretend that heresy is something that only happens “out there”, in some external group we can point to and say, “That's where the heresy is.”  The oracles against the nations call us to examine ourselves: Have we run astray after the Moabites? Have we been seduced by the half-gospel of a half-church?

One popular false doctrine today is denying the resurrection – not the resurrection of Jesus, mind you, but the physical, bodily resurrection of every believer. The basic creed of our faith says that we “believe … in the resurrection of the body” – it's right up there alongside believing in “the forgiveness of sins”. And yet, if you ask so many Christians what the future holds, it's bidding the body goodbye for good and going to heaven. But the Bible says so little about “going to heaven”, and so much more about a new creation where heaven and earth will be one. Denying the resurrection of the body was one of the heresies of Corinth: “How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead? If there's no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn't been raised; and if Christ hasn't been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14), Paul says, but the risen Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). We have this certain hope: these bodies sown in the earth will rise again, “the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52), powered not just by the human soul but by the Spirit of God who gives them glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and so our humble bodies will be like Christ's glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Believe in the resurrection of the body; don't be a Moabite.

Another popular false doctrine today is what one Old Testament scholar calls “an evangelical version of an ancient fertility religion” (Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 270), and that's the Word-of-Faith message spread by most televangelists – people who teach that if you just have enough faith, by which they mean enough money to give them, then God wants you to be happy and free from suffering and rich. But when the Bible speaks of earthly 'prosperity', it's talking to people for whom prosperity means having enough to eat and enough to provide for your families, not people who dream of driving a Ferrari and living on hundred-acre estates. Jesus invites us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3), not our daily filet mignon! God invites us to define the good life as the holy life. Paul said that “we boast in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and he had harsh words for the televangelists of his day – flashy, successful preachers he sarcastically called “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). The credentials of his ministry, he said, were his afflictions for the sake of serving Jesus, not the multiple homes and private jet and millions of dollars that some televangelists have. A study was done of the devotional messages and sermons of one popular televangelist who promises “your best life now”, and he almost never even mentions Jesus Christ. But every Christian preacher in the New Testament shouts aloud the praises of Jesus Christ – thanks be to God! Follow the prophets and the apostles; don't be a Moabite.

A third popular false doctrine today comes in two versions, the 'left' and the 'right'. And that's thinking that the Bible is just plain irrelevant to some major area of our lives, when really it calls us to holiness in our whole lives. On the 'left' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about human sexuality and marriage in today's world. We might not want to hear what the Bible has to say about the meaning of marriage, or about focusing sexual expression only in that holy union. We might not want to hear what Jesus and Paul actually said about marriage and divorce. We might lightly dismiss them if we don't want to hear the will of a God we can't tame. But God didn't send his Son into the world to tickle our ears with unsound teaching (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3); he sent his Son into the world to heal its brokenness and make unholy people holy (John 3:16-17). The Bible shows us that God made us for lasting faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman, who signify Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32), or else a celibate single life for the sake of gospel service (Matthew 19:12).

But on the 'right' side, we might imagine that the Bible has nothing to say for how we think about economics and ecology, about money and nature. We might want to condemn the poor as lazy and keep our money for our own use – but the Bible stands in our way. We don't subsidize those who refuse to contribute to society (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but we're called to always be ready to err on the side of generosity, since although Jesus Christ had heaven's riches, “yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” in everlasting life (2 Corinthians 8:9). Should we earn what we can? Sure, if we're committed to the entirety of John Wesley's advice: “Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can” (Sermons 50.3.1) – and Wesley said that if you've got enough food to eat and clothing to wear and a place to lay your head, and then anything more that isn't strictly necessary, that's riches (Sermons 87.1.1). That might not be as far off as we'd like. And God called us from the very start to tend the world as his holy garden (Genesis 2:15). He gave us charge of it, and we have a charge to keep. If we mistreat the poor, if we're stingy, if we destroy the earth around us – that's the morality of Moab, not the love of Christ.

