Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.

I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.

Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?

I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads.  Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.

And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world.  Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?

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.” (Is 35:3-4)

Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.

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. (Is 35:8-9)

Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii

Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi

This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii

It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34,  a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”  

iii Childs 256“The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.  

iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”

v Childs 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night 

Even From Dust

Ash Wednesday (Sermon)

I have a confession: I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this. Some of you may not be shocked. And some of you may even (secretly) agree with me. But, nonetheless, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. So, when I was told I was preaching Ash Wednesday, I smiled and said “yayyy.” But on the inside, I cried just a little bit.

You see, Ash Wednesday puts a hard stop to the festivities that culminated in yesterday and last night (the final night of) Mardi Gras. Ash Wednesday throws open the door to a season of some sort of self-denial and fasting that is the season of Lent. None of us really like days that end our celebration and start us about our task of taking life seriously. Ash Wednesday, in some respect, is the Monday of all Mondays in the liturgical calendar. And who really likes a Monday?

But it’s not only the Monday-esque vibe that Ash Wednesday brings to our liturgical life and calendar that I don’t like. It’s not the inauguration into season of self-denial and fasting of Lent that I don’t like. It’s the part that constitutes and substantiates the inauguration of Lent that I don’t like. And it’s that very part that we love to forget to talk about as we transition from celebration to fasting. Dialogue surrounding Ash Wednesday moves swiftly and deftly from what I did last night and all the fun I had to, “Yes, I’m giving up _____” for Lent. But something else needs to happen before I so smoothly move from Mardi Gras to Lent and that is the form and substance of Ash Wednesday; I must be forced to reckon with myself as I am and not as I portray myself to be.

Ash Wednesday is less like an average Monday and more like that one Monday where it was already bad and then you got pulled over and instead of the Police Officer handing you a ticket, she handed you a stack, a ticket for every infraction you’ve ever committed known and unknown to you.

Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration; Ash Wednesday is the 4th step of the 12 Step Program for Sinners.[1] It is a day for us to take a fearless and ruthless moral inventory of ourselves that results in our throwing ourselves prostrate on the ground crying out, “Lord, Have Mercy! Have Mercy on us!” And knowing that our lives, our very lives are fully and completely dependent on that divine word of “Mercy.” It’s a day to wake up to the dire reality that apart from God’s mercy, we are only dust.

I don’t like Ash Wednesday because I’m the one that has to bring you to that place with my words. Rather than using my priestly office to bring you hope and comfort and to bless you and bring you life, I have to use it in a way that reminds you of the curse of sin, and that the wage therein is death. I have to anoint you not with oil, but with ash. I have to remind you that you are dust and that, as it stands now, to dust you will return.

We are dust because we have failed. And this failure is nothing to gloss-over as we are wont to do. This failure surely pulverizes us to dust because this failure encompasses our activities and the orientations of our heart and mind. We are fully incriminated: body, mind, and soul. We have not acted the way we ought to act, we have not spoken the way we ought to have spoken, we have not thought the way we ought to have thought, and we have not loved as we ought to have loved. We have failed to uphold God’s good and righteous law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is our failure to live according to this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

And, failure to uphold this:

“…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18b)

There’s no escaping what feels like (and is) the crushing weight of condemnation of Ash Wednesday and it’s demand to self-reflection and fearless and ruthless moral inventory. You can’t side-step this event. Today you will be bombarded by the words of the liturgy and of the prayers. Today the voices of the prophets of Israel ring in our ears anew:

“The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.” (Micah 7:2-3)

“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

“Gather together, gather,
O shameless nation,
before you are driven away
like the drifting chaff,
before there comes upon you
the fierce anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

You have failed. You have failed God and you have failed your neighbor; you have failed God because you have failed your neighbor. The homeless go unsheltered. The hungry go unfed. The marginalized and oppressed continue in their bondage and slavery. Let this active word of God spoken through the prophets present itself to you not as mere historical fiction spoken to others of long ago, but as a very present reality in its veracity. Let this word of God touch you: let it break your heart, let it trouble your conscience, let it be the encounter with the divine that strips you of “…all agreeable self-deceptions…” and causes you to face the truth of your failure: you are people of unclean lips in the midst of people of unclean lips (Is. 6ff).[2]

And not only are you incriminated in this verdict of guilty, but I, too, am convicted and condemned. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve intentionally stepped back and hidden from the call to step up and act. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. I have not fed the hungry, housed the homeless, or clothed the naked. For this I am guilty and judgment comes; judgment comes from God and I am guilty. The encounter with God in the words of the prophets burns and I am rent to dust.

From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:8-14).

