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 

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.

Divine Love Song

Luke 1:46-55 (Homily)

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1)

 

Music moves and keeps me. I absolutely love music. I study to music, write to music, live to music, and even my classroom often welcomes students with music. I’m one of those people who definitely has multiple soundtracks to her life; one for each era, if not one for each year. My workout play lists have everything from Taylor Swift to Childish Gambino, and I’m not even sorry. I prefer the Orchestra to the Symphony and some of my favorite instruments are: guitar, piano, and the cello (which I’m comically trying to teach myself to play). I love music.

I love how music has the ability to get to our subterranean layers of our person and being. I love how with or without words music can draw up in us emotions we’ve had or are having a hard time articulating in word and deed. I love that when I’m happy, there’s a song on my lips. I love even more that when life has dragged me into darkness and an existential crisis and its cousin depression seize the fibers of my being, there’s a song on my lips then, too. When I’ve struggled with saying the words, “I believe…” my voice through worship and song cries out, “…help my unbelief.”

And it’s not just humans who sing and make music. But the whole world does, too. The cacophony of a vehicle-infested metropolis is music as much as is the cricket and grasshopper symphony surrounding the farm stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The trees make music, the birds, the stars in the night sky, and the sun at noonday, even the creeping and crawling things along the ground. All of it is song and music. Dogs barking, cats meowing, horses neighing, all of creation sings. Harmony is everywhere. The cosmos is a song; a song sung over us and to us. And we have no other response than to sing back and to join in the great song of creation.

The biblical story is no stranger to songs. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, songs weave and wend through the story of God’s love for God’s creation. The biblical narrative is wonderfully decorated with songs about the work and activity of God almighty on behalf of God’s people and the world. We sing to God and God sings to us. The great song of the cosmos was set in motion and is sustained by God’s love song sung over us, like a mother rocking her new-born child to sleep using her voice to soothe and comfort this child she loves so very dearly.

Or like a mother who understands the heavy burden that is on her unborn son’s shoulders: God’s love for the world, reconciliation and redemption, love and sacrifice, mercy and justice and peace.

“‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (v.47). Mary begins to sing. “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (v.48). Mary’s voice isn’t unique here; her voice pairs with those of the other noble women of Israel: with Miriam after safe passage through the red-sea (cf Ex. 15) and with the barren Hannah who longed for a son and received one (cf 1 Sam 2). “…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v.49), Mary continues, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v.50). Mary declares the character of the God she worships, of the God she knows intimately, of the God who is about to overturn the world as she knows it.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v.51). Mary’s song here in v.51 turns from praise of God’s mighty historical deeds to prophetic utterances (what God is about to do). “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv.52-3). And here I can’t quite distinguish whose voice I’m hearing; is it Mary the mother of Jesus who is praising God? Or is this God’s song over us? “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’” (vv.54-5).

And maybe that’s the point? Maybe that I can’t distinguish between the song of this young woman to God or God’s song over the world is the tension where I need to be located, where we need to be located. Because it’s here in that tension where we see our role in the story. Mary sings to God of Jesus, but Jesus sings through her voice to the world: I am coming low to bring liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus is the royal[1] son who will cast off his royal robes and stoop down[2] to take on the role of a servant, a lowly servant to redeem and reconcile humanity to God. It is Jesus (God of God, Light of Light) who will associate with sinners and tax collectors, with the sick and the lame, with those who are far-off and those who are abandoned and thus declare to the world: blessed are these![3] Jesus is the one who lifts the faces of those who are cast-down, gives dignity to those society has declared barely human, and brought the light to those who feel trapped and hewed in by darkness; and this activity becomes the very definition of the reign of God, of the good news, of God’s activity in the world in Jesus Christ, this man who is God. [4]

And it is this lowly servant who is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants and this is how that promises will be fulfilled: Jesus will die for our sins and be raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Mary’s song of praise of what God has done and will do, and that which is God’s song over us, is also Jesus’s funeral march;[5] this is the song that will sound in the background as Jesus climbs Golgotha to his sacrificial death on our behalf to reconcile us to God. Just as the cross hangs in the background behind the manger of the baby born, so to do Mary’s tears lurk behind her words of praise and prophecy.

