Sunday, January 27, 2008

Good on Ya!

Texts: Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

DID YOU EVER DISCOVER some exciting club or group you really wanted to belong to?

It might have been that clique of cool kids when you were in Junior High. It might have been the debating society or the basketball team when you were in college. It might have been the elite businessmen’s group when you were struggling to get a foothold in life. And you thought to yourself, "How do I get in? What are the rules and requirements so I can keep them and belong? If I get in, what are the benefits?" Or maybe you knew what the benefits were, you just wanted to know how to get them!

As we learned last week, after John the Baptist was thrown into prison, Jesus returned to Galilee and began preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" We learned that the "kingdom of heaven" or the ‘kingdom of God" is how things will be when God Himself rules as the only Lord and King in the hearts of all people. The kingdom of heaven is a group really worth getting into! And in our passage from Matthew chapter 5, Jesus seems to be laying out the membership rules and benefits for anyone who wants to try and belong.

We know these chapters 5-7 as The Sermon on the Mount, and verses 3 to 12 of the fifth chapter as "the Beatitudes." "Beatitude" is Latin for "blessed." The word in the original Greek is "makarioi" , and it actually does not mean, "God blesses you if you’re like this"; that would need a different Greek word altogether. No, this word "makarioi" means "Boy, these people sure have a good deal in life! Boy, are they fortunate! You should congratulate them!" Or, as the Australians say, "Good on ya!"

"Good on ya if you’re poor in spirit!" says Jesus. Good on ya if you mourn, if you’re meek, if you’re merciful and all the rest! People should envy you! You’re in the club! You belong to the kingdom of God!

But there’s something very odd about these Beatitudes. Most of them don’t describe a way of life a normal human being would envy. Jesus' standards are totally upside-down compared to the standards of this fallen world.

Let’s look at how Jesus describes what it takes to belong to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." But the world favors the bold, the assertive, the aggressive. The world congratulates the person who declares he doesn’t need God to be a fulfilled, moral human being. But Jesus says "Good on ya!" to people who humbly yield to God, who bow before Him and accept that He knows better than they do what is best for them. He says "Good on ya!" to people who keep on trusting God even when people make fun of them for it, even when obeying God seems to put them behind in business and personal ambition. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven! And of course it is, for the poor in spirit have willingly accepted God as King!

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." The world understands mourning for lost hopes and lost expectations, lost money and lost loved ones. We sinful human beings may get rail against these things, but we accept that they happen. But Jesus is talking about a whole different kind of mourning. He says, "Good on ya, when the very idea of sin and death make you upset and unspeakably sad. Good on ya, when you realize that it’s the sin in yourself and every human being that makes the world the terrible place it can be. Good on ya, when you shed salt tears over the insult your sin presents to your Creator God. You’re to be congratulated, for you will be comforted with the comfort of God."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." The satisfied sinner despises the meek, for he thinks "meek" equals "weak." He’s wrong there, for to make something meek is to take something strong and wild and make it gentle and tame, without crushing its spirit. Think of a wild stallion, that’s been broken to the bridle and bit. "Good on ya," says Jesus, "when your human will has been tamed by the original Horse Whisperer, God. Good on ya, when God and His will are firmly in the saddle of your life. Good on ya, when God can lead you anywhere He wants you to go, and you trust Him to know what He’s doing, even if you don’t know where He’s leading. Good on ya," says Jesus, "when you’re like your forefather Abraham, who left his home and country and believed the promise of the Lord God that he and his descendants would inherit the land." Abraham's descendants thought that just referred to the land of Canaan. "But you," says Jesus, "you who are meek under the reins and the reign of God, you will inherit the whole earth!"

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." The world doesn’t think that’s anything to envy. Speak of righteousness among most human beings, and they’ll think you mean "self-righteousness." The nicer ones will think you mean social righteousness, being good to the poor and the outcast. But that’s not good enough if you want to belong to the kingdom of heaven. "Good on ya," Jesus says, "when more than anything you desire the bright, burning righteousness of God." God’s divine righteousness isn’t content with anything less than perfect holiness, love, and justice towards Himself or towards any creature. "Good on ya, if that’s what you really, really want," says Jesus, "because you certainly will be filled with it to the full."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." When I think of the world’s mercy, I think of the movie Schindler’s List, where the concentration camp commandant is in the habit of taking potshots at the Jewish prisoners as they cross the yard outside his office. I can’t recall who it is, if it’s his mistress or if it’s Schindler himself, but somebody tells him how much stronger and grander it would be for him to show mercy to the poor prisoners. And for a few moments he enjoys the feeling of himself as a merciful man. And then he goes back to shooting prisoners at random out his window, because he enjoys even more the power of being able to end lives whenever he wants. Either way, he feels like some kind of god. But Jesus says, "Good on ya if you’re merciful, because you recognize and condemn your own weakness and sin before you go condemning the sins of others. Good on ya, when you realize that you’re no better than any other human being, and so you treat others the way you’d want God to treat you. Good on ya, because you’ve put yourself in the position to receive the mercy of God!"

Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." The worldly man thinks his heart is basically good. He doesn’t realize that his heart is an idol factory, that it’s split and corrupted by all his desires and cravings and lusts. He doesn’t understand the commandment to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. He thinks he could stroll into God’s presence any time he wants, providing he could make his way to the throne room of heaven. And he probably thinks God wouldn’t be anything special once he saw Him in person. But the natural sinful human is fatally wrong. Almighty God is too pure to look on sin. God on high cannot-- yes, cannot--allow sin to continue in His unveiled presence. He puts up with our sin as long as we are here on earth, but when we stand before His throne, all that is not pure and singlehearted and devoted will be destroyed by the fire of His holiness. So Jesus says, "Good on ya if you’re pure in heart, because some day you will experience the greatest, most inexpressible joy that can come to a human being-- you will see the face of God and live." And, "Good on ya," says Jesus, "because if your heart is focussed on God on this earth, you will see Him working everywhere you lay your eyes. You’ll even see Him in things that are wrong and bad, because they’ll contrast with His goodness. You’ll understand how God is overcoming the evil of this world, and you will rejoice."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." In this world, peace means the absence of conflict. To be a peacemaker means to stop people fighting, whether that really solves the problem or not. The sinful person of this world imagines that God is at peace with us, and the only conflict is between individuals and groups and nations. But the fact is, the most horrible war this world has ever known is between all humanity and the Lord God of heaven. We’ve all been in rebellion against Him since the Garden of Eden, and all our human fights and conflicts come out of that great war. And in our sinfulness, we deserve for God to come at us with the whole arsenal of His wrath. We’re not just at war against God; He’s also at war against us.

But in the midst of this cosmic war, God Himself declares that He wants to make peace. Remember what the angel said when Jesus was born? "Peace on earth, good will towards men with whom God is pleased." God makes the first offer of peace, offered to us through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, offered for us on the Cross. So Jesus says, "Good on ya, if you strive to make peace between God and man by spreading the gospel of peace." He says, "Good on ya, when you bring human enemies into the peace of God. For once they have made peace with God, they can no longer be at war with one another. Good on ya, because my Father is the great Peacemaker, and if you’re a peacemaker like Him, that will show the family resemblance between you and God Himself. You’ll be proving you’re His sons."

And Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In this worldly life, we reap the bad reward for things we’re doing wrong. We suffer for things we think we’re doing right, but maybe we aren’t. Sometimes we put up with this and realize we’re getting what we deserve. But a lot of times we sinners kick and complain that we’re being persecuted, and whoever’s doing it to us has got to pay. But Jesus says, "Good on ya, when you’ve really got a hold on what God wants you to go and how God wants you to be, and people punish you and scorn you for it. Good on ya, because you’ve transferred your citizenship from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of heaven."

Well, this is all very well. But I look at myself, and I think, I will never, ever qualify for membership in the kingdom of heaven!

I’m not poor in spirit: I’m full of injured pride! I may mourn, but it’s over my own dead dreams and disappointments! I’m not meek: my will is a landfill piled high with unruly passions! I don’t hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness: I’m greedy for what is miiiiiinnnnnne! I’m not really merciful: it’s only cowardice that keeps me from giving certain people the sharp edge of my tongue! I’m not pure in heart: I make God share a very messy heart room with my idols and desires! I’m no peacemaker: I just don’t like to be bothered with conflict! And if I ever feel I’m being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, it’s only for an earthbound, temporary righteousness, not for the eternal heavenly righteousness of Christ my God.

And you know what? If you search your own heart with the lamp of God’s Word, you’ll find that you’re exactly the same. None of us, not one of us, deserves to enter the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes of Christ are not some quiz in a magazine, where we tick off items to see if we could qualify for some elite group or other. Not a single one of us can say we come anywhere near the standard Jesus sets in His sermon. In our natural selves, we have nothing to be congratulated for, nothing Jesus can say "Good on ya!" about. In our sinful natures, we have no hope of the kingdom of heaven.

How can we ever get in? Where is the key?

The key to the kingdom is located in verse 11 of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."

"Because of me," Jesus says of Himself. That's the secret! "Good on ya, when you are so identified with Me, Jesus of Nazareth, that the people of this world persecute you just like they persecute Me." Jesus Himself is the key to the kingdom, and He gives us an immediate pass wherever He goes.

