What’s Missing

Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

A Strange Work

Fourth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 7:10-16 (ESV)

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

People who want to show how the Old Testament predicts the coming of Jesus Christ often cite this prophecy, but without some background, it can be a little confusing.

In short, Ahaz, king of Judah, was being threatened with invasion by two other kingdoms, and being relatively weak and faithless, he was afraid. God had told the prophet Isaiah to go and reassure the king, and also told the prophet to take along his son, Shear-jashub. Through Isaiah, God went so far as to graciously offer Ahaz a clear sign he had nothing to fear.

Most of us would love to have a clear sign from God. Ahaz, however, rudely declined the offer in words masked in false politeness. Most likely, the king was concerned he would look too aligned with the God of his people as he tried to curry favor with surrounding kingdoms, particularly the powerful Assyrian empire.

In response, God did a surprising thing. He offered a sign pertinent not just to the immediate situation, but to all situations, to all problems in time.

A virgin shall conceive. The child shall be called Immanuel, an allusion to the fact that the child literally would be “God among us,” the meaning of the name. And despite the child’s glorious, divine status, he would eat not the food of angels, as Matthew Henry so eloquently put it, but the same milk products and honey on which the children around him would rely.

The last part of the prophecy, with its “before the boy” reference, can seem particularly confusing. We have to understand that God had moved back to the immediate situation, and was referencing not the messiah, but Isaiah’s boy, present in the room with the king of Judah. The land of the two kings who seemed so threatening would be deserted in just a few years, the short time it would take for the boy to begin to think and act like a man.

But back to that big-picture intervention, that strange prophecy of a virgin birth and God walking among us. It is as if God, having been insulted by the king, for just a moment caused the prophet to ecstatically anticipate the great power and control God would demonstrate one day. The prophecy was in some ways a most magnificent pearl cast before a most ignorant swine, but it was recorded in a way so that it has lasted to our very day.

In hearing this prophecy one week before Christmas Day, we as Christians are reminded just how strange our religion is.

We believe, we really believe, that the God who made all things—the one who stands outside space and time, the being who is infinitely larger than the universe we cannot even see in fulll—chose to come among us and live first inside a woman’s womb? God decided to reduce himself to a tiny fetus, then grow to the size of an infant, so he could be born to mewl and suckle and have his diaper changed?


And when God came among us, we believe he decided to do it as ingloriously as possible, arriving not in a royal household, but in one of the lowest, poorest places on earth? To a poor, unmarried mother, one more a girl than a woman?

The story only gets stranger. It appears this God in flesh, Jesus, started out working with his hands. And when he did finally go to preaching, he relied neither on royalty nor educated clergy to absorb and carry his message, but instead the working people of his day, many of them diseased or disreputable.

Really? That was God’s plan? To get down in the dirt?

We might as well look forward in the story even further. The child is born, becomes a man, and yes, he dies, suffering a most horrible public death. Do we recognize how strange it is to say that a holy, perfect God can not only die, but be humiliated in the process? Beaten, cursed, spat upon? That somehow in doing so, he took on all the punishment for sins we committed?

All that considered, resurrection of the messiah, as strange as it sounds, was the only logical occurrence in this chain of odd events. How could shame or even death expect to hold God? The badly unbalanced scales of the universe had to right themselves.

All of that strangeness results in blessings, of course. The Really Good News: Death can no longer expect to hold us now that we are reconciled with our holy maker.

Clearly, we believe in a special, strange kind of love, the remarkable unmerited grace poured out on us from God. I wonder if the vision puzzled Isaiah as he prophesied.

Never get used to the wonderful strangeness of what we believe. Let’s celebrate it today and in the coming weeks of Christmas with new eyes and a deep appreciation for the work God is doing through Jesus Christ.

The featured image is of a 17th-century Russian Orthodox icon, “Christ-Immanuel.”

A Work Within Us

Third in the Advent/Christmas Series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 35 (NRSV)

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
   but it shall be for God’s people;
   no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In chapter 35, Isaiah continues with images of healing and holiness, and again, this promised time seems to benefit not just humanity, but all of creation. And of course, as we have discussed already, Jesus Christ provides the path to this great act of restoration.

The closing words of this chapter remind me that while there are great changes to come, the greatest of God’s restorative work may be the one wrought within us. Have we not prayed for such work in the deepest recesses of our souls? Oh, to have everlasting joy and gladness; oh, for sorrow and sighing to flee us forever.

