Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Advent III - Isaiah 40

(wma audio download link here)
Look. Isaiah says it in chapter 40, and it’s simple: the Lord God is coming to this world with might and with all the power of his arm which has ruled the cosmos from the beginning. And he comes with two things: He comes with a reward, and he comes with revenge. And, to him, the nations of the earth, all of them combined, are like a drop of water in a bucket. They are like dust on your bathroom scale. Remember, this is the God who brought forth the stars by number, and calls them by name, for whom all the heavens are like a curtain over his living room window. That God comes to Judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

Then “why, O people of God, do you say that your way is hidden and disregarded by him?” Why do our leaders tell us that the mission of this Church and the mission of His Church will fail to provide the outcome God desires? Why do you, in your daily life, live and believe and act is if your future were reliant upon yourself, your works, your decisions, your investments and plannings? What torture is it that you must experience to truly think that you must provide the bread for your table!?

Have you not heard? Have you not been told? The Lord is everlasting, the Creator of all things. He does not faint or grow weary. His Church, as he wills it, will survive, will flourish, even though his understanding is unsearchable, and we cannot always see the resurrection because we still hang on the cross. Even the strongest of our young grow faint and weary, and the most pragmatic and resourceful of men eventually gets frustrated and tired of trying to make his own visions into reality –

But the promise stands that they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they shall find unlooked for answers and unexpected results; in the midst of the storm, when they think their Lord has abandoned them to the depths, there will be a miraculous calm; in six jars of water, when the feast is ruined, there will be the finest wine; in a stinking stable from an unwed teenage mother, while men focus their lives on mammon and pieces of metal, there will be born the true King of universe; and at the foot of a cross with a dead God hanging on it, their shall be life everlasting and hope eternal.

How much more then shall we not cease questioning the state of where we are now, when such love has already been lavished on us? This is why the Apostle Peter, after quoting Isaiah 40, goes on to tell us to humble ourselves before our problems. For if you would have gifts from the Lord, then you will receive not only what you think is good but also the disaster which he insists is good for you. You cannot have a Jesus who is only transfigured and never crucified. You cannot pray “Father forgive them,” without praying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” You cannot come out of your tomb without dying.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Weary, they run and do not grow weary. Fainting, they shall walk and not faint. Afflicted, they shall not be crushed. Perplexed, they shall not despair. Persecuted, they are not forsaken. Struck down, you will rise again on the wings of the dawning Son of God. You will pass through the fires, but you will not be consumed them. Because God relishes giving to those in need mercy and steadfast love in the face of trial and affliction. He loves speaking promises which he will fulfill but which must indeed be believed without being seen.

Do you not know that it is Satan who was cast out of heaven and decided to fight his way back in. He did not look for mercy, but for answer he could control. Pride refused to believe that our weakness is actually God’s strength. But faith, the faith that comes from hearing the promise - faith knows even in the face of utter doubt, that the mercy of the Lord never fails, even when all our sacrifices do.

Of course, we must beware at this threshold of the fullness of the Gospel, for here it is so natural for our flesh to sing, “Aha! I now have an excuse for sin and apathy.” That is villainy! The steadfast love of the Lord which never fades is no dollar-shop grace. The Holy Spirit does not come without having an effect. Christian, you dare not think, “The Lord will provide so I may cease to pray.” You dare not believe, “the Lord owns all things so I will cease to give.” You dare not assume “the heavens declare glory of God so I need no longer confess with my mouth the Christ.” Those who believe such things will be rightly condemned, though they cry out with all of the best intentions, “Lord, Lord, Lord.”

And yet, while we must be sober in the face of this danger, greater danger still is on the fool who would look at what the Lord has done to punish the unfaithful rejection of his Word by the “Church” in America, and then think that somehow he can stop it by any act of sacrifice or mission. No amount of telling ourselves that we fix it if we just try harder can stop Jesus from putting his Church on the cross as he says he always will. Peter cried, “No, Lord, this shall never happen,” and the Lord said, “Get behind me Satan! You do not see with the eyes of God, but you look on this world as a fallen man. You call me the Christ, but you do not act as if you actually believe I’m the Savior.”

If the sifting of the Kingdom in this land of the free is God’s doing, and so it must be for he is sovereign, then there is nothing to be done to stop it, any more than there is anything you can to stop your own death. The Church has only one option – the same option we have ever had: preach the cross of Jesus Christ, for it is forgetting the centrality of that cross which is killing our churches dead.