Jesus is the One who is truly poor in spirit, who humbly trusts in the plan of God. Jesus is the only one who can truly mourn over the sin of this world, and at the cross, He felt all the burden and horror of that sin as if it were all His own. Jesus is the One who has suffered His great power to be tamed and meekened: as He said before going to the Cross, "Not my will, Father, but yours be done." Jesus alone genuinely hungers and thirsts for divine righteousness, for He alone knows what a gloriously satisfying thing it is. Jesus alone is truly merciful, for He shared our human condition that we might be granted the mercy of God. Jesus is the one true peacemaker, the great mediator between God and Man, making peace through the blood of His cross. Jesus Christ is the only Man who can truly claim to have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake alone, because Jesus is the only Man who had no sins of His own to answer for.

But Jesus Christ does not remain alone. He came to earth to bring us into His kingdom with Him. He came to bring us in not as terrified subjects or as slaves, but as His brothers and sisters, as joyful sons and daughters of God. Trust Him to do everything for you that you can never do for yourself. Rely on Him to bring you through all the trials and temptations of the Christian life and install you at last in the riches and joys of His kingdom. Be grateful that you can share His trials; in fact, rejoice and be glad, for you join your brothers the prophets and your sisters the martyrs and all who have suffered for His sake. It is Jesus’ good pleasure to give you the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Receive His marvellous gift, with His congratulations. Good on ya!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Entrusted with God's Work

Texts: Titus 1:6-9; Matthew 4:12-23

THIS MORNING RIGHT AFTER THE sermon, we’ll be doing something Presbyterian churches all over the country are doing this month: We’ll be installing church officers. It’s something we even take for granted: it’s January, it must be ordination and installation time. I don’t know how it is with you, but in some churches, it’s just a matter of business, something to get over with so we can get on to the important stuff like the Scriptures, the hymns, and the prayers.

The fact is, though, that installing church officers is part of the foundation of the Christian Church. It’s part of a process instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. So we should never take it for granted or think it’s not important.

In fact, installing church leaders fits right in with this season of Epiphany. You’ll remember that "epiphany" means to "reveal [something or someone] to [someone]." Epiphany is the time when we celebrate how God revealed His Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to the world. Every year at this time, the lectionary includes a reading on Jesus calling the disciples to come and follow Him. Jesus reveals Himself to the world in the calling of His disciples-- and He continues to reveal Himself to the world through church officers and church helpers of every kind in every denomination.

Our passage from St. Matthew tells us that after Herod put John the Baptist in prison, Jesus left Judea-- the region around Jerusalem-- and returned up north to Galilee. And He began to preach: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!"

But what did Jesus mean by "the kingdom of heaven"?

The "kingdom of heaven" is the same as the "kingdom of God" spoken of by St. Mark and St. Luke. Either way, it describes the way things are when God Himself rules and reigns personally-- intimately-- in the hearts of women and men. It’s got nothing to do with geography and borders, it’s got very little to do with forms of government. The kingdom of heaven is God judging the injustice, unrighteousness, and shabbiness of human hearts on earth and changing them to reflect the obedience, goodness, and splendor of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God’s doing, not ours. The coming of the kingdom of heaven requires us all to repent, to turn around and stop doing things our way and start doing them God’s way. The kingdom of heaven is a way of life that God brings, and He brings it by the God-Man Jesus Christ.

But God in His mercy ordained that His Son would have other men, and yes, women, to help Him bring in the reality of His kingdom. And so we see Jesus one day, walking beside the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, the fishermen Simon and Andrew, casting their net into the sea. "Come, follow me!" Jesus cries out to them, "and I will make you fishers of men."

Shortly after that, Jesus calls the brothers James and John in the same way: "Come with me, and I’ll make you fishers of men!"

We say Jesus was calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to be His disciples. And so He was. "Disciple" means a student, or learner, and these men and their colleagues would learn a whole new world of things from Jesus in the next three years. But He didn’t call them just to learn. He was recruiting them to be His agents in the great change His life and death and resurrection would bring into this fallen world. Jesus was calling them to help Him bring people into the kingdom of heaven. He was binding them to Himself to entrust them with the great work of God.

I used to think that only Jesus had disciples. But no, we read in the Gospels and in history that John the Baptist had disciples and the Pharisees had disciples and all kinds of rabbis wandering up and down the length and breadth of Judea and Galilee had disciples. And the usual way it worked was-- Well, say a catalog for a local community college has just come in the mail. You look over the adult education classes, and you see something you’re interested in. Pottery-making or 19th century Victorian novels or how to use the Internet. And you ask around, and you find out that the teacher of that course is really good. So you sign up and for a few weeks you go to the community college and you benefit from the new knowledge and information.

That’s how it usually was with rabbis and disciples in Jesus’ time. A man might want to learn more about the Scriptures, so in the slow periods in the fishing business or maybe in the time between harvest and spring planting, he’d go join up with some famous rabbi and learn from him for a few weeks or months. Then when it was the busy time again with the fishing or the farm, he’d tell his rabbi thanks and goodbye and go back to his ordinary work. That’s how it was: the disciple chose the rabbi, and the disciple was with the rabbi only part time. What’s more, the typical disciple was there to learn from the rabbi, but he didn’t intend to leave everything behind and start a new profession. He just wanted to improve his knowledge of the Scriptures, maybe deepen his relationship with the Lord his God.

