Searching for a Biblical Christmas – The Power of Time 5/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 3rd, 2017
Isaiah 30:9-15, 42:1-3, 53:3-9
Finally puberty has come and my voice is going to go downward. If you can’t hear it maybe you can just feel it, its low enough that I could sing bass. Usually I’m a fair baritone that can hit three out of seven notes, so that’s good.
We are in a series of sermons looking at the Old Testament foundations for Christmas; mostly because our cultural religion has so focused us on the events of Bethlehem that we no longer have knowledge of the Old Testament foundation. So, I thought it was time to go back and take a look.
It seems that the whole problem started with David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11. A man of power, a woman’s adulation, there was some manipulation, there was an affair, there was adultery, there was an unexpected pregnancy and there was a willingness to use power to kill that woman’s husband to make her available to be the powerful man’s wife. We say that David was forgiven of his sexual impropriety; God didn’t hold it against him anymore but we can also certainly see quite clearly that that did not free him from the consequences of his actions. It created the conditions in his own household where one of his sons, decided it was a good idea and okay to rape his step sister Tamar. And then another brother killed that brother and certainly in the Old Testament unfolding, between the lines is that terribly painful question, can you love someone, even when they have done terrible things?
Last week we talked about David’s legacy, his son Solomon and then Solomon’s son Rehoboam; the abuse of power being passed father to son to son. Do whatever feels good in the moment, justify it later, I’m the king what are you going to do? I can get away with this, what are you going to do? Forming alliances for protection; favors that we can call in if we’re ever under threat; what it led to last week was the split of the nation in half. Israel, the northern kingdom, no reverence or veneration for anything larger than power, that we can control, alliances we can build with more powerful nations and those will protect us.
God begins God’s complaint with the northern nation of Israel through the prophet Hosea. You are like people who move boundary stones between fields. This would lead to the eventually in the invasion of the Assyrians from the north. Israel was conquered; the entire population was carried off into exile, enslaved by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again. They interpreted what happened to them as a failure in their allegiances to people of power. They saw this as they hadn’t worked hard enough at forming alliances with Assyrians or with Babylonians or with Egyptians. They saw no reason to return again to the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and they were swallowed up by history. No legacy at all.
The southern kingdom, Judah; we spent three weeks talking about the long slippery list of ways that power is abused by people of power; rationalizing by the king’s people of the king’s atrocious behavior. Do whatever it takes to get rich, don’t pay your workers, and change allegiances on a whim, practice sexual aggression because you can get away with it, including the willingness to destroy a woman’s life to make her available to you. Practice nepotism, cronyism, lying, and tantrums and be sure to fail to take care of the vulnerable in your midst because it’s just not profitable.
Judah is also invaded and conquered, this time it’s the Babylonians. And the people of Judah interpret what has happened to them as a failure to be faithful to God, to the ways of God. And the book of Daniel tells us that some of them began to practice those simple things again: prayer and worship and honesty and integrity and compassion for a neighbor who’s in a bad way. There was definitely a reformation of the community of faith in the midst of terrible things happening under the hands of Babylonians.
It is about three generations later, about 70 years later when the Persian king, Persia invades Babylon and conquers them, the Persian king, Cyrus, discovers this remnant people among his newly acquired kingdom. He decrees that the God of Judah, Yahweh has instructed him to build a house of worship in the midst of the ruins of what was once Jerusalem. And he sends this contingent of people, this remnant of people home. He loads them with wagons and horses and stock and supplies and gold and silver and he encourages the sending of offerings by the people of his empire.
1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Zachariah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and Judges and Hosea all tell stories, events leading up to or following the exile. This is huge; this is the major theme of the Old Testament. But there is this other book that we should talk about. It’s the one Bill read from this morning, Isaiah. Isaiah is Jesus’ favorite prophet. Isaiah lived in the time when the Assyrians were the power to the north, to be feared and Egypt to the south. Babylon is gaining power and will soon replace and conquer the Assyrians as the dominant threat but the international scene, who was on the rise and who was on the decline and who could befriended and who could be counted on to rescue, was constantly in a state of change and the people of north country Israel were concerned about their future.
