Category: isaiah

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:

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Feed the Homeless to Turn Night into Day

Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.
Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.

Yesterday the city of Raleigh, North Carolina chose to make feeding the hungry a crime. The mayor and city council of Raleigh ought to read today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah 58:9b-14. Isaiah instructs Israel to stop oppressing people, to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the marginalized. Then Israel’s light will rise and their difficulties which seem like a long night will turn to the glorious light of day. Here’s the audio from my sermon today:

 

Stop Doing Bad Stuff, Start Doing Good Stuff

Isaiah.the.prophet

Sometimes Scripture is complex and difficult to understand. But, sometimes it’s just simple. Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 is an example of the simple. Isaiah says to the nation of Judah, “…stop doing wrong. Learn to do right…” Pretty simple, and amazingly difficult. Here’s the audio of my sermon last Sunday from this passage. It’s titled, “Stop doing bad stuff, start doing good stuff.” Can’t get simpler than that!

 

Easter Sermon: Thinking About The Resurrection

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.

Thinking About The Resurrection

John 20:1-18 NIV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18 NIV)

An Unexpected Lenten Journey

To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.

Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.

By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.

During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.

By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.

I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.

Thinking About The Resurrection

During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.

But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.

I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.

I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.

Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.

Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.

Let me explain.

Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God

Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.

First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)

Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —

17 “See, I will create

   new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

   nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever

   in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

   and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem

   and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

   will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it

   an infant who lives but a few days,

   or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

   will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred

   will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;

   they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

   or plant and others eat.

For as the days of a tree,

   so will be the days of my people;

my chosen ones will long enjoy

   the work of their hands.

23 They will not labor in vain,

   nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

   they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;

   while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

   and the lion will eat straw like the ox,

   and dust will be the serpent’s food.

They will neither harm nor destroy

   on all my holy mountain,”

says the Lord.

This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.

Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)

It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.

Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?

Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.

Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)

So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.

The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.

But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.

The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible

Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.

In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.

The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.

So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.

Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)

On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.

The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.

So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.

Sermon: When God Does The Unexpected, How Do We Respond?

Shane Windmeyer and Dan Cathey at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Shane Windmeyer and Dan Cathy at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 3, 2013. If you don’t read the whole sermon, skip to the end for a great story of Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, and of how he responded to the unexpected that God was doing. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.

When God Does the Unexpected, How Do We Respond?

Luke 4:21-30 NIV

21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Jesus Reads From the Prophet Isaiah

The problem with the lectionary reading is that sometimes it starts in the middle of the situation, which is exactly what has happened in the text we just read. To get the full impact, you have to go back and read the preceding verses:

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

   because he has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

   and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. –Luke 4:14-20 NIV

According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had just returned from 40-days in the wilderness, following his baptism by John the Baptist. Generally, Bible scholars regard the wilderness experience as Jesus’ preparation for his ministry.

Luke says that “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.”

We do not know how many days or weeks elapse between Jesus returning to Galilee and his trip to his hometown in Nazareth, but enough time passes so that Jesus has ample opportunity to establish his own reputation as a healer and miracle worker. Luke tells us that “news about him spread through the whole countryside” which can only mean that he immediately begins to announce the Kingdom of God and demonstrate its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, and generally “putting to rights” (as N. T. Wright is fond of saying) each situation he finds.

Of course, this garners him an extraordinary reputation, and everyone is talking about Jesus. So, when Jesus shows up in his hometown of Nazareth, initially everything goes okay. Jesus comes to the synagogue there, which probably is a modest building since Nazareth is no metropolis itself, and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah to read.

Apparently Jesus selects the text, which is  Isaiah 61:1-2 in our Bibles. If you turn to Isaiah 61:1-2, you will notice that it reads somewhat differently than the words Luke records Jesus as reading.  Don’t be alarmed at that because Luke quotes Jesus reading from the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture. But, the slight difference in wording is not our concern today.

The Idea of the Messiah

The point Jesus makes is this — He is the Messiah! That’s what the phrase “He has anointed me..” means. The Hebrew word which we pronounce messiah meant “anointed.” There were only two offices for which as person was anointed in the Old Testament — the office of priest and the office of king.