But because God loves us, because God loves the world, this dirge, this funeral march doesn’t end in the grave. Rather, it leads to life, resurrected life for those who have been brought low; resurrected life for us not just in the future but now. And all of us are of the lowly, no matter what car you drove here or what brand your watch is, or the amount of money in your wallet or in your bank account: none of us escape being the lowly, the ones who are brought low. And as we are made aware of our lowliness and our need of Christ and the Cross,[6] the same gospel that has laid claim to our faith lays claim to our activity in the world; that which characterizes Christ’s reign, characterizes the activity of his disciples. That we—through our movement from death into new life by faith—have become a people whose interest is not on ourselves but on our fellow human beings, our neighbors. [7]

We have been commissioned into the commission of Christ to bear the trajectory (the intended direction) of Mary’s song of good news for the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, and with Christ we are called, to quote the major Prophet Isaiah, “To bring good news to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners…To comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1b-3a).

The good news comes to you today singing over you, incorporating you into the story, into the greatest love song ever recorded: The song sung since the beginning of time about the long awaited son of God, the babe born of Mary, who is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the cross, which is the word of comfort for the afflicted, rest for the burdened, freedom for the captives, and the word of life to those who are dead.

Praise be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV.1.278 “…the distinctive solidarity of the man Jesus with the God who in the eyes of the world—and not merely the ordinary world, but the moral and spiritual as well—is also poor in this way, existing not only in fact and practice but even in theory, somewhere on the margin in its scale of values, as the mere content of a limiting concept. In fellowship and conformity with this God who is in the world the royal man Jesus is also poor, and fulfills this transvaluation of all values, acknowledging those who (without necessarily being better) are in different ways poor men as this world counts poverty.”

[2] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “The God who stoops down to man… in judgment and mercy, slaying and making alive, is Himself supremely and most strictly an object of desire, joy, pleasure, yearning and enjoyment…”

[3] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “It is of a piece with this that—almost to the point of prejudice—He ignored all those who are high and mighty and wealthy in the world in favour of the weak and meek and lowly. He did this even in the moral sphere, ignoring the just for sinners, and in the spiritual sphere, finally ignoring Israel for the Gentiles.”

[4] Karl Barth CD V.1.277-78 “Throughout the New Testament the kingdom of God, the Gospel and the man Jesus have a remarkable affinity, which is no mere egalitarianism, to all those who are in the shadows as far as concerns what men estimate to be fortune and possessions and success and even fellowship with God.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2. “It is this merciful and redemptive visitation of Israel by God, in faithfulness to Himself and His people, which forms the subject-matter of these hymns. But in the mind of the authors, or at any rate in the mind of Luke, who incorporated them into his text, this visitation is indirectly identical with the life and works and passion and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose story he is concerned to tell…But they are indirectly identical (at any rate in the mind of Luke), we are forced to say, because the introduction of these hymns could serve no literary purpose if they did not speak (at any rate in the mind of Luke) of the Son of Mary whose way was prepared by the son of Zacharias as the prophet of the Most High; and of this One as the One in whom the new act of the faithful God of Israel to His people has found its human correspondence, in whom the divine visitation has become an earthly history.”

[6] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans: David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.) “Who will free us for discipleship, for imitation of God? For he is the one who does not hold on to his privilege’s, who did not remain on the throne of Lordship, but spent himself and gave himself to sinners, to the men of privilege, to free them from enslavement to their privileges.” p. 82

[7] Ibid, 146 “From [people] whose interests centre in themselves, to make us people whose whole concern is for other people – that is the great concern of Jesus, that is the great change that God wants to bring through the Gospel into our way of life.” p. 146