So you can appreciate how radical it was for Jesus to show up by the Sea of Galilee, right in the middle of fishing season, and command Peter and Andrew, and James and John to leave their professions, their families, everything they had and come follow Him. It’d be like that community college teacher knocking at your door and saying, "I’ve come to teach you astronomy, and I’m not taking No for an answer!"

And what if that community college teacher said, "I intend to make you an astronomer like me, and you’ll never go back to farming or business or your retirement hobbies again!"?

That teacher would have to be pretty compelling to get away with that-- compelling like our Lord Jesus. We read in the gospel of John that Peter and Andrew and James and John had met Jesus before: John the Baptist introduced them to Him after He was baptised in the Jordan River. And they returned to Galilee with Jesus. But they then they went back to their fishing-- until this day. Matthew says that when Jesus summoned them, they immediately dropped their nets and followed Him.

Did they realize what they were getting into? They'd soon discover Jesus wasn't like the other rabbis; He wasn't even like John the Baptist. Jesus was calling them to become His disciples not for a few weeks, not for a season, but forever. Being a follower of Jesus meant becoming a fisher of men to bring people into the kingdom of heaven. Being His disciple-- that wouldn’t be just a form of spiritual enrichment: from now on, that would become who they were.

Was this call just for those fisherman a long time ago? No, Jesus lays that eternal call on every last one of us who bears the name of Christian. But He particularly lays it on those who are called by the voice of His Church to be ordained Church officers.

As a Christian, but especially as an elder or a deacon, it is Jesus who calls you; He calls you for His purpose; and He calls you for life. Even while you labor at your weekday job, even while you enjoy your retirement, Christ has made you a servant of God, an apostle called to bring people into the kingdom of heaven.

In St. Paul’s letter to Titus, we see what an elder or overseer is supposed to be like. Whatever we do, we mustn’t read this as a list of human qualifications, as if it said, "If a man has his household in order, if he’s good-tempered and honest, and godly, righteous, and sober, he’s got the right stuff-- make him a deacon or an elder." Or, "If a woman is hospitable, upright, holy, and disciplined, make her a deacon or elder." That makes it sound as if church office is something someone deserves, like it’s a reward for good behaviour. No, what Paul is saying is, "Pastor Titus, look for people who have evidence of Jesus Christ already working in their lives. Look for people who are already following our Lord in their behaviour and conduct, whether it’s at home or in the community, in public or in private." Jesus could look straight into people’s hearts and know what they were when He called them. We have to go by the evidence of the Holy Spirit working in a person’s life when we the Church call them to ordination.

Those signs of the Holy Spirit are essential, because being an elder or a deacon is not all about budgets and plans and activities. It’s about making the local church a living model of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

We often forget that as church officers. I’ve sat in a lot of Session and Deacons’ meetings when you’d think our only job was to keep track of money. And I’ve sat on a lot of Nominating Committees where somebody will say, "Oh, let’s get ole Whatsisname to be an elder. He never shows up to church, but he’s good at fixing roofs. He can go on the building committee!"

Money is important in church life, and so are buildings and activities and plans. But they aren’t the goal Jesus has in mind when He calls you by the Church to be an elder or deacon. As St. Paul writes to Titus, elders and overseers of the church are entrusted with God’s work. And what is God’s work? God’s work is exhibiting His Son Jesus Christ to the world as the one and only way for human beings to escape the just punishment for their sins and to enter into the peace that comes though Christ alone. God’s work is instituting His kingship here on earth, and making sure everyone knows that He is King. God’s work is defeating the power of Satan in people’s lives and bringing them out of bondage to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God.

So you, deacons and elders, you are responsible for making sure the people of this congregation are taught and discipled with the good news of the kingdom of heaven. You are ordained to equip the people of this church to take that good news into the wider world, by word of mouth and by deeds of love and mercy. You officers have been commissioned through the Holy Spirit to encourage others with the trustworthy message of Christ crucified for our sins and risen again for our new life. You have been set apart to defend that gospel and to give a gracious but confident answer to anyone who tries to deny it.

Most of all, you are called by Christ to display Christ in all you are and say and do.

Scary, isn’t it? It’s a tall order. The best of us find it hard to be blameless. Some of you may have experienced the tragedy of a divorce. Everyone knows what it’s like to have children who sometimes refuse to obey. We’re all tempted at times to be over-bearing and quick-tempered. We may not be greedy for dishonest gain, but there may have been times when we almost wished we could get away with something not quite honest. We’re not always fondest of what is good or all that upright, holy, and disciplined. If we have to have a lock on all those virtues to be called and ordained church officers, we may as well all resign!