And the people of the southern nation, Judah, were scared about their future. How do we survive? How can we prosper? And God had tried to speak to them through prophets. God’s message was live my way, rely on me, you’re running around and trying to play the field of loyalty always backfires. Isaiah was born and grew up in the southern nation of Judah. He was of a family of some means because he was very well-educated. And he was watching all of this drama unfold and he seems to have access to the royal court and, in fact, maybe related to the royal family, somehow. He says that it’s not hard to read the sign of the times, the signs of what is to come. And when the Assyrians invade the northern kingdom from the north the king of the northern kingdom sends a plea for help from the southern kingdom.
We’d be stronger together and the king of the southern kingdom declines and says: you never should have broken away from us, whatever comes to you; it’s your own fault. And instead the king of the southern kingdom, Judah, tries to form a side alliance with the Assyrians. And he starts building a bridge with the Babylonians. Isaiah is sickened by the whole thing because what it takes to build a bridge with the Babylonians is money. Money to pay tribute and where does that money come from? The money comes from anywhere the politicians of the day could find it and they robbed money that had been designated for poor folks.
Isaiah was sickened by it. And the primary question that Isaiah begins to write about is how can we survive because all of that about building alliances and building bridges and money is about how are we going to survive as a nation. I know, there’s a lot of things addressed in the book of Isaiah, 60 chapters long, written over somewhere between 60 and 70 years. There’s judgment and idolatry and the decline of community and selfishness and greed and the perversion of justice and all of that leading to the fall of the nation and captivity and God’s sovereignty and God’s faithfulness and the coming of the Messiah. If you’d like a solid read on the book of Isaiah, Theodore Rath, some of you know him, Pastor Ted, he was a member here. He wrote a book Isaiah, a Ride in the Chariot, very well done.
Isaiah has a lot of issues that he hit but every one of them hinges back to that same question; how do we survive? Isaiah’s writing about that in our first passage this morning, Isaiah 30. God the holy one says, in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and simple obedience to my way is your strength but you will have none of it. I tell you rest and relax, trust in me to provide what you need. Consult me in prayer before you act. But you say: no and you go rushing to accomplish life on your own terms. You survive by seeking power over and settling for power under. Israel, the northern kingdom tried to survive by openly practicing power under, they were a little nation and they knew they were a little nation. They needed help to survive so they took on the subordinate role and they’re always trying to slip their own survival into the goodness of someone larger. They’re like that friend of the bully on the playground who slides up to you down by the lockers and goes: Billy is going to kick your butt at recess.
You know that guy? The guy who’s always: yeah, hit him Billy, hit him Billy. He’s not the bully himself but he’s the under-power, he’s the underpinning, he’s the: I can’t get by without him guy, the guy who’s always smiling saying yes sir, yes sir but then functions less than honestly. The suck-up model; some of you might work with somebody like that. These are the folks who will always smile and claim to know nothing after moving the boundary stones in the field.
Judah the southern kingdom tried to survive by practicing power over. Get what you can, rely on strength even though Judah was a smaller nation than Israel; they played big. They acted like they were all that and a bag of chips. Even though you’re small you play, you roll with the big boys. You go with hard hitting superpower attitudes: anything to accumulate riches; anything to presume wealth and always presume that wealth entitles you to power. You become the smiling guy with the small knife that can slip between ribs, that no-one trusts and everyone hates; because you’re always plotting to get something.
There is a story here of King Hezekiah, he was the king of Judah. This was back when there still was a northern kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was trying to show around a delegation of Babylon and he was really showing them how powerful Judah was and he showed them to demonstrate how powerful they were, he showed them all of the treasures of the kingdom; all of the gold and silver that they had accumulated. And Isaiah writes about this and he says equating wealth with strength and showing the entire treasury, you have successfully made Judah the target of Babylon.
