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.

Saying It, Living It, Part 2

Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said to Peter. Ouch.

Last week, we heard how Jesus declared Peter to be the rock, the foundation for the church that will exist for all time. That blessing was rooted in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

How quickly the mighty can fall. To go back to a lesson we first learn in kindergarten, actions speak louder than words.

In defense of Peter, he was navigating uncharted theological waters. He was right to declare Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. His problem was that he had not fully grasped the role Christ plays in the universe. Like most Jews, Peter had reduced the expected Messiah to a warrior king, a recycled David who would form his army, take back Israel for the Jews and establish a physical, righteous kingdom for all the world to emulate.

It was a big, exciting concept, but it wasn’t big enough to capture the role Jesus came to play.

Matthew tells us that Jesus began speaking plainly, telling his disciples how his ministry would actually play out. Ultimately, he told them, he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, be killed, and then be raised from the dead.

Peter responded like a tactful public relations manager. He didn’t confront the boss in front of others; he pulled Jesus aside to provide a little counsel. When he told Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” Peter was focusing on the torture and death part of Jesus’ prediction—none of that seemed to fit the clear path to victory he was envisioning. How could the masses get behind a warrior king who planned to lose?

And in a way, Peter was right, at least from a human perspective. The masses abandoned Jesus once the beatings began. In Matthew, only a handful of women followers are recorded as witnessing the crucifixion.

God’s plan was not dependent on human understanding or support, however. The last part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise again on the third day, came true, marking the great turning point in history. The inevitability of death ended on the first Easter Sunday. Christ’s resurrection made clear that death’s power was gone, replaced by eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is the core truth of Christianity sustaining us today.

We should also remember that Jesus didn’t call Peter “Satan” just to rebuke or insult the disciple. The phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is there to remind us of an earlier story found in Matthew 4. There, the devil tempted Jesus to abandon God’s master plan and define his ministry in terms of worldly success.

As Peter argued there must be another way, a way fit for a warrior king, he reminded Jesus of his duel with the devil, and the very real temptation that went along with it. Peter was inadvertently tempting Jesus again. Jesus knew with his divine mind he needed to go to the cross for our sakes, but his very human side also clearly did not want to suffer. Midway through Matthew 26, Jesus’ prayer just before he was arrested makes clear his reluctance to suffer and die: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

After upbraiding Peter, Jesus went on to tell his disciples about the cost of following the Messiah, knowing they would face similar difficult choices themselves as leaders of the church. It’s a lesson for all of us. We could have our own bitter cup of death to drink; certainly, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing such choices now. We all have our own crosses to take up. By that, Jesus meant we have to take up his cause and give up whatever causes or desires we may have that conflict.

In choosing Christ, there could be some sort of human glory, I suppose, but glory, riches, fame or other worldly goodies should not be counted on or even sought. There are preachers becoming rich by telling their followers that faith automatically begets worldly success. They are wrong, and they need to listen to Jesus’ teachings more closely.

The only glory we are promised—the reward for drinking from that cup, taking up that cross—is, of course, eternal life. The concept sounds vague and distant to us now, but on our deathbeds and beyond, nothing in this life will compare.

Saying It, Living It, Part 1

When I was in journalism school, the instructors taught that good reporting on a story required answering the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.

I figured the five W’s could help us expand on today’s Bible passage, Matthew 16:13-20. In doing so, I pray we’ll better understand the full importance of what happened on this particular day in Jesus’ ministry.

The story revolves around the “who” questions Jesus asked, but I’m going to begin with the where. The backdrop for the story is enlightening. We’re told Jesus and his disciples went to the district of Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea_philippi_1886In other words, they left the very Jewish world where they had been teaching and ministering to escape for awhile into the Gentile world, where it was far less likely they would be recognized. Caesarea Philippi was named such in part because it was the home of a temple dedicated to the deification of the Roman emperor, the caesar, who expected his subjects to see him as lord over all things. As Jesus had his conversation with his disciples, it’s likely they saw this gleaming white tribute to human hubris.

The district also was the home of multiple pagan shrines, serving these Jews as clear symbols of humanity’s desire to follow something other than the One True God.

It was in that setting that Jesus began to ask his “who” questions. First, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples’ answers were quite flattering, the highest and holiest descriptions Jews would apply to a mere human being. They reported the people placed Jesus among the great prophets, the ones seen in one way or another as declarers of the Messiah, the one who would save Israel from oppression.

