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Isaiah 2:1-5 Advent One: An Interpretation

Yesterday (Sunday, December 1, 2019) began the Advent journey — IMG_1096the four Sundays
of reflections and readings which lead up to Christmas Day. The key Old Testament reading from the lectionary was Isaiah 2:1-5, which we read in our worship service.


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

My favorite part of the opening is that Isaiah “saw” the word of the Lord. It is probably an idiom for a vision — the vision he saw about the mountain. In my mind, though, I wonder if it was not some written document he saw. Did he spy God’s book with his eyes and then record in human language what he had seen? That is probably not the way it happened, but in my imagination it is, and what Isaiah gives us is insight into God’s secret plans about the future.

It is a secret The Lord freely shares, though. It is an open secret.

Two other fascinating tidbits here before we move on. Seeing the word of God is the same thing the first century apostle saw. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. They beheld the living word with their own eyes.

The second fascination here is the challenge this verse presents to our vision; that we might see the word or God all around us. Natural revelation comes to mind here with seeing God in the stars and moon as well as waterfalls. We should also learn, train, and work at seeing the word of God in children on the playground, lovers holding hands, and the truth being spoken to power. Can you see the word of God, the words of God, right in front of you?

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,

It is not that there aren’t other mountains, it is that the mountain of the house of the Lord is higher than the rest. Just like there are other gods, there are to be no other gods above the One True God.

I don’t know if this is literal. Part of me wants it to be literal, describing a future when the Temple Mount literally grows taller and higher than Everest as a beacon over the whole earth. But I’m not certain that is what this is teaching. Highest here should be taken as meaning the most important or significant. The Temple Mount will be more important than Mt. Olympus, the seven hills of Rome, or the artificial ziggurats which dot the ancient landscape. It is taller than the artificial mountains of skyscrapers and satellites. It is higher than mankind can reach.

The Bible here doesn’t say people will flow (flow uphill, I might add) but that nations will. Nations — not only Hebrews — but nations. The movement of nations echoes throughout the biblical witness until the cacophony cannot be drowned out any longer and the crescendo comes in Revelation when every, all the tribes and peoples, and every language cries out before the throne of God and the Lamb.

and 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 the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Is this wishful thinking? Maybe. Maybe Isaiah is just as cynical about his world as I am sometimes about mine. The Nations do not want to know the ways of God. The Nations want the ways of power, strength, greed, and exploitation. The Nations pollute the air and water without regard for our children or the animals. The Nations destroy families by trafficking our young to war and slavery. The Nations value control and manipulation in order to protect the privileged. The Nations use religion as a mask for abominations.

But Isaiah says it will happen. Some day in the future The Nations will be changed; their heart will turn. God’s law will move among them — the law of grace and of healing — and bring repentance to the earth.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, either shall they learn war anymore.

There can be no peace without justice. There can be no forgiveness without the struggle and pain to name the wrongdoing. The Lord will usher in a peaceful time without war or conflict by first judging the nations and then acting as arbiter of the great disputes. Eventually, finally, Palestinians and Israelis will have their dispute settled, as will the Muslims and Jews. Likewise, peace will come when the Lord arbitrates the grievance of Native Americans and those of African descent against Anglo-Europeans. Finally the Korean Penninsula will be at peace when God mediates. Likewise Sunni and Shia, Indian and Pakistani, as well as the Tutsi and Hutus will have all aggression and violence purged in their relationships. The wrongs of history will be settled. The future will no longer be on the horizon. It will be upon us.

And war will be no more. Never again will another dime be spent on nuclear weapons or bullets; it will instead be spent on feeding the children and building homes.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Amen. Let us walk in the light, as he is in the light. Marana Tha.

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Advent 2, Year C–Luke 3:1-6

For use in my own preaching, I moved this Advent reading to week 3 (December 16) as the sermon text. The reason? I started working on Luke 3:1-6 for week two, but it blew up to about four thousand words (which is about one thousand too many) so I cut it in half, changed the form on the first part, and made it two different sermons. The point of my little opening aside here? These lines here at the beginning of Luke 3 can take you to many different places, and most of them are good.

The historian inside Luke screams out as he gives us a backdrop of the time period we are in and the location where things are happening.

. . . the reign of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate . . . Herod . . . Philip tetrarch of the region . . . Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . in the wilderness .. the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance fo the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:1-2

We know when we are, which is important because Chapter 2 ended with the boy Jesus in the temple. Luke is reminding us we’ve shifted to the future when Jesus is no longer a child, and the powers in this world are political and religious. In contrast to these powers, John The Baptist is preaching something difference. He is preaching forgiveness and repentance. So Luke, the ever careful writer gives us who, what, when, and where.