There is hope yet still and this I must proclaim alongside judgment lest our hearts grow too weary to beat and our mind too burdened to conceive of hope and our bodies too feeble to make it to our feet. “For he knows how we were made,” writes the Psalmist. “[H]e remembers that we are dust.” Our God is a God “whose property is always have mercy,”[3] to have mercy especially when and where all hope seems lost.

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18).

Paul exhorts us in the place of Christ and with an urgent entreaty in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, “…on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” [4] God’s justice is not retributive; it is merciful and reconciliatory and thus restorative. Being rent to dust by the heat of judgment of the divine words of the oracles of the prophets and the law may seem like the final nail in the coffin, but with our God it’s just the beginning.

In the beginning God created out of nothing, and out of nothing God will create a new beginning. There is hope in the creative and long-suffering mercy of God.

We throw ourselves in our manifold convictions and guilt and failure at the feet of a God who is merciful—not “maybe will be,” “might be,” or “could be,” but is merciful. We throw ourselves down at the feet of a God who has reconciled and restored us to himself in his mercy through the sending of his son out of self-sacrificial love for us.[5] This is the God we come into contact with in Christ, the God by whom we are touched in the words of proclamation of Christ and yet we live because of God’s mercy and reconciling us to himself.[6] This is the God we encounter in Ash Wednesday.

We live in this encounter because there’s an exchange[7] occurring between Christ, and us as Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We live because Christ willingly and voluntarily and lovingly resolves to head to Jerusalem to die and to be raised up (Mark 8:31).[8] We live because God is so merciful that God will bear in God’s own self (freely intervening by his own being from both sides)[9] on the cross our sin and become so indistinguishable from that sin.[10] We live because the sin bearing sinless Christ—who knew no sin in any way, shape, or form–dies and in his death so to goes the death of our death, so to goes the dust of our dust. And from the dust of death: life.[11] Our lives are given back to us because God is merciful to take our affairs in this world so personally that he makes himself responsible and burdens himself with our failure and guilt and evil ways;[12] That is the extent and power of God’s love for us; that is mercy and this is our merciful God: the God who in “[Christ] is the [one] who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.” [13]

Speaking about Isaiah’s encounter with the divine in Isaiah chapter 6, which applies here to our situation in Ash Wednesday, Helmut Gollwitzer writes,

“A miracle happens, the miracle of all miracles, that this impure being, impure in the midst of the pure creation, that this intolerable being is permitted to live. The annihilating encounter with God becomes for him a life-giving encounter. Without his co-operation, entirely on the initiative of this other power that ought to have meant his death, that which must be death for him is turned into new life; the miracle of forgiveness. He who can no longer purify himself is purified…Death is taken away, the death which I bear in myself because of my contradiction, my impurity is covered by the encircling life-giving love to him who was the prey of death.”[14]

From dust we were taken and to dust we should return; but our God is a merciful God and there is life even out of dust and ash.

[1] “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981. “The bible in fact believes that things would be just the same with everyone one of us, as it was with this man Isaiah, confronted with the final truth, with the divine life which fills the creation, everyone of us is stripped of and must acknowledge himself as the dark blot in the creation, that must be removed in order for the creation to join with clear and pure voice in the great joyful hymn of praise of the angles. That is for us the intolerable truth, which we try to disguise from ourselves with all kinds of inventions, a truth which we face when the word of God touches us.” 41. (cf Is. 6)

[3] BCP Prayer of Humble Access

[4] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 447. “But here neither verb denotes a dispassionate and detached request but rather an impassioned and urgent entreaty. The second us of υπερ Χριστου links the δεησις with the ambassadorship: whether performing the general role of envoys (πρεσβευομεν) or issuing a specific entreaty (δεομεθα), Paul and his colleagues were acting υπερ Χριστου, “for Christ,” on his behalf and in his stead. Moreover, this repeated prepositional phrase suggest that the principal role of Christ’s ambassadors is issuing the evangelistic treaty to be reconciled to God.”

[5] Ibid, 447. “The aorist imperative passive form καταλλαγητε is unlikely to be a reflexive passive, ‘reconcile yourselves (to God),’ whatever allowance be made for synergism (Cf. 6:1-2), because whenever this verb is applied to the atonement, God, and only God is the reconciler (see above v. 18). While it is possible that this passive is permissive, ‘let yourselves be reconciled (to God),’ it is more probably a true passive, ‘be reconciled,’ or, to bring out the ingressive sense of this aorist, ‘get reconciled,’ with God as the implied agent.”

