Sunday, January 5, 2020

City of Appointed Feasts: Homily on Isaiah 33

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said to his disciples as he sat on the Mount of Olives, “do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7). Words that we, in our day, need to hear! Many of the writers of our Bible knew what it was like to live in the grip of real war. Take Isaiah, for instance. Isaiah did not lead a sheltered life. During the days of Isaiah's ministry, the powerful and vicious Assyrian Empire invaded poor little Judah and wrought devastation in the land. They not only wiped villages off the map, they also ripped forty-six walled cities to pieces. As they dismantled the whole kingdom brick by brick, and as their murderous violence tortured the elect people, the king tried a last-ditch effort – he sent his ambassadors with a massive bribe. And Assyria took it. But the Assyrians didn't leave. They continued with their plans to destroy Jerusalem and execute King Hezekiah. As Isaiah describes it, “covenants are broken” (Isaiah 33:8c). And as the ambassadors returned to tell the king, they realized how pointless it all was. “The envoys of peace weep bitterly” (Isaiah 33:7b). In the wake of all this rampage, Judah's society was breaking down – “the highways lie waste, the traveler ceases” (Isaiah 33:8a-b). They realized there was no military option for resistance: “Their heroes cry in the streets” (Isaiah 33:7a). And so now, they realize, their situation is, by any human calculation whatsoever, a hopeless one. “The land mourns and languishes” (Isaiah 33:9a). War is an ugly and ignoble demon.

Finally, as Isaiah has been encouraging their leadership for ages, they turn to God. They've been disabused that they can fight their way out, pay their way out, think their way out, talk their way out, charm their way out. All those false hopes have fallen to pieces. And so they cry out, at last, to God, once their backs are to the wall, their feet are to the fire. They yell, “O Yahweh, be gracious to us! We wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble” (Isaiah 33:2). And God hears them. God hears their prayer. God hears their cry. And now that everything is most hopeless, God will be their hope. Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted,” God proclaims (Isaiah 33:10). He denounces the Assyrian king: “Your breath is a fire that will consume you, and the peoples will be burned to lime, like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire” (Isaiah 33:11-12). His message for those in Judah – sinners who now quake with fear (Isaiah 33:14) – is that the only way to be freed from that fear is to live well. Someone who lives according to God's vision for life – “he who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest they hold a bribe and who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil” (Isaiah 33:15) – well, a person like that “will dwell on the heights,” and have “the fortress of rocks” for a defense. And, God says, “his bread will be given to him” (Isaiah 33:16) as he beholds “the King in his beauty,” that is, the serene majesty of God (Isaiah 33:17).

So there is hope, when God delivers! There is hope, when God saves! All God is asking is for people to react accordingly – he wants his act of salvation to create a person who can dwell on the heights, eat his bread, and see him in his beauty. And a person who tastes that bread and sees that King will develop a distaste for sin and darkness, and a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

But this work of deliverance God promises isn't just for individuals. It's for a city. As God rises up, he pledges to rise up for Zion, a hill; he promises to rise up for Jerusalem, a city. “Your eyes will see Jerusalem, an untroubled habitation, an immovable tent whose stakes will never be plucked up, nor will any of its cords be broken” (Isaiah 33:20b-c). This tent will not be broken down. This tent will not be damaged. This tent will remain to fulfill its purpose. It will remain “Zion, the city of our appointed feasts” (Isaiah 33:20a). And that's a hard phrase to translate – qiryat mo'adenu. The word Isaiah uses for 'appointed feasts' here means, more or less, something that's scheduled, something that's decided and fixed by agreement. It's used in Leviticus 23 over and over again for Israel's holidays, insofar as they were occasions that God had scheduled onto their calendar. And when the tabernacle was called the ohel mo'ed, 'tent of meeting,' this is the word they're using – the tabernacle was the appointed place to meet God. And when God through Isaiah says Jerusalem will be an immovable tent and a city of our appointments, he's using tabernacle and holiday language – the whole place must become a Tent of Meeting, with people keeping the appointments he's scheduled with them.