But the idea of an “anointed one” who would restore the fortunes of Israel also is referred to by the prophets, and Isaiah especially. The Anointed One — the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ — would be God’s deliverer, just like the Judges of the Old Testament were raised up to deliver Israel. But the Messiah would not be just any deliverer to put Israel back on track temporarily. No, the Messiah would come once and for all to make all things right and restore the fortunes of Israel and her standing in the world. In other words, God would send the Messiah to vindicate Israel and to save her from her enemies, and put all other nations under her ruling power.

If you go ahead and read the rest of Isaiah 61, that’s the picture you get. Listen to these next verses in context with Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

   because the Lord has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

   to proclaim freedom for the captives

   and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Jesus stops here)

   and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

3     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

   instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

   instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

   instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

   a planting of the Lord

   for the display of his splendor.

4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins

   and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

   that have been devastated for generations.

5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks;

   foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.

6 And you will be called priests of the Lord,

   you will be named ministers of our God.

You will feed on the wealth of nations,

   and in their riches you will boast.

7 Instead of your shame

   you will receive a double portion,

and instead of disgrace

   you will rejoice in your inheritance.

And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,

   and everlasting joy will be yours.

8 “For I, the Lord, love justice;

   I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

In my faithfulness I will reward my people

   and make an everlasting covenant with them.

9 Their descendants will be known among the nations

   and their offspring among the peoples.

All who see them will acknowledge

   that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”


Do you begin to see what Isaiah 61 is about? Not only is God going to raise up someone and anoint him to “preach good news to the poor,” but God is going to raise up this Messiah who will 1) comfort the nation of Israel, 2) restore her fortunes, and 3) judge other nations and give Israel their riches, lands, and make Israel their master.

That was how many first century Jews interpreted Isaiah 61. Whoever read Isaiah 61 would immediately know that God was coming to rescue Israel by sending the Anointed One, and that in that rescue all the other nations of the world would be subjected to her.

Now, let me point out that that interpretation was in error, but that did not stop an occupied Jewish people facing the hardships of over 60 years of Roman occupation from understanding Isaiah in that way.

Okay, so far so good. Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah, reads one of the favorite passages of the Jewish people, and then proclaims, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow. Of course, we know who Jesus is now, but they did not. So, his hometown audience undoubtedly heard Jesus say something like this: “I’m going to do my best to free us all from the oppression of the Roman Empire.”

Which explains their reaction. They are elated. The men in the synagogue turn to one another with knowing smiles and say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? We all knew he’d turn out alright. What a fine young man and with such noble ideas.”

That’s my interpretation of Luke’s saying, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son? they asked.”

Jesus Does The Unexpected

At this point, Jesus has them eating out of the palm of his hand. And, if he had quit at this point and sat down, all the men of Nazareth would have crowded around him, slapped him on the back, and told him how proud they were of him.

But Jesus doesn’t sit down. And Jesus doesn’t stop talking. And in the next words he says, he shatters generations of hope in the coming of the Messiah. Here’s what Jesus says:

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” — Luke 4:23-27 NIV

Okay, what did Jesus just say? First, he tells them he knows what they are thinking. They’re waiting for Jesus to do his next trick. “Physician, heal yourself” isn’t referring to literal illness and healing. What Jesus means is, “I know you want me to show you what I can do, just like a sick doctor who cures himself and thereby proves that he knows what he’s doing.”

But Jesus is having none of that. He is not here to prove himself, but to tell them that what they expected God to do isn’t going to happen. Jesus is there to tell them that what they have talked about for generations, the way they have interpreted Scripture, the expectation that God will deliver Israel first and make her the ruler of all other nations is all wrong.

And, to prove his point, Jesus uses two stories from Elijah and Elisha — two prophets who stand in high esteem. The return of Elijah is thought by first century Jews to precede the coming of the Messiah, and so they set a place at the Passover Table for Elijah each year. John the Baptist is thought by some to be the second-coming of Elijah. And, as we will see next week, Elijah does come and appears with Moses and Jesus at the Transfiguration. Elisha is Elijah’s protege, and Elisha receives a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when Elijah is taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. So, Jesus uses these stories because they have weight and importance.

