Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Feast for All Peoples: A Sermon on Isaiah 25

Sermon on Isaiah 25; Luke 24; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 19-21.  Delivered on 12 April 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The fifteenth 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; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; Isaiah 23; and Isaiah 24.

Three weeks ago, before Holy Week, we left off by meditating on the darkness of Isaiah 24, the climax of the Oracles Against the Nations (Isaiah 13-23) and an indictment of the world-sinking weight of human sin. And that led us to consider how the only hopeful resolution of sin is in the cross. Only Jesus could bear that load for us; if we try to do it ourselves, if we pin our hopes on our good works outweighing the world, we slide irresistibly down the path into the pit. Our good works can't save us, because they're just so much extra baggage: “Whatever doesn't proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Salvation comes only by faith, a faith in the world-bearing Jesus, a “faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6).

But now we find ourselves on the other side of Good Friday, even the other side of Easter. The world of sin has been dealt with! Christ is risen! All our sin is buried in his tomb – but he isn't, and so neither are we any longer located where our sin is buried! Isn't it a joy to live in an Easter world? And that's what Isaiah wants to show us. Good Friday deals with Isaiah 24; and only after Isaiah 24 is over can Easter give birth to Isaiah 25 and the great meal to end all death and sorrow. We have that solid hope of celebration: “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure” (Isaiah 25:1). We hear already echoes of “the song of them that triumph, / the shout of them that feast.”

Late on that first Easter Sunday, after Jesus had revealed himself to Mary Magdalene – the woman whom tradition calls “the apostle to the apostles”, because she brought them the first report of the gospel of resurrection – Jesus appeared incognito to a pair of disciples on their way out of Jerusalem, taking the seven-mile hike to Emmaus. They walked with the Lord – and they didn't even know it. They were bundled up in their fears and frustrations, their perplexities and problems. They couldn't hide it: they were “looking sad” (Luke 24:17). When Jesus asks them what's going on, they tell Jesus about Jesus (Luke 24:18-24).

Note well what they say about him: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Aren't those such sad words: 'Had hoped'? For Cleopas and his friend, hope had become a dead thing, lost at the cross. They only 'had hoped'. They no longer call Jesus 'Lord', 'Messiah', 'Son of God'; they only call him “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). They've rolled back Peter's God-given confession to the mere rumors of the crowds (Matthew 16:13-17) – even though they'd heard what Mary Magdalene and the other women said, a report of “a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (Luke 24:23). Yet still they only 'had hoped' – 'had hoped', but no longer. To them, hope was dead, not alive – they were too “slow of heart” (Luke 24:25) to yet catch on that God “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

And so, on the walk to Emmaus, Jesus walks with them anonymously, joins them, rebirthing their hope by opening up the Bible to them, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27), showing them from Genesis through 2 Chronicles how the whole Old Testament scripture bears witness to him, how all its patterns and prophecies can only fit together if they climax in his death and resurrection: “Wasn't it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26), Jesus asks them. He unfolded for them God's “plans formed of old, faithful and sure” (Isaiah 25:1). They recognize the truth in his words – their hearts burn within their chests (Luke 24:32) – but they don't yet recognize the Lord who's walked with them these seven miles out of Jerusalem.

Not until they invite him in. Not until they bring Jesus home with them. They want to show hospitality to this strange guest, this unknown teacher, this master of mystery. He makes them work for it: he feigns a continued trek into the darkness of night (Luke 24:28). He enters a house in Emmaus as their guest (Luke 24:29), but at supper time, he is the one who takes the bread, he's the one who blesses it, he's the one who breaks it and hands it out to them (Luke 24:30). When we invite him as guest, he feeds us as an unexpected host. And that's how Cleopas and his friend have the first Easter dinner with the risen Jesus, getting bread from the hands of the risen Bread of Life (cf. John 6:35). Their walk with Jesus leads them from fear to faith, opens up the Bible to them, and leads to a meal of fellowship – one continued later that night in Jerusalem when Cleopas and his friend rejoin the others, and Jesus eats fish in their presence (Luke 24:41-43).