Yet, today it seems impossible for us to see that the mission is not to teach mission, but Jesus. We do not worship worship, but Jesus. We do not believe in faith, but in Jesus. Salvation is not about salvation, but about Jesus! And because Jesus’ is the author of our reality, if we believe and act as if we can hold back his mighty arm of the Lord from cleansing the temple, then no matter how many times we may say the word mission, we do not partake of the mission of God, but of the mission we ourselves have preferred God to have.

It is saying, “We will ascend to heaven and bring the grace down in a great flood.” But the more we try to do that, the more we incur the wrath of God which has clearly condemned such vanity. The more surely then we curse ourselves by forgetting deeper still the reality that the gates of heaven have already burst apart. The Son of Man has already been born in the most fantastic of ways, carried along by the Spirit, and heralded not only by angels but by the very voice of the Father which burst on the sky like thunder. And the Father said, “Listen to him,” and he says, “Baptize and teach my Word.”

Yet, the deadly trend, my friends, is more akin to Peter, lunging forward with a sword to cut of the ear of the soldier in the garden. “Deeds not creeds” was the theology of Gethsemane, even though it found its substance in a band of fools who slept rather than keep the simplest of commands.

Is that not what happened here? How many of you here can recite even the ten commandments? How many of you can tell me what the Apostles’ Creed means? How many of you would be willing to die rather than deny your Baptism? How many of you once this week talked your children about the forgiveness of sins? Is there even one here who will give up mother and brother and father and sister on account of the Words of the Son of God?

It is such a lack of knowledge that Isaiah condemns. It is unbelief which scoffs at the simple catechetical truths which are the very power of God, and prefers Egyptian horsemen and Assyrian chariots who will fix all the problems with the power of men, yet such unbelief is the precursor to total destruction. It is to spare us such an end, that St. Paul warns that the branches of the tree, if they persist in withering by refusing nourishment from the vine, will be broken off and cast into the fire. And this is why St. Peter hails us with caution, saying “Judgment has already begun in the world, and it is most evident in the household of god, where there is always a fiery trial testing the confession of faith, and tempting us with the offering of more bread, and better-looking works, and the power to accomplish that which we desire, if only we will budge just an inch, from what the Lord has said.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The devil is loosed in this world, loosed upon your workplaces, loosed in your homes, beaming from the TV, blasting from the radio, pulling at your wallet and creating subterfuge in your heart, all in order to destroy you and your children, to devour you and your children, and he rejoices to see you become drunk with the wine of the nations, losing your sober-minded bearing founded on the Word of God in order to trust the glimmering angels who present “what if” theologies and a Gospel that is different than the one we have received.

Do you know the Gospel? The Gospel is that Jesus saves. Period. Yesterday, today, forever.

Yet the flesh, our flesh, longs for anything but that. We cannot bear to hear a voice crying in this wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight a highway for our God” because our human nature does not want to prepare, or change, or suffer the deep humility that is forced upon us by our reliance on something beyond ourselves. But Jesus, sweet Jesus, will not have it that way. He sends Elijah. He sends the prophets. He sends the Apostles, and they cry with one voice to us who would otherwise insist on straying: Repent. You are not the answer. Repent. Jesus is the answer.

Whenever we face what we cannot handle, the Christian answer is not “I can do it if,” but “look at what I have done! Oh Lord, forgive and save.” “Look at the mess I have made, oh Lord, forgive and save.” “Look at the chaos my sin has deserved, oh Lord, forgive and save.” “God, it is clear that you don’t want me to be happy at this moment in time because you want me to cry out, Oh Lord, forgive and save!” And all because you want me to see and believe that Oh Lord you have forgiven and you have saved already in the flesh and blood of your Christ on the cross.

Dear friends, our troubles will come and go, our lives will rise and fall, while all along the Word of the Lord endures forever, and this word is the good news that was preached to you. The good news that God has said, “Comfort, comfort, to you, my people. Hear my tender words. Know that your warfare is already over in the man on the cross. Know that your iniquity is already pardoned in the empty tomb. Know that they have received in your savoir, double for all their sins – not double punishment, but double blessing. And though you may not see it, you are free to believe it and wait upon me as I come to renew your strength and mount you up on wings like eagles to soar over the chaos that you do see.” Oh, get you up to a high mountain, oh Zion, and herald that this Christmastide. Lift up your voice with strength and sing, O Zion, of that this Christmastide.

You were like sheep that had gone astray, but now you have returned. Once you were not a people, but now your are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. You have come to the cornerstone, to the rock, who makes by his mighty arm a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, given the great joy of confessing to the world the mighty works of Christ who called you, and how he has brought your heart and mind out of that horrid darkness in which you dwelt, and into the light of waiting on the mercy of the one true God.

“Comfort, comfort, you, my people. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. No if’s, and’s or but’s about it. In the Name…Amen.

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