But that would be forgetting Who it is that calls you. It’s Jesus who calls you. It’s Jesus who puts His Spirit upon you. It’s Jesus who forgives you your weaknesses and enables you to stand approved in His presence. It’s Jesus who entrusts you with the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and it’s Jesus who brings in that kingdom, sealed and guaranteed with His own blood.

When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, you don’t choose Him, He chooses you. When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, it isn’t just a segment of your life, it’s a sign and symbol of who you are in Him. When Jesus calls you to be a leader in His church, it’s not just for the time you’re actively sitting on Session or on the Board of Deacons, it’s for the rest of your life.

And you know, that goes for all of us who are called by Christ’s name, whether you are ordained or not, whether you have a special church job or not. Our Lord Jesus Christ has extended to us the benefits of His cross to all of you, to set you apart and make precious to Him. Jesus Christ has chosen you all to be His disciples; you have not chosen Him. He calls you all to forsake the evil and ambitions of this world and to live for Him instead. And for all of you, whatever your role in the church may be, His claim on you is forever.

So I charge you, all members of this congregation: Serve your neighbor in His name. Be His faithful disciples, learning more and more of Him and from Him. For the more you learn of Jesus Christ, the more you will love Him and the more you can show unbelievers what the kingdom of heaven is like in this world.

And you, deacons and elders, you have been ordained and installed to help this congregation heading always towards that goal. And so I charge you, by the new covenant made in His blood, keep faith with Jesus who called you. Hold firmly to the trustworthy message of new life in Christ as it has been handed down to you by faithful apostles and teachers. Follow your Master Jesus Christ in your ministry, teaching the good news of the kingdom and ministering to the sick and hurting and lost of this church and in the world.

And most of all, I charge you to carry out your calling in the power of Jesus Christ and not in your own. You have been entrusted with God’s work. Remember always, it is God’s work. He is the King of the kingdom, and He-- and it-- can never fail.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Voice of the Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE to hear the voice of the Lord?

I mean, actually physically hear the voice of God?

How would we feel? Thrilled? Privileged? Would we be pleased with ourselves because, hey, the Lord God Almighty is speaking to me!

Would hearing the voice of God with our ears be a comforting and comfortable thing? Would it assure us that we are loved and cared for by Him?

Or, rather would it not make us cower down in awestruck fear, overwhelmed by God’s glory? Would it not convict us of our puniness and our sin?

That’s how it was with the Children of Israel when they heard the voice of the Lord at Mount Sinai, after Moses had brought them out of Egypt. The voice of the Lord in their ears was too much for them! They begged Moses to ask the Lord not to speak to them audibly any more. "You talk to the Lord, Moses," they cried. "We can’t bear it!"

The psalm used in our Call to Worship, Psalm 29, is about the awe-inducing effect of the almighty voice of the Lord. And even here, it’s not the direct voice of God, it’s the voice of God as He expresses Himself through wind and thunder, through tempest and earthquake. It’s a wonderful thing to experience from a safe distance, but you wouldn’t want the full brunt of it bearing down on you.

When I was in college in Kansas, during wild thunderstorms people in my dorm would go out on the front porch and cheer God. A really bright flash of lightning would streak down, and be followed by a stupendous clap of thunder, and we’d yell, "Yeaaa, God!!"

I don’t know how many of us were sincerely giving praise and who was just being flippant. But I’d wager that if that lightning had hit us, or if that roaring wind had collapsed that concrete porch roof on our heads, we wouldn’t be going, "Yeaaa, God!" anymore. We’d be too overwhelmed to say anything at all.

And that’s what it’s like when it’s merely the voice of God speaking through Nature! How much more awesome, how much more unbearable would be the voice of God hitting our ears in its unshielded self!

We imagine it would be wonderful to hear the direct, unmediated voice of Almighty God, because we forget how utterly high and majestic He is compared to us.

It’s not just that we are created beings and He is the everlasting Godhead who dwells in inexpressible light and glory. Adam was a created being, and he communed with the Lord God in the garden of Eden as friend to friend.

No, the thing that would make the unshielded, audible voice of God unbearable to us is the fact that we are rebellious and sinful created beings. The unmediated voice of the Lord would remind us painfully of that fact, as it reminded the Israelites in the desert. It would remind us that we have broken His law and betrayed His trust. The naked voice of God speaks judgement on all our little schemes for getting in good with Him and climbing up to heaven on our little four-foot step-ladders. Actually hearing the voice of almighty God would not be a pleasant thing. It would be a terrifying and devastating thing indeed.

But our Lord God does love us, in spite of our sins. He cares for us and wants to reconcile us to Himself. So from of old He spoke to certain chosen individuals, to patriarchs like Abraham and poets like David and prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. I would dearly love to know what that was like, whether they heard the Lord’s voice with their ears, or in visions, or only in their hearts. However it was, He made them able to bear it, so they could bring His message of repentance and love to His people.