These are all expressions of the heart. Our choices, our very lives, are driven by the pursuit of gladness and the avoidance of sorrow. Joy and sighing also can be quite literally matters of the heart, directly affecting its rhythm and longevity for better or for worse.

Most of us have lived in broken creation long enough to know what it is like to sigh and even sob. As we draw near the close of 2016, I as a pastor know the pains my congregation has experienced. Yes, we have had great joys, too, but the pain has remained. I also have been a pastor long enough to know that many people wrestle with private pain too deep to reveal, even people in the close community we call church.

The little holiday moments certainly help. When Our Girls recently brought us their Christmas music special at Luminary, we collectively paused and experienced a kind of joy we did not want to slip away.

There have been and will be similar moments as we move through Advent toward Christmas. Fleeting or sustained, they are powerful, and can be like glimpsing God’s face.

Yet, in the midst of all of those moments, there also have been events that seem to re-tarnish the world God is polishing. Tragedy and suffering both locally and globally can seem overwhelming at times. For people experiencing recent pain, the contrast during Advent and Christmas can be too much. The lights and laughter, the word “merry,” even the notion of a better day to come—it all can seem meaningless or even unintentionally mean.

Whether it is this season or a season to come, we all have to learn to cope with the stark contrast between joy and pain. Short of Jesus’ much-anticipated return, we have no way out.

Here’s the helpful lesson I take away from Isaiah 35. Those joyous moments are permanent. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, God will retain them for all eternity. Those sorrowful moments, as painful as they are, are fleeting, and will vanish like mist in the light of God’s truth, grace and glory.

It helps to make a conscious decision to call joy permanent and sorrow temporary. For example, when a great hymn or other piece of Christmas music stirs you, whisper to yourself, “This glory goes on forever.” When there is death or suffering, remember to say, “This pain will have an end.”

When we respond to life in such a way, we get to the same place the Apostle Peter tried to take us in his first letter to the churches.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)”

Remember, those of you who are Christians, such promises from God go to the very core of your faith. Church is a lot of things, but we should never lose sight of what is central to being the church.

We do good works, but we are not simply a group of people gathered to do good works. All sorts of civic clubs can do that.

We perform rituals when together, but we are not simply a people going through some motions. Cults and the very worst religions lean heavily on corrupt rituals.

We are a people who seek justice and equity in the world, but those efforts alone are a poor way to define us. People have done the same through governments and revolutions for centuries.

We certainly are a place for fellowship and friendship, but again, fellowship and friendship are not primarily why we exist. The local bar, gym or sports team can offer you that.

We gather because we believe everything is changed through Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, joy is everlasting and sorrow will flee. To quote Revelation, every tear shall be wiped away. Even death shall be undone, and there shall be much to sing about.

A prayer to live by: Joy, I accept you as my permanent state. Sorrow, while I may have to live with you for awhile, don’t expect me to embrace you, for you will vanish, thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

An Ancient Work

Second in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

These words from Isaiah reflect the same theme we heard last week: All of God’s creation will be restored to what God intended. What is right and holy will live in God’s presence, and what is wicked will be destroyed.

As we look at the 11th chapter, however, we see how Isaiah focused on the actual person who would bring about this redemptive act. This Messiah’s behavior—perhaps we should say his piety—not only somehow saves us, it also continues to instruct us as we flock to him.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase “the stump of Jesse,” it is a reference to the house and lineage of King David, whose father was Jesse. By Isaiah’s day, the fabulous kingdom David had established was little more than a dead remnant, split and decaying, subject to the overgrowth of other, less-godly kingdoms.

Something would spring forth from this stump, however, something that would change the world.

Christians see this promise of new growth as one of the more profound prophecies of the Christ to come, the man we call Jesus. The first chapter of Matthew—a genealogy many readers skim in order to reach what they think is the real story—makes clear Christ is to be seen as coming from David’s badly broken lineage. Read backward, the genealogy traces to Abraham, who represents the visible beginning of God’s plan to rescue humanity from sin through the people known as the Jews.

The ancient nature of God’s plan for redemption can be hard for us to accept. We can feel lost or unimportant in it all, especially if we have a strong desire to see righteousness and justice win out.

I am currently in the midst of leading a confirmation class, and the same question that always arises has arisen again. Year to year It is phrased in different ways, but it is along these lines: Why doesn’t God fix things now?

It is a desire for an immediate response from God to evil, a wish often rooted in a pain recently experienced. I think it’s a question we all ask from time to time, if only in the secret places in our hearts.