And Isaiah says: the invasion of Judah and captivity will come from the Babylonians because you’ve given them something to fight for; not the Assyrians. Isaiah says: neither power over or power under ever works; they always seemed to produce the same result. Power under is always subordinate, it’s always criticizing, always undercutting. Perhaps you know someone who practices power under perpetually passive aggressive. Never angry but always hostile; disguising criticism in compliments that are side-hand. Getting in the last word; always seeking to find some sense of control. Power over is men like David and Solomon commanding, acquiring the goods, oppressing the women, exploiting the vulnerable, dominating, always in control.
Isaiah offers an alternative and Isaiah’s alternative is God’s way. He spells this out in the very first chapter and he keeps referring back to it; blasts the commitment to the ideas of religious beliefs and rituals but people still lack simple mercy and compassion. Blasts quickness to gain a judgment against a neighbor who owes you something, blasts the willingness to hear malicious gossip. Says you may fold your hands in prayer but they drip in blood of social injustice because of the community they create. Then in a stunning series of short lines, each having only two Hebrew words; he ticks off God’s way. Cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help oppressed, justice orphan, plead widow and it’s no wonder and Isaiah names this, it’s no wonder why people love to get wrapped up in arguments about religion and right belief and proper ritual. Otherwise they might have to deal with what’s really important to God, social justice.
That crux passage from our text today; this is the crux passage of the book of Isaiah, chapter 30. Isaiah is saying if you take care of those little things, the big things will take care of themselves because taking care of those little things, like cease evil, learn good, work justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan and plead for the widow, doing those little things creates momentum for the nation and identity and a drive of graciousness. And that solves a lot of other problems that come to a nation. Primarily it changes the challenge of me and mine getting ahead and the challenge becomes bringing everyone up.
Being principled and gracious will make the nation great in the eyes of its citizens and the eyes of the world and in the eyes of God; because honesty and integrity matter. That’s how God’s providence works; trusting God’s way to shape our future.
Isaiah says the exact opposite is also true. If you protect evil, perfect deceit, pervert justice, deny the oppressed, exploit the orphan, ignore the widow, spread gossip, that creates momentum too. And it’s momentum that feeds power and then you just become like every other nation and you’re just someone else to fight. And you’re always anxious about not getting power, you’re anxious about losing power; you’re always a target for someone because you have sealed your doom.
All of our hopes and fears through all the years, have you ever noticed they all go back to power? What we hear from Isaiah is that power as we define it means nothing to God. We’re out by the teeter totter trying to create a balance of power or an imbalance in our favor, because we’ve heard that the Lord brings down the mighty and lifts up the low but God’s not exchanging places. Teeter totter is not an appropriate biblical image.
The appropriate biblical image that Isaiah is talking about here is all of us, seated at a table, the powerful have come down, the lowly have been lifted up and it’s just us.
Isaiah says: so that you may believe God’s way is real and will work, there will come a servant of the Lord. He will live out God’s way, he will execute justice and he will be a prince of peace. But God already knows how humanity is going to receive him and Isaiah includes that too. And that was our final reading. He was despised and rejected, suffered, he’s familiar with pain, he was despised and we held him in low esteem. Surely, he took up our suffering and bore pain at our hands, yet we considered him punished by God. He was pierced by our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities and the punishment we imposed to bring us peace, was on him. And by his wounds we are healed.
We all have to choose how we’re going to receive Jesus every year and we all have to choose who we’re going to allow to interpret for us the meaning of Christmas. Our cultural religion with endless radio play and television commercials and mall bustle and Amazon hustle or a servant coming among us to show us God’s way, who will execute justice; king of kings bringing the kingdom of God, who will exhibit inner peace and counsel righteousness. Cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help the oppressed, be justice for the orphan and plead for the widow.
What Isaiah describes is an impractical, absolutely impossible way of living that cannot possibly be reconciled with the ways of the world. And yet it is so compelling to us that we come here year after year to ponder it.
What if we lived that way? And there is significant reason why Jesus is born to simple, poor, peasant people. There’s a reason the shepherds in the field are invited and the wise ones are beckoned from afar, foreigners insightful enough to watch the stars and read the signs and follow. Not only will Jesus come but Jesus comes to demonstrate for us God’s way, God’s uneasy, God’s narrow and difficult, God’s impossibly costly way. We’re getting closer to Christmas.