The first story is the story of a widow who Elijah befriends. When Elijah finds out that this poor widow is going to use the last of the flour and oil she has to make some bread so that she and her son may eat it and then prepare to die, Elijah promises her that the oil will not run out, and the flour will not be depleted as along as she is helping him. Great story, and it was one of my favorites as a young Junior boy.

But then Jesus says, “25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”

In other words, Elijah helped a widow and her son who were not even Jews. And this during a famine in which many Jews suffered and died. Sidon is a region to the far northwest of Israel, and Zarephath was probably a Canaanite or Phoenician village. In other words, during the worst drought Israel had ever seen, God’s man Elijah helped a poor Sidonian widow, despite the fact that there were thousands of Israelite widows suffering, too.

But, Jesus doesn’t leave the story there. He uses another story, this time from Elisha’s prophetic ministry. The story of Namaan is another great story that I loved as a boy. Namaan is the general of the Syrian army. In his conquest, he captured an Israelite girl who is now a servant in his household. Namaan contracts some kind of skin disease which the Bible calls leprosy, although we know now that the term was used for a wide variety of skin afflictions. Nevertheless, whatever Namaan had was serious, was not getting better, and Namaan was desperate for a cure.

The servant girl implores him to seek out Elisha because she knows Elisha has the power to heal him. So, after contacting the king of Israel who thinks this is all a trick, Elisha hears and invites Namaan to come to his house.

Namaan appears with with horses and chariots at Elisha’s house and Elisha doesn’t even come out. Instead, he sends word for Namaan to go and dip himself 7 times — a very biblical numer — in the Jordan River. Namaan is furious and goes off in a huff. His servants remind him that if Elisha had asked him to do something difficult, he would have done it. So why not do something as easy as dipping yourself in the Jordan River?

Of course, Namaan does, he’s healed, and he worships God as the one true God.

But Jesus point in the story of the widow of Sidon and the story of Namaan the enemy general is that God passed over a lot of Israelites who were in just as bad, if not worse, condition. Only God provided oil and flour for the widow, and healed the leprous Namaan. Both were strangers, both were not Israelites, but both were saved by God.

Jesus told those stories as a very pointed way of saying to the men in the synagogue in Nazareth that day, “You think God is sending his Messiah just for you. You’re wrong, God is sending his Messiah to preach good news to all the poor, to free all the captive, to release all the prisoners regardless of whether they are Jews or not.”

And so, Luke says the men were furious, tried to grab Jesus and throw him over a cliff, but somehow he eluded them and escaped.

The Point of Jesus’ Stories

The point that Jesus was trying to make was this: “God isn’t up to what you expect. God is doing the unexpected. Get on board or get left behind.”

So, when a young cobbler says that God wants the Gospel preached to foreigners in India, William Carey is ridiculed by his fellow preachers because they’re sure “that God doesn’t need” Carey’s help.

And when a young Hudson Taylor believed that God wants the Gospel preached to those in China, others ridicule him, too. Of course, we now know that millions of people in countries other than England have come to Christ from the modern missions movement that Carey and Judson and others like them started. God was indeed doing the unexpected.

But, there’s a more current story, a story that speaks to God doing the unexpected today. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, the fastfood restaurant chain, made headlines last year when he affirmed his company’s support for the traditional family. Dan is a Southern Baptist and identifies himself as a  “follower of Christ.”

The ensuing controversy, which appears to have taken Mr. Cathy’s words out of context, made national headlines. Mike Huckabee, Fox News commentator and former Baptist pastor and governor of Arkansas, declared August 1 of last year, “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” News media reported that business was brisk that day at Chick-Fil-As all over the country.

But Dan Cathy wasn’t pleased with the tone the unwanted controversy had generated. One of Chick-Fil-A’s corporate values is “respect” for all persons, including those who are gay. Dan got the cell phone number of a gay activist, Shane Windmeyer, director of Campus Pride, and called Shane to open a dialogue. After several phone calls and face-to-face meetings, Campus Pride called off its boycott of Chick-Fil-A citing the conversations with Dan Cathy and other Chick-Fil-A executives as the reason.

But Dan Cathy didn’t stop there. He invited Shane Windmeyer to join him and his family on the field for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Shane Windmeyer said Dan Cathy spent the entire evening at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl with him, there on the sidelines.