The Apostle Peter dealt with this question in what we label his second letter:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Peter 3:8-10)

At the time Peter wrote those words, he was dealing with the impatience of a generation containing Christians who had seen Jesus in the flesh. His imagery also is more fiery, focused on the need to destroy and remake all things. Almost 2,000 years later Peter’s key point remains, however. When Christ returns and becomes the focal point for all the world, we will quickly move from, “When is he coming?” to “Didn’t see that coming!” Despite God’s desire that none should perish without accepting Christ, there likely will be many people who will wish there had been more time.

Peter went on to tell us how to live in this time of waiting, and in many ways his words illuminate what the Prophet Isaiah said about the Messiah.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 8:11-13)

Isaiah was more subtle, describing characteristics of the Messiah and then noting how the people of the world would come to him for instruction. “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord,” Isaiah wrote. But both Isaiah and Peter’s writings encourage the same thing: dependency on God. We are called to open ourselves to God, listen to God and allow ourselves to be shaped by God, trusting God’s understanding of truth over ours.

Certainly, Jesus Christ was God among us, divinity wrapped in flesh. But even with his divine status, he modeled the need to seek God’s guidance and God’s will in all things.

The classic image, so classic it is depicted in Luminary’s stained glass, is Christ on his knees, the Son asking the Father to sustain him and make clear what role Jesus was to play in the great plan of redemption. Jesus received his answer and obeyed, a truth we should give thanks for every day. The answer took him to the cross, where we were relieved of punishment for our sins. The cross and subsequent resurrection were huge steps forward in God’s plan.

As we wait for God to set all things right, let’s look to the root of Jesse and follow his example. Let’s complain and worry less and pray and study God’s word more. Perhaps as we open ourselves to God’s will, the experience we have will be enough to sustain us until God’s ancient work is complete, and we stand before him forever.

The featured image is a detail from stained glass in the sanctuary at Luminary UMC, Ten Mile, Tennessee.

A Universal Work

First in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 (NRSV)

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
   and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

For thousands of years, God has been visibly at work to save us from sin and restore us to holiness. During this Advent season, we’re going to use prophecies from Isaiah to understand that work a little better.

To me, the key word in today’s text is Zion. Until we grasp Zion in full, we cannot see the magnitude of what God promised through this great prophet.

At its simplest, Zion might be seen as a synonym for Jerusalem, the center of worship and governance in ancient Israel. There is nothing simple about the concept of Zion, however. When we say “Zion,” we capture all the promise and potential of God’s work.

Somehow, Zion is raised high. Somehow, Zion becomes a place of instruction for all the world, a means for the word of the Lord to spread globally. Somehow, that word is so powerful that even war is brought to an end.

It is a beautiful idea, isn’t it? God’s truth becomes so clear that people of all cultures stream to it. It is forced on no one; people simply are drawn to it, look at each other and say, “Come, let us go.” Such truth would have to be intensely attractive, it would seem, if it were to reach people from all cultures, languages and places.

From a human, modern perspective, Zion in its fullest frankly can also seem impossible. Division is our norm; world peace has never seemed remotely possible.

Even modern-day Jerusalem is divided. The temple mount that once was the center of worship for the Jews is now occupied by a Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock. If there is no unity in Jerusalem, how can we trust Isaiah’s words? How can such a divided place be the basis of Zion and bring unity to all of creation?

To answer these questions, it helps to understand the deeply symbolic nature of Zion, and to remember God works in very surprising ways. Despite the seeming impossibility of it all, we Christians continue to share this vision that dates back more than 700 years before Christ. We share it because we know that Jesus Christ shared it, taught it, and ultimately lived it. He showed us the path toward what seems impossible.

Keeping the idea of Zion in mind, look at some of the stories of Jesus and how he ministered. For example, whenever Jesus went to a mountain, it was as if he created around him a bubble of holiness, a place freed from worldly division, set apart even from the ongoing effects of sin. We know the people were drawn to him to learn; this is obvious in Matthew 5-7, the account of the Sermon on the Mount.

More happened at these mountain gatherings, too. The sick were healed. Ultimately, in Matthew 15, the hungry were fed. The miracle was broader than the feeding of the 4,000 men and their families, however. On that mountain, in the presence of God’s pure word, there was no room for pain or hunger of any kind.