[6] Ibid, 449. “In the divine economy, the declaration of ‘the message of reconciliation’ (v.19), or, in other words, the preaching of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) with the attendant entreaty to be reconciled to God, is the link between the objective work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ and the subjective appropriation of its benefits by the sinner. Paul saw himself and everyone who proclaimed reconciliation in Christ as trustees of a message (v. 19), ambassadors for Christ, and mouthpieces for God (v.20).”

[7] Karl Barth CD I.2.156. “…in the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does…[(5.21)]…does not mean that He made Him a man who also sins again—what could that signify ‘for us’?—but that He put Him in the position of a sinner by way of exchange (καταλλασσων, in the sense of the Old Testament sin-offering).”

[8] Harris, 2 Corinthians, 451. “Although ποιειν can mean ‘make something into something (else),’ the meaning here is not ‘God made the sinless one into sin’ … but ‘God caused the sinless one to be sin,’ where ποιειν denotes causation or appointment and points to the divien intiiative. But we should not forget that matching the Father’s set purpose to deliver Christ up to deal with sin (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32) was Christ’s own firm reolsition to go to Jerusualem to suffer (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:51). Jesus was not an unwillling or surprised participant in God’s action.»

[9] Karl Barth CD II.1.397. “This sending means a self-offering grounded in the free will of the Father and the Son in fulfillment of the divine love turned towards the cosmos and the world of man. But it is the case that God in this offering or sending of His Son, and the Son Himself in accepting this mission and allowing Himself to be sacrificed, has exposed Himself to an imposition. In His love God has been hard upon Himself, exacting a supreme and final demand…in a self-emptying, in a complete resignation not of the essence but of the form of His Godhead, He took upon Himself our own human form—the form of a servant, in complete likeness to other men…allowing himself to be found in fashion as a man…Like all men He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). But what does it mean to take the place of man, to be Himself a man, to be born of a woman? It means from Him, too, God’s Son, God Himself, that He came under the Law…that He stepped into the heart of the inevitable conflict between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man. He took this conflict into is own being. He bore it in Himself to the bitter end. He took part in it from both sides. He endured it from both sides. He was not only the God who is offended by man. He was also the man whom God threatens with death, who falls a victim to death in face of God’s judgment. If he really entered into solidarity with us—and that is just what He did do!—it meant necessarily that He took upon Himself, in likeness to us…the ‘flesh of sin’ (Rom. 8:3). He shared in the status, constitution and situation of man in which man resists God and cannot stand before Him but must die.”

[10] Harris, Second Corinthians, 454. “We conclude that in v.21a Paul is not saying that at the crucifixion the sinless Christ became in some sense a sinner, yet he is affirming more than that Christ became a sin offering or even a sin bearer. In a sense beyond human comprehension, God treated Christ as ‘sin,’ aligning him so totally with sin and its dire consequences that from God’s viewpoint he became indistinguishable from sin itself.”

[11] Ibid, 455. “So γινομαι may be given its most common meaning (‘become,’ ‘be’) and points to the change of status that accrues to believers who are ‘in Christ’ and that is the ground of the ‘new creation’ (v.17). ‘To become the righteousness of God’ is to gain a right standing before God that God himself bestows (cf. Rom. 5:17; Phil. 3:9). It is to be ‘constituted righteous’ in the divine court…As a result of God’s imputing to Christ something that was extrinsic to him, namely sin, believers have something imputed to them that was extrinsic to them, namely righteousness.”

[12] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “But the great and inconceivable thing is that He acts as Judge in our place by taking upon Himself, by accepting responsibility for that which we do in this place. He ‘who knew no sin’ (2 or. 5:21)…gives Himself…to the fellowship of those who are guilty of all these things, and not only that, but He makes their evil case His own. He is above this fellowship and confronts it and judges it and condemns it in that He takes it upon Himself to be the bearer and Representative, to be responsible for this case, to expose Himself to the accusation and sentence which must inevitably come upon us in this case. He as One can represent all and make Himself responsible for the sis of all because He is very man in our midst, one of us, but as one of us He is also very God and therefore He exercises and reveals amongst us the almighty righteousness of God. He can conduct the case of God against us in such a way that He takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and compromising and burdening Himself with it.”

[13] Karl Barth CD IV.1.236. “It is no longer our affair to prosecute and represent this case. The right and possibility of doing so has been denied and taken away from us. What He in divine omnipotence did amongst us as one of us prevents us from being our own judges, from even wanting to be, from making that senseless attempt on the divine prerogative, from sinning in that way and making ourselves guilty. TIN that He was and is for us that end is closed, and so is the evil way to that end. He is the man who entered that evil way, with the result that we are forced from it; it can be ours no longer.”

[14] Gollwitzer Way to Life 41.