Finally, a fourth popular false doctrine is the neatly packaged way we sometimes understand the gospel itself. In America, we're all about individualism; we constantly think in individual terms, and we insist that religion is some 'private' thing. I remember when I became a believer. In the late 1990s, as a boy, I was at an evangelistic drama called Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames. It terrified me into the arms of Jesus. The entire thing was rooted in fear. I saw it again a few years ago, and it just made me sad. For them, the gospel was all about a last-minute escape from hellfire. In their skits, no non-believer ever had any serious objections or questions, and no believer struggled with anything. The whole thing was about securing a place in heaven to escape hell, if only you'd just once pray a little prayer and be enrolled in the Book of Life (cf. Revelation 20:15). The Christians in the skits weren't disciples; they're just marks in a heavenly ledger, waiting in an earthly lay-away until death makes the delivery.

No guidance was offered on how to find a healthy church, no mention was made of baptism, no mention was made of growing in the faith, no mention was made of being held accountable by a group of believers. That's barely even evangelism, let alone discipleship – the drama never even suggested that there was anything worth doing between “getting saved” and dying. Zero discipleship. But it reflects the way a lot of Christians think of the faith. We get sucked into the rhetoric of Jesus as our “personal Savior” – something that involves just me and Jesus in our own private world. Jesus redeemed a community, not a mere collection. To tell the gospel, we have to tell the whole story – the story of creation on a good course, humans given a mission, the mission abandoned, creation broken, and our own complicity in sin, and then Jesus as the climax of God's saving work to restore us to our mission here and now and to heal creation itself one day. God can use our half-gospels – I'm living proof of that... but he calls us to “fully proclaim the gospel of Christ” (cf. Romans 15:19).

So we have to reject heresy, we have to reject false teaching, we have to turn away from the “pride of Moab”, for “his boasts are false” (Isaiah 16:6). But there's hope for the half-church. In the days of Moses, the word of God demanded that no Moabite could be admitted to the Lord's assembly because of how they tried to curse and seduce Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3; Nehemiah 13:1-2). But Isaiah offers hope for the outcasts of Moab. And that hope is the same as Judah's hope: that “a throne shall be established in steadfast love in the tent of David, and on it shall sit in faithfulness a ruler who seeks justice and is swift to do what is right” (Isaiah 16:5). Who is that ruler? Jesus Christ – not Christ as reimagined by this group or that group, but the Christ who is the Truth unaltered. We need to examine our teachings: Are we believing and living as half-Christians or whole-Christians, as a half-church or a whole-church?

A half-church is tragic, but so is a halved church. Isaiah 17 looks like it's supposed to be about Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-2), but in just a couple verses, Isaiah shifts gears and spends all his time talking about Israel, the Northern Kingdom, which he likes to call “Ephraim”. The day will come, Isaiah says, when Israel – the Israel that pitted itself against Judah – will lose its fortresses and have its glory brought low (Isaiah 17:3-4). In their idolatry and in fighting Judah, they have “forgotten the God of their salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your Refuge” (Isaiah 17:10). The Northern Kingdom was a living symbol of what it means for God's people to be broken in two, to be divided, to exist in a state of schism. When they weren't being the half-church, they still show us a halved church.

A central point of biblical faith is that there is one God – period. And Jewish writers saw this as a very practical truth, more than just some nice theory. If there is only one God, then his law, his temple, his people, his salvation – all of those should stay singular and united, just as God is. The book of 2 Baruch argued that if there's only one God, then there can only be one Law, and one people defined by obedience to that Law (2 Baruch 48:24; 85:14). The Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo both argued that if there's only one God, then there should be “only one temple for one God”, and that all worship should center there because God is “the common God of all men” (Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.193; cf. Philo, Special Laws 1.67).

In Romans 3, Paul argues that if there's only one God, then God must be the God of the Jews and the God of the Gentiles; and if God is the God of both, then both Jews and Gentiles need the same salvation and have to get it in the same way, through faith (Romans 3:28-30). In short, one God means one way to be saved – which is the opposite of a lot of trendy religious thought then and now. The only way to be saved is on the basis of faith through Jesus the Faithful One. In John 17, this is the same approach Jesus takes. If there's one God, then there should be only one people; his people should be defined by their unity. But here, the oneness of God is defined as the Father and the Son being one God. The inner life of God is eternally bound together in intimate love, and so Jesus calls us to be one community in love. The Trinity isn't some abstract and irrelevant doctrine; it underscores the whole Christian life as a life of holy union with each other. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul waxes eloquent in showing the same thing. If there's only one “God and Father of all”, and if there's only “one Lord” over us, and if there's only “one Spirit” who animates us, then we need to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3), living as “one body” defined by “one baptism” into “one faith” and “one hope of your calling”. To claim Christianity but not be united in these, is to bear an impossibly contradictory witness.