But somehow, His people, most of them anyway, were deaf to what the prophets had to say. Their life, their hope, their entire purpose for being was bound up in the Word of God, in what the Almighty Lord spoke to them. But when He spoke to them by the prophets, His people wouldn’t listen, and when He spoke to them directly, they couldn’t listen.

But praise His name! His prophets kept on listening, and we have the record of what some of them heard. And so in the 42nd chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, we read what the Lord said about the Servant of His who is to come.

This Servant, says the Lord, will carry the Lord God’s message of justice to the nations. He will bring the peoples of the world into the Lord’s covenant. His service-- or, we could say, His ministry (for the word "ministry" means "service") will mean light to the Gentiles, sight to the blind, and freedom for the captives-- captives of oppression and tyranny or captives to sin. All these gracious things the Servant will do.

Now here is a sad thing: Our Jewish cousins generally interpret this passage to refer to the Jewish nation. The work of this Servant of the Lord, the rabbis say, has to do with the good influence the Jews will have in the world. And it’s true, the Jews have had great and glorious influence in this present world, in all sorts of ways.

The trouble is, this Isaiah passage can’t possibly be talking about a mere mortal, or any group of mere mortals. The Lord says the Servant will "bring forth justice" and "establish justice on the earth." How can any man, however noble, do that? It’s hard enough for even the best of judges to judge with total righteousness in even individual cases. Only God Himself can establish justice over the entire earth!

And the Lord says the islands-- that is, the remotest parts of the world-- will put their hope in the Servant’s law. Is this some system of laws generated by a man or a nation? No, for even the best system of human laws, even the U.S. Constitution itself, for example, falls far short of the perfect law of God! But the law of the Servant isn’t the law of any man, it’s the law of God. If the Servant had made it up for Himself, the Lord would not praise Him for establishing it. But He not only commends Him for it, He declares that the Servant will do this in the power of God’s Spirit.

And, says the Lord, His Servant will be a covenant for the people. The passage doesn’t say, "You will administer or draw up or deliver My covenant for the people"; no, the Servant will be that covenant Himself. All the good promises and protections of belonging to God and being His people will be wrapped up in the Servant. All the pledges of God will be Yes and Amen in Him. No mere man can claim that!

Only God can do all these things. Only God can claim this glory. The Lord Himself says it in verse 8:

I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.

No sinful, fallen human being could do all these things and gain all this praise. Only the Lord God Almighty is capable of carrying out these tasks. Only the Lord God Almighty Himself can be His own perfect Servant, the Chosen One, the One on whom His Spirit rests.

But if the Servant is somehow God Himself, don’t we still have the same problem? How can we hear this message of justice and hope and liberation? For as Psalm 29 says, the voice of the Lord shakes the desert, the voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare!

This is how we will hear it: We will hear it softly and tenderly; earnestly, pleadingly. In verse 2 of our Isaiah passage the Lord says,

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.

The Servant of the Lord would be the Lord Himself coming to us with the voice of love and forgiveness. He would not come as a conqueror, nor as an angry overlord marching into a rebellious city to claim his rights. No,

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

He would support and encourage what is good; He would have mercy on our weakness. He would speak so we could hear Him; His voice would be pitched so we could respond.

It would be wonderful to hear the voice of the Lord like that. But it seems too much to hope for.

But it isn’t too much to hope for. The Servant of the Lord, the hope of the nations who was and is God Himself, has come to us, and His name is Jesus the Christ. Our passage in Isaiah introduces Him and His ministry seven hundred years before He would appear, and our gospel reading from St. Matthew introduces Him as He begins His ministry on this earth.

As Jesus our Lord comes to be baptised, we see Him coming in humility. We see Him entering into our weakness and sympathizing with our frailty. John the Baptist says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" He’s right, humanly-speaking, to say this. For John’s baptism was a sign of repentance from sin, and our Lord Jesus had no sin to repent. But Jesus is the Servant of the Lord who has been called in righteousness, and He submits to baptism to fulfill all righteousness. His very willingness to share the sign and symbol of our sin-- though He never sinned Himself-- declares His good news that we can share the reality of righteousness in Him. The baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of new life and repentance that don’t depend on our efforts, but on the liberating, eye-opening, covenant-making mercy of God.

Jesus was baptised for us in the Jordan River, and as He came up out of the water, heaven was opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on Him. As the prophet Isaiah said,

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him.

And a voice from heaven is heard: it is the voice of the Lord God Almighty, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased." The unshielded voice of God was heard by the ears of man: heard by John the Baptist and his disciples standing around, and they were not overwhelmed, they were not judged, they were not destroyed!

How could this be?