In followup, Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” No pause is indicated, but I’ve never been able to read this passage without imagining one. Peter’s response seems too bold to have tumbled out one beat after the question.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter said. That’s a lot of “who” to attribute to anyone. Peter was saying Jesus was fully aligned with God, more important and more powerful than any caesar or anything else that had ever or would ever presume to take on the role of God.

In doing so, Peter also caused a “what” to come into existence for the first time. The foundation of the church was laid. Jesus was being clever when he played on the name of the disciple before him, calling him what is recorded as “Petros” in the Greek text. Almost certainly, they stood there speaking Aramaic, their native language, and Jesus actually said, “Kephas.” Either way, Peter’s name literally meant “rock,” and Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”

As in most news stories, the “why” in this story is a particularly powerful fact. The Messiah had come not just to save Israel, but to prevail over death and build a church to participate in the process. Some older English versions of the Bible are misleading, translating Matthew 16:18 as saying about the church, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

The Greek word translated incorrectly as “Hell” is Hades, and that word shouldn’t be confused with our modern understanding of Hell as a place of torment for nonbelievers. Both the Jews and the Greeks of Jesus’ day thought of the afterlife as having one common abode, a sort of waiting place until the time of the general resurrection and judgment. Jesus was saying he was going to do something so incredible that he would break the power of death.

That incredible something, of course, was his crucifixion. Death took Jesus, briefly, but Death had to release God’s Holy One on the third day, unable to contain what had given the very universe life.

As for the when—well, in some ways, the answer is eternal. Jesus always was and always will be. The universal church of believers always will be, even after we reach the time when death and evil are fully destroyed before our eyes and nothing remains but blissful worship and celebration.

The answer to when also is “now,” however. Who do you say Jesus is? Every moment is an opportunity for you to affirm for the first time, or again, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Next week, we’ll focus on what it means to live out that creed moment by moment.


Budding Prophecies

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’ve always been intrigued by preachers who use the title “prophet.” A prophet’s prospects for long-term popularity seem dim, at best.

Prophets may be well-known in their time, perhaps even gathering astonished crowds with miraculous signs. The actual act of prophecy, however, is unlikely to make the prophets many friends. And the more prophets prophesy, the less their audiences seem to like them.

And yet, what higher human calling can there be? Yes, prophets sometimes speak of the future. But more importantly, to prophesy is to be so directly connected to the mind of God that you can speak God’s will directly into the everyday world.

Young Prophet

Jeremiah was a prophet, called at a very young age to speak God’s will to God’s chosen people—a people divided politically, anemic in their faith and on the verge of a terrible downfall. He was so young, in fact, that he protested his calling, citing his youthfulness.

The ability to prophesy is not rooted in human concepts like age or education level, however. It is not even rooted in a particular prophet’s immediate existence, in his or her conception and birth. Judging from Jeremiah, God’s placement of prophets through history is strategic and part of the plan of creation.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said in his opening revelation to Jeremiah. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

It is as if God wired creation with a broadcasting system, and the prophets are the woofers, mids, tweeters and subs resounding according to the Creator’s will.

When God speaks, change usually is demanded, particularly when the situation has become as unholy as the one in which Jeremiah found himself. And therein lies the problem for the prophet. People are naturally resistant to change. In fact, I would argue that the further people are from God, the more resistant they are to holy change. It certainly seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day.

Loud Complaints, Heavy Burdens

Jeremiah’s pronouncements were so strong, in fact, that we now call lengthy complaints “jeremiads.” God complained loudly that his chosen people had turned away, looking to other gods. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people they were headed for disaster. The disaster—the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire—happened during Jeremiah’s prophetic tenure.

The burden of all this prophesying took its toll on Jeremiah, as it does on prophets throughout the Bible. Consider what Jeremiah was called from the start to do among his own people, to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” Only later would his prophecies contribute to building and planting.

During one particularly trying time, Jeremiah resounded bitterness: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you  have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”

His only comfort lay in his understanding that those who would persecute him would face God and eternal dishonor. And yet, he still wished that he had never been born. The Bible is silent on Jeremiah’s end; stories outside the Bible indicate he was stoned to death by his own exasperated people.