In the face of Jerusalem's hopelessness during the darkest time, God's promise is to rise up and accomplish the salvation they've been praying for. And God rises up to save so that there will be a community where people can and must keep their festive appointments with him, according to his schedule. That's important to God! It's important to God that people keep their appointments with him, the appointments he schedules. That's what he will save Jerusalem for. And not only that, he himself will be a protected paradise for his people to dwell in – “there, Yahweh in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor majestic ship can pass” (Isaiah 33:21). He will be our protected place in the midst of war, so we together can be the rescued people who keep the appointments he sets. That's his promise to Hezekiah's Jerusalem.

But just as things were humanly hopeless in the face of war, so things were humanly hopeless in the face of the greater threat: the sin infecting our hearts, the sin terrorizing us from the inside, the sin that gives rise to wars in the first place. Time and again, God demonstrated to us the impossibility of our handling it ourselves. His law was a mirror exposing our incapacity. He patiently watched us rebel time and again, under every conceivable environmental condition. We could not cure ourselves. And so then God rose up: “Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted” (Isaiah 33:10) – “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). God rose up to be exalted... on the cross. And when he was lifted up on the cross, “the people who dwell there,” there at the cross where God is lifted up to save, “will be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24b). For there at the cross on a hill far away – there are the heights where we are called to dwell.

But we are not saved to be mere disconnected individuals. Like old Jerusalem in the days of Isaiah, so we in our day are saved for a purpose. We are saved to gather as “the city of our appointed feasts” (Isaiah 33:20a) – saved to gather according to God's call, saved to agree with God at his fixed time. So often, the way we talk doesn't reflect that. We talk about 'coming to church' as if it's a choice we make, a decision we initiate, one we can as easily make or not make. And because we talk and think that way, we measure 'church' by what we get out of it. It becomes one more option in a consumer culture, one more way to consume goods and services; and if we aren't satisfied, well, we'll engage in the usual consumerist marketplace behavior – file complaints, seek a competing provider, or just stay home. And even if we aren't dissatisfied, we'll decide that it really doesn't matter that much, depending on what there is to do around the house or what other opportunities are available or how sluggish we are to roll out of bed that day. Because 'church,' to us, is a choice we can make or not make.

But not to God! Because God calls us to gather. He has fixed the time, scheduled the appointment. And God expects us to keep those appointments with him. And how frequently we stand God up! But when he calls us to worship, it's not a negotiation. It's an appointment, engraved on our calendars with nails and thorns. We are not here this morning because we chose to be here. We are here because we answered a call today. We are here to keep an appointment between us and the saving God. In a world torn by wars and rumors of wars, a world so frequently mismanaged, the Lord is meeting us here to be our Judge, our Lawgiver, and our King (Isaiah 33:22) – to be for us a place of broad rivers and streams (Isaiah 33:21). The Lord is here to show us his beauty and to give us bread to satisfy our deepest hungers and wine to quench our deepest thirsts. We are here in this spiritual tent of meeting because Jesus saves, saves to the uttermost, and here your Savior scheduled to meet you!

From the warring world, we've been called out to worship, to gather here together, to keep the appointed feast. We have been summoned to meet God. And you will, if you look to him and trust him for dear life. Because in this place, on this day, he is meeting you here. He is meeting you at the table where he will give you beautiful food, if you only have eyes to see what's really happening. Thank you for keeping the appointment today. This is the city of our appointed feasts. We approach the Lord Jesus, our saving God, our risen King. But that is a tremendous thing. If your heart is not at peace with the Body of Christ and with its Head, then this meeting is too much for you right now – “Who among us can dwell with the Consuming Fire?” (Isaiah 33:14). To eat or drink this meal wrongly, Paul says, is to “eat and drink judgment” on yourself (1 Corinthians 11:29). Examine yourself. But if your heart is now made ready by faith and repentance, then, sharing in the sacrifice with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4) as we look forward to the fullness, let us celebrate the appointed feast!

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