Our great Christian hope is simple, and fully aligned with Isaiah’s vision. As God’s word spreads—as person after person and nation after nation seeks God’s word—these mountain miracles of teaching and healing continue. Jesus lived among us to affirm the promise of Zion.

Yes, complete fulfillment of the promise remains to be seen. There is some waiting involved. It is expectant, active waiting, like a mother who knows a child will arrive any day. Preparations are made. People begin to live as if the great change has already happened.

In contemplating Zion, I will first go this far: Christ is Zion, the fulfillment of that great promise made centuries before his birth. On the cross, he was lifted so high that the world continues to see him. In his death he exposed a truth about God’s love that continues to attract people of all kinds from all points around the globe.

And I will go further: In his resurrection and ascension, Christ resumed his place as part of the Godhead, but God also continues to reside in us through the Holy Spirit. The universal church also is Zion, meaning we as its members are already citizens of a timeless, holy realm.

Do you live as such? Do you understand God’s truth as revealed in Scripture? Do you carry God’s word to those who need it? Do you do all that is humanly possible to let God’s truth create those bubbles of holiness and unity around you?

Don’t wait for Zion. Be Zion, live Zion, until the day we find ourselves visibly in Zion. Oh house of Christ, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

The featured image is “The Prophet Isaiah,” Lorenzo Monaco (circa 1370–circa 1425) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Upcoming Series

After a couple of weeks off, I’m looking forward to beginning a sermon series for Advent and Christmas. Here’s what I have planned:

What Has God Wrought?

Nov. 27: Isaiah 2:1-5. “A Universal Work”
Dec. 4: Isaiah 11:1-10. “An Ancient Work”
Dec. 11: Isaiah 35:1-10. “A Work Within Us”
Dec. 18: Isaiah 7:10-16. “A Strange Work”
Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve): Luke 2:1-20. “The Beauty of His Work”
Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day): Hebrews 1:1-13. “The Glory of His Work”

One Mighty Vision

Isaiah 6:1-8

How can this ancient vision of God on his throne enlighten us regarding our own salvation? Well, for one thing, there is within the vision a pattern for restoration to God we still experience today.

The purpose of the first part of the text is clear: God is to be seen as holy. While God’s holiness comes through clearly in this and other Bible stories, the importance of God’s holiness seems to have faded somewhat in contemporary thinking. The secular world wants to make God malleable, squeezing him to fit popular trends in thought. No one who truly believes in God thinks this is possible, of course.

When we say God is holy, we mean God is ideal, perfect, the only definition of what is right. God’s holiness is central to his character, his being. This is why the seraphim, the highest form of angels, cry out, “Holy, holy, holy” to one another. Logically, the one who made all things gets to define goodness according to his will and rightly expects his creation to conform.

God’s explicit holiness leads to the second part of the text, the prophet’s acknowledgment that he cannot measure up to the God he sees. “Woe is me, for I am lost!” he cries. He realizes he cannot determine good or do good consistently on his own, a fallen state leading to sin and separation from God.

Isaiah knows that when holy God and fallen creation meet, that which is profane should be doomed.

Even in this Old Testament story, however, we see the holiness of God includes tremendous love. Even though creation has turned away, God continues to love and long for what he has made. (We use the word “grace” for such a love.) One of the angels takes a burning coal from the altar before God and touches it to the lips of Isaiah. Rather than blistering the prophet, the coal cleanses him, freeing him from the constraints of his sin.

And there is the pattern: Despair over sin leads to repentance—a desire to be better—and God responds with restoration. Christians see this pattern play out in a new way through Christ.

Our burning coal is the cross, symbol of our belief in the work God did there through Jesus Christ to cleanse us of sin. Just as it was a mystery to Isaiah how a burning coal could cleanse him, the cross is a great mystery to us. God comes among us in flesh and dies, and we are forgiven; we simply trust this is so, and the cleansing fire of God’s Holy Spirit goes to work in us. This cleansing happens in a moment, but it also is a process, as we sink deeper into the mystery and give more and more of our sinfulness up to God.

With this process comes our own vision. The basic vision for all Christians is simple, one given to us in the Bible. We see ahead of us a world fully conformed to God’s holy will. Out of that vision comes our mission, the one explicitly stated by Christ—make people disciples of this loving God!

Whether we’re talking individually or corporately, as a local church, that mission needs refining. We will pursue the same goal in different ways, adjusting our strategies based on our audiences. But we head toward the same place, eternity in the presence of the holy, loving God who reigns on his throne.