In an article on Huffington Post, Shane Windmeyer reflected on the experience of getting to know Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A.

“Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”

That is a great example of how to respond when God is doing the unexpected. When God is inviting people we may have thought excluded from the Kingdom of God into it, do we react the way the men at the synagogue in Nazareth reacted — with anger that our cherished beliefs that God will choose us first are being challenged? Or do we respond the way Dan Cathy did — with love toward those we do not know, but wish to understand better.

Today we gather around the Table of Christ, and we must know that this is not our table. While we laid the bread and cup here today, we did not suffer and die to give these elements meaning. As we gather here this morning, we remember the words of Jesus — “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The only question is, how do we respond when God does the unexpected?

Easter Podcast: The God We’ve Been Waiting For

On this Easter Sunday we hear the words of Isaiah 25:6-9, written over 600 years before the birth of Jesus. In Isaiah’s day, the nation of Judah believed that God has left them. Isaiah reminds them what will happen when the God they are waiting for returns. That promise is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, and in his death and resurrection.

Isaiah says that when God returns God will remove the shroud of death from over the nation, swallow up death itself, wipe every tear from their eyes, and throw a big banquet in celebration. All of these images foreshadow the coming of Christ, the kingdom of God, and the great banquet God is preparing. Here’s the link to the podcast —

http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_The_God_Weve_Been_Waiting_For.mp3

Easter Sermon: The God We’ve Been Waiting For

The God We’ve Been Waiting For

Isaiah 25:6-9 NRSV

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Waiting For Someone

Americans spend a lot of time waiting. So much so, that according to a Zogby poll

“Time spent waiting for in-home services and appointments cost American workers $37.7 billion in 2011.” And guess whom we wait the most for? You guessed it: the cable guy.

So, we’re not strangers to waiting. According to the same poll, the average American will spend 4.5 hours, at least 3 times a year, waiting for someone to come do something in their home. Which, again according to the poll, adds up to $37.7 billion dollars.

But, waiting half a day for the cable guy is nothing compared to what the nation of Israel had to do. They had to wait 600 years for someone – and then most of them didn’t recognize him when he showed up.

Of course, we have the advantage over our Hebrew friends who lived 2,400 years ago – we know who Jesus is, which is why we’ve gathered here today, on this Easter Sunday. But in Isaiah’s day, not only did they not know who Jesus was (because he hadn’t shown up yet), but they didn’t even think that God was present with them.

Waiting For God To Return

Isaiah the Old Testament prophet, carried out his ministry about 600 BC. Parts of Isaiah’s ministry overlap with the Babylonian captivity.

You remember that story – in 587 and 586 BC, the Babylonians overran the tiny nation of Judah. Judah was all that was left of King David’s unified kingdom that at one time had included the northern tribes of Israel, and the southern tribes living in Judah. David lived and reigned about 1000 BC, and his son Solomon followed him on the throne. After Solomon the united kingdom was divided by internal fighting and strife.

The separate kingdoms of Israel to the north, and Judah to the south were split apart, and governed by separate kings and governments. Jerusalem was located in Judah. That’s important, so hang on to that for just a minute.

In 722 BC, the northern kingdom was invaded by the Assyrians, and the northern tribes were dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. That’s why they’re called the “lost tribes” of Israel. They literally were lost forever as a nation.

Less than 150 years later, the southern kingdom, Judah, was invaded as the Babylonians became the dominant military power in that part of the world. The Babylonians did what the Assyrians had done – they took most of the population captive, including the king and his court. They were all carted off to Babylon.

Oh, the most important thing that happened was that the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and along with the city, they destroyed the temple that Solomon had built.

So, the people of Judah, in exile in Babylon, were heart-broken. They interpreted their captivity, and the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment from God. And they were right.

The prophets, at least those faithful to God like Isaiah, had warned the nations of both Israel and Judah, that God was going to judge them, and punish them for their unfaithfulness to God.

What had they done to deserve God’s punishment? Well, for starters they worshipped other gods, which if you remember the 10 Commandments, was strictly forbidden. They also worshipped idols, and if you remember this story from a few Sundays ago, they even worshipped the bronze serpent that Moses had made in the desert to save them. The short version of it is – they were continually unfaithful to God.