The part of this text which most people will focus on, and rightly so, is the quotation from Isaiah’s vision of the future. This is the why.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Luke 3:4-6

I’m preaching this passage in ten days, so I will not show all my cards. Let me just point out three things about this amazing text.

  1. Luke doesn’t say John is saying this. In our imagination we often put these words in The Baptist’s mouth. That is a mistake. This is Luke’s interpretation of who John is and what prophetic function he fulfills. It is often other people, and later generations, who are benefited and understand our work the most.
  2. It is hard to know what is meant in the opening of the prophesy. A clear reading is nearly impossible, and in every language it seems to be muddled. I have never been fully satisfied. It could be, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” as if a person is crying out that the highway should be built in the wilderness. Or, is it “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” where the wilderness is more about where the person is shouting and not necessarily where the road is to be built. Either way, though, the Lord is coming and you better be ready.
  3. Luke, and the other gospel writers as well, see this passage then as a connected to the message of repentance and forgiveness, and continues, in the rest of Luke 3, to wed these ideas with ethical behavior, fairness, and integrity. It is about this time we should remind ourselves this was a huge part of the prophetic message in the Old Testament, including Isaiah. Belief and faith are important, but if they are disconnected from ethical behaviors all that remains is superstition.

 

 

 

The Old Testament and Resurrection

Yesterday in the Easter Sermon I spent a good bit of time talking about five key verses of scripture from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that point to a view of life after death. We would rightly call these resurrection verses in light of Jesus and the empty tomb, as well as the explicit teaching of the New Testament, particularly landmark passages like 1 Corinthians 15.

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Me preaching on Easter, or am I playing Rock, Paper, Scissors?

 

The compilation of these five verses comes from Millard Erickson’s epic theology book Christian Theology, on page 1201 of my copy. It is not in his section on the work of Jesus, but rather on “Last Things” which I find fascinating. So, if you missed them yesterday because you were dazzled by my homiletics (or, like most of the 7 or 8 billion people in the world, weren’t there) here they are.

  1. Isaiah 26:19, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.  You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy.  Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”
  2. Daniel 12:2  “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
  3. Psalm 49:15, “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself”
  4. Psalm 17:15 “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”

Erickson doesn’t list Job’s ancient words. I find this to be a glaring omission, for they are the most New Testament sounding of them all and are my personal favorite. As I said, it is part of my funeral liturgy, and for good reason.

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-26).

I’d like to point out as well that Erickson does in his work what theologians always do–offer serious caution about reading too much into these words. I know where he is coming from, but I think his caution is too strong. The Bible teaches us about Jesus, and though the language is imprecise in the Hebrew texts, it is still applicable and I believe appropriate at Easter.

DESERT ISLAND DEVOTION

A cruel, mean-spirited thought entered my mind this morning.  It was so heartbreaking I just had to share it with you.

What if, in some bizarro Rod Serling moment, you were marooned on an island.  You had plenty of supplies to live out your life to a long old age, so food, water, and shelter were not problem.  The problem was in this nightmarish world you could only choose five of the books in the Bible to have with you.  It is a similar conundrum to the ubiquitous “Psalm 126” where you’re stranded and can only have five albums of music.

Told another way–perhaps you’re stuck in a bleak story, something like Fahrenheit 451, and you can only have five books of the Bible because that is all you can safely hide from the book police.

Which five would you take?  It is heartbreaking because the whole Bible is precious, a “perfect treasure” that is linked to my very being.  So which ones?  If I had to make such a choice, here is what they would be.

  1. Psalms.  Without a doubt, if I’m on a desert island, I’m gonna need Psalms–all 150 of them.
  2. Isaiah.  It was close between Jeremiah and Isaiah, but in the end I decided the poetics of Isaiah would be helpful in my exile.
  3. Exodus.  I can’t have both Genesis and Exodus, and while Genesis is a great book, I think I’d take Exodus because it contains the great deliverance story of Israel, the decalogue, and a lot of other spiritual data.
  4. LukeJohnLuke.  John.  See, this one is tough.  Of the synoptics, Luke is the easy choice, but choosing between Luke and John, now that is hard.  I need a gospel on this island, and in the end I chose John simply because of the devotional, meditative quality of the material.
  5. Romans.  Of course it is Romans.  Romans contains such dense theological material and it is littered with many scripture quotations (which gives me insight into other books I couldn’t choose) all of which allows me plenty to chew on on this imaginary island.

I sure hope I never have to make this choice.  I would be interested to know what choices you would make?