Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Trinity 15 - Isaiah 35

(Audio update to come when savefile gets back up and running.)

We always like to think that we're special. Especially as modern humans living in the grand era of technology, we all want to believe we're of a very privileged set of minds. "Enlightened," I think, is the general term the theorize how great western civilization is. We suppose that somehow our amassing of technology, democratic beauracracy, and every conceivable bit of useless knowledge known to man, has made us so culturally and individually wise, that nothing that has come before us can really compare. And, if we should fade or change, what on earth could come after us that could be of any real good.

So what on earth, then do we stand to learn from a few words scribbled by a prophet 2700 years ago? Why gather together on a perfectly good Sunday morning to listen to the words of a barbarian hebrew long dead? Are we trying to learn just a little bit more useless knowledge in the hopes we can pick out some little point we might apply to our opinions? Or is this simply a nice routine which keeps us pious?

But then, strange indeed it is to think that we can learn even a little practical application or be kept truly pious by the words from a people who had so little in common with us. Everything is different now. The world has changed and man has been set free from the superstitions of old. Concepts like sin, death and the devil have met their match in science, philosophy and Netflix. Surely, the old testament people of Israel and their prophets can hardly be expected to speak to our immediate context without at least a little spinning of the text or some creative, suggestive interpretation. Surely, the ancients were so obscure that we could hardly understand them, even if we tried. And being so modern and intelligent as we are, why should we want to try?

And that IS the question for our day. "Why should I?” Like the obedient, consumer-capitalists that we are, each a professional at finding the best return for our time and money, each skilled at discerning what will bring me the most pleasure for my buck, "why should I?" is our mantra. "Prove to me that it's worth my while." "Sell the pitch, if you want me to really buy that."

It's kind of arrogant really, setting ourselves up to be the judges of all value, scanning and assessing, accepting and discarding ideas and opinions like a successful diamond merchant swiftly looking over
his wares.

So great is our arrogance that even our children no longer need to learn anymore. "Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to learn math and English?" "Um, how about because if you don't our civilization will collapse and we'll all die of starvation and rotting diseases." "Can that really happen?" "Uh-huh." "No mom, you're pulling my string. The TV would never tell us that?" "No, the TV will only try to sell you more stuff.” BUt if we all know so much that we don't need to learn anymore, one day soon we will wake up and find that what we thought we knew has been swept away, and what we didn't know is a very very scary thing.

Yet, fear is exactly what we have lost. Fear of life. Fear of death. Fear of the devil. Fear of God. Why fear when you've got an ipod, health insurance and no end to the supply of java, cigarettes and fresh veges at the market? The closest we come is fearing we won't be able to consume enough fast enough to satisfy our fleshy desires. We don’t have time to “do it all” and this is a source of great stress and consternation to us, like a child who steals candy from the pantry yet is so afraid of being caught that he must shove it all in his mouth at once, so that his jaw becomes sore and he is sick of the flavor by the time he gets it down his gullet. Yes, that’s exactly what we are.

Of course, the biggest problem with being in a civilization that is eating itself to death is that such civilizations are blind to their obesity. When the blind lead the blind, it's impossible to avoid the pits. Ah. But right there is where that prophet from 2700 years ago isn't so very removed from us after all. Isaiah, son of Amoz, also lived in a time of a civilization’s decline and decadence. He watched as a golden era passed away into the horror which awaits the generations who come "After."

To be sure, there were a few differences. The need for petroleum and well-trained anesthesiologists wasn't there, and, unlike us, his nation truly had been a Christian nation at one point, but those things don’t matter so much for the results in the end were quite the same. A nation had grown so callous and fat in its pride and success, that pride and success became heavy chains around the neck, chains which pulled the head so low to the ground of daily cares and pleasures that the future impending devestation was completely lost to sight.

But does America truly have a future impending devastation. Yes. Now I don't know how and I don’t know when, but America will fall. Like all nations, the US of A will be dashed to pieces as pottery upon the iron rod of the Son of God. And in the day of judgment, which is only around the corner, all of our triumphs and greatness will be like the broken head of a stone statue lying in the middle of a barren wasteland.

Do you remember 911. 911 was only a precursor, the beginnings of a birth pain, n hint of the destruction to come upon the entire world when Jesus Christ returns with his myriads of armies and hosts. This is the way of all things which stand in rebellion before God. It happened 2700 years ago even to the chosen people of God. It can happen any time to any nation then or since. And it will happen to the whole world. For those who are asleep and hypnotized, chasing after the fleeting shadows of material wealth and constant entertainment, it will be an utter and terrifying surprise, like a thief in the night, when it comes, but just because they won’t expect the thief doesn’t mean they won’t be stolen from.

That is what we can learn from the prophet Isaiah this morning. For the people of Judah and Israel had been living in ways not so different from our own. They were casual about religion, treating their relationship with the Lord like a relaxed friendship, more a practice in philosophy and superstition than the subjection of a people to their King. And even as the priests and many so called prophets were saying to them, "Peace, peace. God is love," the soldiers of Assyria, sent by God, came in and swept half of their nation completely away. Then they marched onward, straight to the gates of Jerusalem, burning fields and looting homes, taking away the people as captives and slaves, dragging off nobles attached behind their carts by chain connected to a ring pierced through the nose, with their eyes gorged out and unable to even clean themselves from their own excrements as the caravan traveled.