But they looked like they were doing all the right stuff. “After all,” they said, “we have the Temple of God in the midst of the city of Jerusalem. God will never let anything happen to that Temple.”

Right here we have to stop for a minute and think about the Temple in Jerusalem. Now we know that God doesn’t live here at church, even though we might call the church “God’s house” sometimes when we want to convey why this building is different. But we don’t believe that God lives here and only here.

But in the Old Testament, that’s exactly what they believed. And, they had good reason to believe that. When the Temple was dedicated, the presence of God filled the Temple, and everyone there knew that God was pleased that Solomon had built it, and had built it according to God’s instruction.

The Temple, you see, was a permanent version of the Tabernacle. God had commissioned Moses to built a moveable tent – a very fancy tent, but moveable nonetheless – and to set it up in the middle of the camp as they nation of Israel moved toward the Promised Land.

We don’t have time to go into all the details of the Tabernacle, but all of the design, materials, furnishings, and function of the Tabernacle had theological significance. In other words, the Tabernacle was a giant theological object lesson for the nation.

And, most importantly, the people of God believed that heaven met earth there in the Tabernacle.

They would think the same thing about the Temple. And so when God allows the Babylonians, not only to invade Judah, but to enter into, defile, and ultimately destroy the Temple, they were stunned.

The devastating effect the destruction of the Temple had on God’s people cannot be overstated. Do you remember how excited everyone got back in the 1950s when Madeleine Murray O’Hair sued to exclude state-written prayers from schools? And do you remember how that rumor that she was going to get all religious programming on TV banned just wouldn’t seem to die?

Well, if you take the outrage that Christians in the United States felt about that decision, and multiply that about 1,000 times and you might start to get some idea of how horrible it was for the nation of Judah, God’s people, to lose the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, and their homeland all at once.

They felt that God had abandoned them, that God was gone, and they wanted desperately for God to return to the nation, to God’s people.

But, even after they returned from Babylon about 70 years later, things weren’t the same. Even after they rebuilt the Temple, it was a pale version of the one Solomon had built. Even after they were resettled in their land again, they still pleaded for God’s return. For you see, not long before the Temple had been destroyed, God’s Spirit had left the Temple, just as dramatically as it had come when Solomon dedicated it.

The Promise of God’s Return

So, when Isaiah writes this passage, he is prophesying that one day, not only will God return, but when God does return, it will be glorious. It will be like a king coming home, Isaiah said.

God will throw a big party, an elaborate banquet. At this banquet there will be all the food you can eat, rich food, and great wine, fitting for the occasion. The best wine there could be, the best wine saved for last.

Okay, let me stop right here and give you a little preview of what I’m talking about. For that we turn to John’s Gospel, and the wedding at Cana of Galilee. This is the first thing that Jesus does, according to John. You remember this story – Jesus, his mother, and probably some friends are at a wedding of another friend. During the wedding, Mary realizes that the hosts have run out of wine. This, of course, would have brought disgrace on their family in the community. So, she approaches Jesus and says, “They’ve run out of wine.”

Jesus acts as though this does not concern him, but his mother realizes that Jesus is going to solve the problem. She instructs the servants attending to the food and drink to do whatever Jesus tells them to do.

Jesus has them fill 6 jars, which hold about 25-30 gallons each, with water. Then, without any fanfare or hocus pocus, he tells them to draw some out, and give it to the steward, who is the person in charge of the wine.

The steward tastes the wine, and is astounded. He doesn’t know where it came from, but he brags to the host, “Most people serve the good wine first, and then bring out the cheap wine when everyone is drunk, but you have saved the best til last.”

Now, do you see it? What Isaiah said about God throwing a big party, and serving great wine comes true in the wedding at Cana. Now I think that the wedding at Cana is not the final big party that Isaiah talks about, but I do think the miracle of Jesus turning water into great wine is just a little miracle to say to us, “Just wait, here’s a little preview of what God is going to do for everyone one day.”

But back to Isaiah:  Not only is God going to throw a big party when God returns to the nation of Israel, God is going to do away with the pall of death that has overshadowed the nation for far too long.