Isaiah 25 is about a meal of fellowship on the holy mountain, a place of protection and refuge. “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). There “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” where “the LORD of hosts will reign” (Isaiah 24:23), everyone from every background is welcome to eat – not just to eat, but to eat the very best! As good as the fire hall's chicken pot pie was yesterday and it was good! it's got nothing on Isaiah 25. This is the LORD's Feast, the true LORD's Supper, to which our every Eucharist and Love-Feast is a holy foretaste.

Thousands of years ago, scripture tells us about another feast, one that sealed the Covenant of the Law, when the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai into the LORD's presence and “saw the God of Israel”, and “they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11). They caught a distant and shrouded glimpse of God and were spared. But we aren't called to come to Mount Sinai, with its “blazing fire and darkness and gloom and tempest” (Hebrews 12:18). We aren't called for a short meal in fear. We are called “to Mount Zion”, and “to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all”, with whom sits “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24), ready to host an everlasting feast.

The Great Feast is a celebration that the time of death's oppression and sorrow is over. The LORD “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isaiah 25:7). Coming under the pall of death is one thing that unites every sinful man, woman, and child from the days of Adam 'til now. It's a shroud, a sheet, a burial linen; it's a veil, a heavy thing that wrapped us up and weighed us down.

But on this mountain, when the hand of the LORD rested there (Isaiah 25:10), the death-blow to death was struck at the cross and at the tomb; and on this mountain, the LORD “will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). Death, already unfanged and crippled, has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55), which is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56). Death still clings on – “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26) – but because Christ is risen, “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54), his victory that he shares with us (1 Corinthians 15:57).

What Jesus accomplished when he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25) will fully bear fruit at that last Great Feast, the feast to which all feasts point, when he tenderly “will wipe away the tears from all faces” and bring our disgrace and our grief to an end (Isaiah 25:8). Already he gives “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31), leading up to the day he'll personally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” and do away with “mourning and crying and pain” at the Great Feast (Revelation 21:4). We taste morsels of Isaiah 25 already, and if we “endure to the end” and enter our final salvation (Matthew 10:22), we'll be seated for the full dinner.  All the courses.  Every course of blessing; every dish of grace.

And of course, the whole point is – it's a feast! A joyful meal! After the death of death, it's time for feasting, it's time for celebrating life with lively joy. The New Testament picks up this theme and adds a twist: this Great Feast isn't just an ordinary meal; it's a wedding banquet. Jesus told parables about a king throwing a wedding party for his son and sending out his servants to invite people to the feast – but the first round of invitees, the chosen people, don't come (Matthew 22:2-7). So now the king sends his servants with the instruction, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:9). It isn't just for those who were 'good' – the guests are gathered from “both good and bad” (Matthew 22:10), the sorts of sinners and social outcasts Jesus came to save (Luke 5:32). At the big wedding feast, Jesus says, even outsiders “will come from east and west, from north and south” to dine alongside the patriarchs and the prophets “in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 8:10-11; Luke 13:28-29).

Revelation picks up on the same theme. Just as Isaiah moves from the destruction of the City of Chaos (Isaiah 24; 25:2) to the praise-filled feast on the mountain (Isaiah 25), John of Patmos moves from the fall of Babylon the Great (Revelation 18) to a blessing on all those who've RSVP'd to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), which takes place in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The feast-after-death is a wedding feast. Right now, the Church is Christ's fiancée – he “loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind” (Ephesians 5:25-27). He “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14), purified “from dead works to worship the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). We're being sanctified, we're growing to maturity (Ephesians 4:13), but we're not quite yet presentable in full.