It could happen because here at the Jordan the voice of God gave testimony to Him who was and is and will always be the voice of God on earth. From now on and forever more, the Man Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is the Voice of God speaking to humankind. From now on, what God does for mankind He will do through Christ. The voice of God at the Jordan River testifies that this one Man, this Galilean, is the Servant of the Lord who will not make a clamour in the streets, who will not rant and scream to lord it over others, but who will be the Son of Man, preaching the Good News of new life in Him, the humble King of Glory who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

If you want to hear the direct voice of God, look to Jesus Christ. Look to His obedient life. Put your utter trust in His sacrificial death. Hear Him call you to share in His glorious resurrection.

Accept no counterfeits. Whatever voice does not glorify Jesus Christ, whatever voice is an enemy to His cross, whatever voice would tell you there are other ways to find divine justice, liberation, and light--that is not the voice of God. Jesus Christ is how God speaks to us. Jesus is the Voice of God to us, recorded in His holy Word, testified to in our hearts by His Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the voice of God to us now, just as much as He was to those who heard Him preach and teach in Galilee and Judea long ago. In fact, He is more so, for now He has ascended into heaven and can minister to His people in every time and place. For as the prophet says,

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his law the islands will put their hope.

This is our Saviour. This is our Lord. He calls you to trust in Him, to trust what He did for you at His cross where the voice of His blood spoke forgiveness and covering for your sins. He calls you to let Him open your eyes, that you might see your sins for the filthy things they are-- and then see them taken away, totally removed, by the power of His sacrifice. His voice is calling you out of the prison of your prejudices, your limitations, your ungodly fears and your agonizing memories. He speaks to free you from the deep dungeon of your brokenness, to bring you into the wideness of His marvellous wholeness and light.

Will you hear His voice today? You may say, I was baptised as an infant; I’ve known Jesus all my life. If that is your thought, yes, praise Him for that grace. But we who have known Jesus all our lives need to hear the voice of the Lord just as much as the one who has never heard or responded to it at all. We need to hear His Word daily to support us, to uphold us, to help us persevere until the day we are made perfect in Him. We need the testimony of His Spirit confirming His truth to us. With open ears and willing hearts, let us hear and follow our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Voice of the Lord: He calls us to repentance, He gives us hope, and He invites us to share His justice, His liberation, and His light.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

God's Inclusive Exclusivity

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

TODAY IS THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY. It's the day when the Church celebrates God's revelation of Himself to the Gentiles in the Infant Christ. "Epiphany" means "to show [something] to [someone]," and that's just what the Lord God does when He leads the Wise Men by the star to come and worship Jesus, the newborn King.

But this holy day could also be called "The Feast of Inclusive Exclusivity."

We all know what being inclusive means. When we're talking about people, it means letting everyone into your group and not keeping anyone out. Inclusiveness is a primary virtue in our culture. Everyone wants to be considered inclusive. If you're not inclusive, you must be intolerant or some sort of bigot or something else equally unacceptable.

On the other hand, it's not acceptable at all to be ex-clusive. If you're exclusive, you put up barriers. You let some people in and keep others out. Our culture says it's wrong to be exclusive. Who are we to judge? Better to be caught robbing a bank than to be openly exclusive.

But on this Feast of the Epiphany, God reveals His inclusive exclusivity. We see Him letting people in on the one hand, and keeping them out, on the other.

What is God up to? Is He somehow going against His own rules by being inclusively exclusive? Or is He doing something that should cause us to fall down in worship and adoration? Is He teaching us a lesson we should follow as we do His will in this fallen world?

Our readings from Isaiah and St. Matthew certainly show the inclusive nature of the Lord God of Israel. And I name Him "the Lord God of Israel" on purpose. The Lord called the children of Israel from father Abraham on and made a special covenant with them that they would be His special people and they would be their special God. And unlike what we hear so much of these days, no, not every nation was special to the Lord. Just Israel. Just the Jews.

But Isaiah looks forward to the day when foreign kings and alien nations would come and share in Israel's covenant promises. They would enjoy the peace and prosperity and happiness that up to then God had pledged to Israel alone. All through his prophecy, Isaiah speaks of how foreigners who had no right to God's divine favour would one day be joined to Israel and receive the blessings belonging to the Lord's chosen people.

Then hundreds of years later, St. Matthew is writing his Gospel, and he considers how the Magi came from the East to worship Jesus, the little King of the Jews. And Matthew recognises that as the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

It's pretty certain that the Magi weren't exactly kings, but they would have been on the upper levels of the hierarchy at the royal court in Chaldea. They would have been royal advisors, like the members of the president's cabinet, and we can assume they carried royal authority and sanction with them. So they indeed represent the Gentile "kings" Isaiah prophesied would come to the brightness of Israel's dawn.

In fact, the Magi represent all the Gentiles that the Lord God of Israel would call and lead to come and be included in the blessings and benefits of glorified Israel. The blessings weren't just for the Jews anymore. As Isaiah says, "Your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm."