A Fire Within

So why prophesy? Why suffer so? Jeremiah answered that question in his discourse of complaint, recorded in Jeremiah 20:7-18. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Prophets prophesy because they are made down to the marrow to do so.

Now, there can be joy in prophecy; there are times when the prophets glimpsed how God’s plan to save unholy humanity would unfold. For the Old Testament prophets, it must have seemed a vague, distant joy, like a clear sky on a deeply cold night about an hour before sunrise. There are at least nine places in Jeremiah where the prophet saw the Christ to come.

Think how blessed we are, knowing the story of Jesus Christ in full. Through prayer and study, we can so much more easily understand the radical truth of what God is doing in the world to save us.

Prophets for Today

And yet, we still need prophets, or at a minimum, prophetic moments implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It remains a difficult world. Just as it happened in Jeremiah’s day, people turn away from God now, trading a potentially eternal relationship for what is immediate and worldly.

We are called to examine ourselves and change our ways. We are called to find ways to convince others to practice a vital, ruddy faith, one rooted in the bloody cross and the dawning resurrection.

If we take such steps and speak what we hear from God, there are plenty of people out there who will want to stone us, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally. But with the Holy Spirit burning deep in our bones, how can we not prophesy? After all, we have been remade down to the marrow.

Leveling and Straightening

Isaiah 40:1-11

I’ve recently developed a new appreciation for flat, smooth roads.

I bought something called a Trikke, which looks like an oversized kiddie scooter. It’s not for toddlers, however. Instead of a platform, there are two bars running from the front wheel to two back wheels. You stand over the two back wheels and hold on to a handlebar, which controls a long post attached to the front wheel.

The joints are all cambered; to make the Trikke go, you get it rolling by kicking the ground scooter-style and then twist and rock the whole thing to propel the inverted V forward. I got the Trikke for exercise. (I seem lately to be suffering from “fat pastor syndrome.”) Riding this contraption is a lot of fun, but frankly, I’m not yet very good at it.

The Trikke goes great downhill, of course. I can keep it going pretty well on a level, smooth surface, too. As for uphill—well, at least I get a lot of exercise pushing it, looking like Fred Flintstone starting his car as my feet scurry between the v-shaped bars.

Because of my Trikke experience, Isaiah 40:1-11 has taken on a whole new meaning for me. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we read there. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Not that the prophet was saying God would arrive in the Holy Land on a Trikke.  It’s just that I’ve developed a new appreciation for smoothing out those physical hills and rough places that also stand as symbols of life’s impediments, its pain and disappointment. (Overweight bicyclists, hikers and runners will probably understand this metaphor, too.)

The people of Judah, one of two kingdoms that had come out of a fractured Israel, certainly would have understood Isaiah’s words on both a literal and metaphorical level. In the 39th chapter, Isaiah had predicted the Babylonian conquest and the taking of God’s “chosen people” into captivity as punishment for their sins. In the 40th chapter, however, Isaiah seems to be addressing people already in captivity, separated from their homeland by a rugged stretch of desert.

While comprehensible, Isaiah’s words also must have sounded very strange. No hope seemed in sight for a captive people far from home. The idea of the God who had condemned them leading them home along an easily traversed highway must have seemed improbable, even on a metaphorical level.

Perhaps that explains verses 6 through 8, with their withered grass and faded flowers standing as Lamentations-like complaints about the temporary nature of life. When God seems far away and you see nothing but life’s pain, cynicism creeps in. Isaiah tries to reflect the mood of the times he lived in, as well as difficult times to come.

He also notes, however, that the word of our God will stand forever. It is a nugget of hope, both for the Jews trapped in bondage and for us today.

During this Advent season—this time of year when we re-experience the Jewish longing for a messiah, and our own longing for Jesus Christ’s return—we remember this passage from Isaiah for the encouragement it ultimately brings. God does come.

“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Eight centuries later, another prophet, John the Baptist, would evoke Isaiah’s words in proclaiming Jesus as the promised Savior. And it was God himself, we discovered, who would level and straighten the path through our rugged, sin-pocked deserts so we could return to a relationship with our creator.

God triumphs! He triumphs through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, with Jesus’ resurrection providing proof that sin and death are defeated.

Following God’s straight, smooth path requires only that we believe—no theological twisting and contorting, no pushing our way over the hills. Simple belief.