But in the new creation, when the Church is finally “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2) – the engagement is over, the covenant is consummated, the marriage begins! That's when Christ and the Church move in together: “See, the home of God is among men; he will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). The marriage begins – “he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4)! No more heartbreak, no more grief, no more agony, no more wondering where God is in all this. All the mayhem covered by our 24-hour news cycle will be “no more”. Only when all former things have passed away, only when the Church in her fullness is brought to Christ in his fullness, only when our intimacy with him goes beyond all eye could ever see or ear could ever hear in this world, can the “bride” finally be called “the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9). Because Jesus lives, so shall his bride! The marriage begins – and the feast goes on forever, dining on fruit from the tree of life, which has leaves for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

It's a celebration! There is no celebration greater! This will be the Great Easter of the Universe! And the walk to Emmaus, with its first Easter dinner, is poignant foreshadowing. We too walk with Jesus, even when we don't recognize his hand in the stressful outworking of our lives. If we're disciples, we learn from him to view the world in light of God's Word and then act accordingly. And a life of this sort of discipleship will lead up to full fellowship at the Meal in the kingdom of God, where the patriarchs and prophets and martyrs attend – and we're invited too, we're asked to RSVP in faith and hope and love.

Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, we celebrated holy communion. In this world where “we know in part”, where “we see in a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we still meet Jesus, the Church's Husband-to-Be, at the table, and he's made known to us “in the breaking of the bread”, just like at Emmaus (Luke 24:35). This is not just a meal with a crucified Jesus, now long dead. This is a meal with a Christ who is risen! This is a meal with the risen Christ who unfanged death there at the Holy Mountain! This is a meal with the risen Christ who even now wipes away our tears and soothes our fears by his Spirit.

But we glimpse him now hidden, present yet veiled in bread and wine. Even the veiled presence of Christ should fill us with joy – it's an appetizer that promises the main course! Christ is risen! “Now we see in a glass darkly, but then we will see face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) when the veil is lifted from our eyes at the wedding celebration, when our eyes are opened to behold him in his glory. But then, on that day, we will look with unveiled eyes into the beauty of the Lord Jesus and say, “This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:9). We're bursting with anticipation for the endless honeymoon of freedom and life – “[We] know not, O [we] know not, / what joys await [us] there, / what radiancy of glory, / what bliss beyond compare!” We're waiting for the wedding banquet!

But how can people show up for the feast if they don't know it's going on? How can they believe if they haven't heard? And how can they hear without being told? And how can they be told if those who know don't go? (Romans 10:14-15) In the parable of the wedding feast, the king told his servants, “Go” (Matthew 22:9)! “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find” – and didn't our King commission us to go and "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19)? As servants of the king and heralds of the feast, are we going? Are we finding? Are we sharing what Jesus has opened our eyes to see? Are we inviting people to the Great Celebration, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb?

There is literally no greater message, no bigger gospel. There's no one beneath this invitation, and there's no one above it. Jesus is “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4). No one has too much to offer, and no one has too little to offer. There's no billionaire who can't enter the gate with humility. There's no beggar who can't enter the gate with faith. There's no persecutor who can't enter the gate with repentance. There's no martyr who can't enter the gate “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).

The invitation is for skeptics and scoffers, thieves and terrorists, alcoholics and addicts, politicians and pundits, paratroopers and pacifists, cheaters and churchgoers and convicts and celebrities. The invitation goes out to all sinners from greatest to least, all in need of repentance and transformation: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexual offenders, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers”, and “this is what some of [us] used to be; but [we] were washed, [we] were sanctified, [we] were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The invitation is for the tattooed and pierced, for metalheads and blues fans and classical music afficionados, for all nations and all social classes and all ages – the Lord “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6). It really is a “feast for all peoples”. There's a spot for everyone at the table, when Christ “will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). There's no cheek too dirty or too privileged for him to touch to tenderly wipe away our tears. If we want to be involved in the Spirit's work, we have invitations to extend, to bid all people to the gospel-feast: “The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.' And let everyone who is thirsty come” (Revelation 22:17).

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