They were utterly overrun in a day of destruction, in a foretaste of the wrath that is to come upon
all men. And they never saw it coming, in spite of a faithful prophet’s constant cry that they must repent. And yet, even as Isaiah so constantly foretells the impending doom, and even as the civilization corrupted itself so completely as to burn their babies in the fires of pagan gods rather than listen to him - even then, the Word of God in grace was active creating a remnant, giving faith to the chosen people amongst the falling chosen people, making a people for himself who not only felt a tinge of remorse over the decline of their culture, but who ever increasingly grieved for the they knew would surely come upon them and their brethren. They were grieved because they knew they too deserved such wrath simply for being associated with their increasingly pagan nation. They grieved because they stood in the way of the hordes of Assyria, and there was no promise that they would each be spared the sword.

It was to these people, these repentant, those who heard the condemnation of the Law of God spoken by his mouthpiece, people who cried out, "O Lord, we are judged and you have judged rightly.,' - it was to these convicted people that the Words of our text from Isaiah today were spoken.

But can we, now, learn from these 2700 year old words? Should I, the mouthpiece of God speak comforting words to you? What would such words do? Would they only serve to settle you back in complacency and unrepentance?

You see, I am called to a very strenuous task. I must do a prophet's job, and rightly distinguish your current need as a people. Do you need more Law? Do I need to keep trying to shake you out of blindness and deathly sleep of busy barn and home building? Have you no fear of the Lord yet? Is this religion just superstition, and your pastor just a zealous young man who will learn with time?

Or have you been convicted of the charges? Have you sat there silently forced to admit, "yes, yes. His words are true. Woe to us," And, mind you, have you said not just "woe to us" but "woe to me"? Because it is only those who believe “woe to me,” (and only you can read if that is in your heart,) – it is only those who believe that in this world there is truly only “woe to me” that this Word of God is written. It is to the hopeless, that a prophet can rightly give words of hope.

And dear friends, we are hopeless here. We may have built a building with our blood and sweat, but it’s empty now. We may have had glorious times full of families and fun, but family in Church has gone the way of family in America – fragmented, fractured and too busy for each other. We may have done any number of services to the Church and world – but all these services pass away and guarantee us no mercy from the hand of God. Yes. We sit here this morning, hopeless, hopeless in the face of the future. Hopeless of having all of us gather faithfully to enact a congregational strategy through Wednesdays at 6. Hopeless of being of one mind when that strategy is proposed in the next two weeks. Hopeless of converting the hard-hearted of our this weird New Jersey west. Hopeless of defending ourselves against the many threats of pagan and heretical religion. I won’t go on, though I could.

It is to that situation, to those of us who have seen that that is what we are, a meager, defeated gathering of broken people, pilgrims living in tents as we sojourn through this barren world, foreign to our own culture, disunited within our own congregation, and futilly pounding out mile after mile on the treadmills of our personal lives – it is to this Christianity which cannot possibly survive on its own - it is to that hopelessness that Isaiah preaches today.

For, the Lord says, "Say to those who have an anxious heart," Say to those who see the danger and the lack of certainty, say to those who face the insurmountable wall of the survival, say to the people I have
crushed, "Be strong," and "Fear not."

Fear not, not because you were never wrong, not because its not so bad out there. Be strong and fear not because "Your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you….And when he does, the eyes of the blind shall be opened. And the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

Did you listen as the Gospel lesson was read today, where Jesus came with the vengeance and recompense of God, where he came to open the ears of man born deaf, and to release his mute tongue so that he might sing for joy. Jesus Christ came to initiate the completion of all the promises of old. And the world encountered his very presence, the unthinkable begans. The words of an ancient prophets about a paradise of a new earth started happened before even the old earth had passed away. And the people were amazed an astounded because these were no parlor tricks or magic. This was Isaiah’s ancient promises taking place before their eyes. In the midst of that which was and is passing away, at the fullness of its time, Jesus Christ came with the vengeance and wrath of God, in order to save.

But where is the vengeance in the healing of the deaf? Where is the wrath of God in the releasing of the mute? (laugh), it is just here that these words are not just of old, but also of right now. It is here that our very hope lies! For here is the greatness of our God’s unfathomable mercy and grace. Jesus came with wrath, but he did not come to be the one who wields the wrath. He came to be the one who would shield others from it.

And so, on Calvary, on that green hill far away, outside a city wall, the words of the prophet Isaiah found their paradoxical fullness. There the Law and Gospel of God were juxtaposed in completion. What did I just say? What does that mean? There on that cross, in a man bleeding and bruised, God in three persons came
with complete vengeance, and the total recompense of God upon the sins of the whole world, in order save ...you.

Oh. How the waters break forth in the wilderness of our hopeless hearts when we hear and believe that good news. How streams in the desert of this hopeless situation flow with that “Enlightenment.” How the burning sand which we see around us as we sojourn becomes nothing beside the pooling springs of water which the Yes of God given in Jesus Christ.

And the prophet goes on, for a highway has been raised, it is called the Way of Holiness. It is called the Truth of Resurrection promises. It is called the Life of the World to come. And even to us, who are fools, because we have been given to walk on that Way, we shall not go astray. The ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing. We shall come to paradise with praise. Everlasting joy will be upon your head, and sighing and sorrow shall flee away

That being said, I’m kind of glad we're no so different from the Old Testament people of Israel. I’m glad that God still loves us enough to warn us of the devastation to come. I’m glad that His Spirit is still working to convict us of our need. I’m glad that we have seen the fullness of the promises come to pass in the man Jesus Christ. And I am even more glad that this Jesus Christ has said, “Behold, I am coming again.” “Watch therefore!” For the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.

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