This in one sense is talking about the return of children of exiled Jews, born in foreign lands and coming to back to the Promised Land, to Jerusalem for the first time. But the Holy Spirit means more than that. These children, these sons and daughters are those born Gentiles that the Lord on this great day will bring to be included in His glorified Israel. And as the prophet says, every true Israelite will be overcome with joy to see everyone who will be included, everyone who will come join him in the praise of the Lord.

So God is very, very inclusive. The Wise Men themselves, they were from Chaldea, or Babylon. Today, we call that country Iraq. Babylon was a byword for all that was evil, all that was to be rejected by a good Jew. But the Lord God has led even high officials of that hated nation to come and humble themselves at the cradle of the King of the Jews. If Babylonian nobility could come and bow down, if their worship was accepted, how could any Gentile of any nation ever be excluded at all?

They can't. We can't. People of every tribe and tongue and nation are called to come and receive the blessings God promised to His people Israel.

For as we saw last week, those blessings are made possible and perfect in Jesus Christ, who is the New Israel. He's the one who keeps the law in ethnic Israel's behalf. He's the one who takes the punishment for their rebellion and sin. Jesus Christ is the One who rose again to usher in a new life in God for His people Israel. He's the one who is the true Heir of all the promises God ever made about light and life and glory and prosperity and blessing. He's the new and true Israel. And Jesus is the one who incorporates all of us, Jew and Gentile, into Himself, and so He includes us in the inheritance that is coming to Him.

But we've put our finger right on it. That's God's ex-clusivity right there. It's Jesus Christ. If you want to be included in God's blessings, if you want to be a member of God's special people, you have to get in exclusively through Jesus Christ.

In Isaiah, the Holy Spirit speaks of a glorious dawn that will relieve and lift the spiritual darkness covering all the world. He says nations and kings will come to that light. But that's the point: They have to come, because the dawn comes out of Israel alone. And the source and Sun of that dawn is Jesus Christ, Israel's Messiah.

If God were being "inclusive" as the modern world counts inclusiveness, the new light, the great new morning would have been given to every pagan nation right where they were. They would have had no need to seek and worship the incarnate Son of the God of Israel.

But that's not how God chose to do things. He chose to have the high officials of Chaldea, the wisest of the wise, come all that way to bow down before the Infant King of the Jews! He led them by the miraculous star to come all that way, and the Magi were overjoyed to do it, too.

For they were wiser men than a lot of people who consider themselves really smart today. They knew that if they wanted to be included in God's blessings to Israel, they had to come worship before Israel's true King, because that's where the blessings exclusively were.

You hear a lot of silliness these days about how "religion" should be inclusive. Some people will say, "The heart of Christianity is its inclusiveness. If a church excludes anybody for any reason, it's not really a Christian church." Other people will say, "Christianity is a bad religion. It excludes people who don't believe in Jesus."

Both those statements totally miss the point of God's glorious inclusive exclusivity. Yes, the Lord calls everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, to share in the light and riches of Christ, the New Israel. He is inclusive. But that light and those riches are found exclusively in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the New Israel, the King of the Jews. You have to put your trust in Him and Him alone.

You have to, because there is no other source of blessing and fellowship and eternal life with Almighty God. There is no other way to please God and be acceptable to Him, other than trust in Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. There is no other route to heaven, besides the one Way, Truth, and Life who is God's only-begotten Son.

Because that is Who He is-- the Son of God. If you want blessings from God, if you want eternal life and gracious favor and peace with God and man, if you want your face to be divinely radiant and your heart to throb with holy joy, you have to get all those good things from God Himself. That's where they are. Jesus Christ is the one and only exclusive source of God's light and love and blessing, because He of all human beings is God in human flesh, and He alone. You try to go somewhere else to get them, if you try to make up a way to get all these divine things for yourself, you're wasting your time. And you're a fool, because they won't be there. The blessings of God towards man are found exclusively in God's Son, the Man Jesus Christ.

The Wise Men knew this and were willing to travel mile upon desert mile in order to be included in God's exclusive source of blessing. They didn't turn up their noses at the Lord's exclusivity. No, when they saw the star that told them they were getting close to the Child Jesus, they were overjoyed!

Are we as wise as they? Are we willing to receive our heavenly Father's inclusive gifts in His exclusive way? We don't have to travel hundreds of miles to get them. God's blessings in Christ are as close to us as our church fellowship, as close to us as the Bible on our nightstands, as close as the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, as close to us as this Holy Supper spread for our spiritual nourishment.

Come to this Table exclusively through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and He will include you in His blessings of grace and salvation. He died to give them to you. See and touch and taste the bread and the wine. Be refreshed by the sacrifice of His body broken for you, and His blood shed that you might share in His heavenly joy with all the saints of every time and place. Come, be included in the Lord's communion, and know the divine salvation and joy and light that come exclusively and gloriously through Jesus Christ, our Saviour, King, and only Lord. Amen.