Now, Israel didn't keep their God-given unity, but instead fractured into two nations through the secession of the northern tribes, leading to centuries of occasional civil war. Just the same, in many ways the church today sins against its God-given unity. With the church splintered into many denominations, there are some who refuse to hold spiritual communion with one another, refusing to welcome each other to the Lord's table – as if it were their table to forbid whom they wished! The Roman Catholic Church won't welcome outsiders to the table. The Eastern Orthodox won't welcome Roman Catholics or Protestants to the table. Some Protestant churches won't admit Catholics, Orthodox, or even other Protestants to the table. And beyond just the table, do we actually treat each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God made by Jesus Christ?

And how easily we break unity! Over two centuries ago, Jacob Albright converted and joined a Methodist class-meeting. As he matured in the faith, he felt God passionately calling him to serve the Lord as a traveling preacher, just like the circuit-riding itinerants of the Methodists. But he had his own mission field: the Pennsylvania Dutch, those who literally couldn't receive the gospel of holiness from an English-speaking Methodist. But the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to commission him; they had no use for reaching Germans. A few decades later, our own John Dreisbach asked the legendary Methodist bishop Francis Asbury to consider a merger, to pool resources. Asbury refused. German was a dying language in America, he said, and not worth the time. So unity didn't come – even after, with just a few more decades, even the Methodists established a German conference of their own. Time passed, and powerful bishops arose in the Evangelical Association. They made unity contingent on obeying their unlawful whims rather than keeping the solemn promises embodied in our Discipline. So twice the majority forced the minority to choose: obey certain bishops and follow them anywhere, or obey the Discipline and lose their property. Twice they chose the second, becoming the Evangelical Congregational Church. We didn't want a worldly unity under a tyrant; we wanted the perfect unity that comes from love (Colossians 3:14).

But still, there's a lot of unity lacking. Sunday mornings are still probably the most segregated time in America. Most churches do not represent the diversity of the communities they claim to serve. At my former church, there were quite a number of people who broke fellowship with the congregation over musical style in worship. Not that it changed entirely: they just slightly shifted the ratio of hymns and contemporary music. Some of the older members left the church because there weren't enough hymns any more; others left the church because there were still too many hymns for their taste. In both cases, our focus is no longer on God's glory. We have to ask ourselves: If our music style became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it? If our service time or sermon length became an idol, would we serve it or dethrone it?

I know that there are people who have dropped out of even this loving church simply because they were offended by this or that decision that was made. Rather than try to talk to anyone, rather than wait until better days, they simply broke away and left and have no desire to return. I know that there have been other people who have been concerned by weaknesses of the church – but after all, no church is perfect, none is fully matured in every area of discipleship. But rather than stay and help the church to grow and become even more Christ-like, they broke away and left and have no desire to return. Some have found new congregations, and we wish them well and hope they can grow there just as we grow here. But I know plenty of other believers who, hurt or offended in a church, dropped out entirely and insist they don't need to fellowship with other believers – there's that individualist half-gospel again. Now, there are times to leave an abusive local church that dishonors the gospel, as some of you sadly know from experience. But to leave a church that isn't resolutely closed to the Spirit's leading? How does that live out “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? How does that witness that the Father and the Son are one? In our hearts, are we a whole church, or a halved church?

Yet there is hope for the halved church. They will “regard their Maker, and their eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 17:7), and then they won't be focused on divided agendas of their own making, the “work of their hands, and they will not look to what their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 17:8). The halved church can be made whole. We need to adopt this motto: “Not our will, but God's will be done” (cf. Luke 22:42). And what is God's will for us? That we may be “completely one” (John 17:23), and may be united – for what? To be “sent into the world” on a mission (John 17:18). As Lent nears, may we resolve to be a whole church with the whole gospel for the whole world (cf. Lausanne Covenant 6). So “go, you swift messengers” (Isaiah 18:2), in the unity of God's church! Go even “to a people feared near and far”, and to “all inhabitants of the world” (Isaiah 18:2-3), so that from all nations, offerings will be brought to “the place of the name of the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 18:7). Go and “disciple all nations” with the whole teaching of the whole gospel (Matthew 28:19-20), and live as one holy church built on Jesus, the church's one foundation (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:11).

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