And for that we have to think back to how God gets the nation of Israel out of Egypt about 1000 years before Isaiah. Remember that God calls Moses, then God sends Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrews? Cecil B. DeMille made a great movie called The Ten Commandments about the Exodus, and the journey to the Promised Land.

You remember that God sent plagues on the nation of Egypt, one after another to pressure Pharaoh to let God’s people go. There was the plague of boils, the plague of blood, the plague of gnats, flies, locusts, and the plague of darkness. But the final plague was the worst of all – the death angel would pass over Egypt and take the life of the first-born from each family. To protect themselves, the Hebrews were to take the blood of a lamb, smear it on their doorposts, and the angel of death would pass over them.

This night would be commemorated as the greatest story in the Hebrew faith – the story of the Passover.

But Isaiah has that story in mind when he says that when God returns, God will remove the shroud of death from the nation of Israel. Because the very people God had spared in the exodus from Egypt, had been punished by God. They were humiliated before the nations of the world because of their disobedience.

But when God comes back, Isaiah says, God will lift the death-shroud. Not only that, God will dry every tear from their eyes. There will be no more cause for mourning.

John picks that thought up in the New Testament book of Revelation, when he says,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,[b] and God himself will be with them as their God.[c] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev. 21:1-4 NIV

So, when God comes back to God’s people, death will be swallowed up, the shroud of death lifted, every tear dried, and their reputation restored. In other words, when God comes back, everything will be as God intended. God’s will will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

The God We’ve Been Waiting For

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Six hundred years after Isaiah said, “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lifted up,” God comes to his people.

God comes to his people as one of them, as Jesus. And in Jesus everything that Isaiah promises to the nation of Judah 600 years before comes true.

Now for a while it looks like it might not come true. Jesus isn’t well-received, even in his hometown of Nazareth. The religious leaders who should have recognized him didn’t. The people whom he teaches, and feeds, and heals, also turn on him in the end.

By the time we come to the end of his short three-year ministry, it looks like Jesus is another failed messiah, another empty promise, another revolutionary who doesn’t live up to his billing.

And to top it off, the Romans crucify him. If there was ever any doubt that Jesus was a failure, his public humiliation and death at the hands of the most efficient and brutal Roman empire should erase that doubt.

The empire had done what it does best – it had enforced its rule by force. It had terrorized its subjects by the threat of death. It had made an example of Jesus by killing him publicly, viciously, and ignominiously.

But Isaiah wasn’t wrong. And Rome hadn’t counted on a god like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A God who could raise the dead. A God who would swallow death itself, and spit out life in its place. A God who would burst the burial shroud that held Jesus, and by doing so, strip away the culture of death that hung over Judea and Jerusalem in the first century.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that Isaiah was right – God did return. And when God returned in the person of Jesus Christ, death was vanquished, once and for all.

In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, Herod Antipas hears about Jesus. He hears that Jesus is going around doing remarkable things – healing and feeding people. Herod Antipas is intrigued, and wants to meet Jesus, but then he hears the Jesus also raises the dead.

Oscar Wilde, certainly not a committed Christian, nevertheless understands the significance to King Herod of Jesus’ ability to raise the dead. He has Herod Antipas ask –

“He raises the dead?” and the servant replies, “Yes.”

Herod goes into a bluster, “I do not wish Him to do that. I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”

Herod knows that death is the last weapon he possesses. The Roman empire believes that death is their best threat to keep their subjects in line.

N. T. Wright puts it this way – “Now it is because Jesus has been raised from the dead that he was Messiah and Lord, the true King of the Jews, and the true Lord of this world.” (The Resurrection of Jesus, Kindle edition, location 392.)

This, then, is the God that Israel has been waiting for. This is the God we have all been waiting for.

Oh, we’ve allowed ourselves, just like the Jews did, to become distracted by other gods, gods that entertain us, gods we think will make us rich, gods that we pray will make us comfortable, gods that we make in our own image.

And just like those who came before us whether they lived in Jerusalem or in Chatham, we’ve seen all of those gods of our unfaithfulness and impatience fail us.

The god we’ve been waiting for is the God who saves us. The God who vanquishes death, not just once, but once and for all. The God who gives an only son to die, so we might live.

This is the God we’ve been waiting for, and his name is Jesus.