November 27, 2016
Here we are, the first Sunday of Advent already! Advent is about looking ahead...ahead to Christmas and as our readings indicate, ahead to the coming again of Jesus. But Advent is to be about more than just looking ahead, it is about hope for that future. And our Advent readings always include some prophecy about the coming days.
Now we shake our heads at that farmer. We know that sowing nothing yields nothing. Having no hope leads to taking no actions. On this first Sunday of Advent, our readings suggest to us hope while we celebrate the season while we anticipate the coming of the Savior.
I want to spend a little time looking at the writings of the prophet Isaiah today. Isaiah will be the source of our Old Testament readings each Sunday in Advent this year. The church sees the writings of Isaiah as an important part of the Advent season because of hope. Some of his writings are very clearly recognized as anticipating the birth of the Savior. Fitting for this time of year is Isaiah 7: 14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” For more insight into the life of the Messiah, we look to chapter 53: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. “he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” You get the point, you don't have to know a whole lot about Jesus to see how 735 years before his birth, Isaiah prophesied much of how the Messiah's ministry played out.
But Isaiah is not simply a “predictor”. His role in the Israeli government was as an adviser to the king; actually he served 3 kings of Judah, the Southern kingdom of Israel; Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah was a hard nosed, truth-telling counselor to the kings. But you know, that's not really what the kings wanted. They wanted “yes-men” around them and so Isaiah's advice; messages from God, were largely ignored in favor of other advisers, we could call them false prophets. They were perfectly willing to tell the kings what the kings wanted to hear. But it was not what God wanted the kings to hear and so in ignoring Isaiah, the kings led the country down a bad road...and I don't have time to get into the judgments of God right now. But if you have a little Old Testament knowledge, you know the Israelites kept turning away from God, getting dominated by a foreign country, repenting before God, regaining power then turning away from God; and the cycle repeated over and over and over.
Since the kings wouldn’t listen, Isaiah, God's prophet, turned from advising the kings to addressing the people of Israel; not that they listened much better. There are some very important messages for us today in Isaiah as well. Three points I want to emphasize this morning. One, God is the God of all people. “They lift up their voices, the sing for joy; they shout from the west over the majesty of the Lord..in the east give victory to the Lord; in the coastlands of the sea glorify the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, from the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise.” (Isaiah 24: 14-16) Now this view of God being the Lord over other nations was not a message the people wanted to hear. They were God's chosen people; he was their God...and theirs alone. Isaiah used the happenings in Israel to demonstrate the truth that God was working in every land. God used foreign nations to bring judgment upon Israel, contrary to what the Israelite people believed God would do. God was to serve them. I don't think anyone here has such an exclusive view of our care by God. As we celebrated Thanksgiving, we were reminded of the blessings we have, but those blessings don't come to us because Americans or Presbyterians are especially loved by God...well, we are-- but so are Mexicans and Canadians and Europeans...and Lutherans and Methodists and Catholics. God is the God of all people!
Point two-God is a holy God and God's holiness is a reminder, a sign, a call for us to turn to God in our guilt and sin. Isaiah was called by God, he tells of the vision of God on the throne, surrounded by Seraphim calling, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the lord of host; the earth is full of his glory.” (A familiar refrain) As Isaiah recognized the holiness of God, he said, “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” A bit of an odd story, an angel takes a coal from the altar and touched Isaiah's lips saying, “your guilt is departed and your sin is blotted out.” As recorded in Isaiah 6, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I, send me.” And God did send him and Isaiah has 66 chapters of messages from God along with the story of Isaiah's life, a life spent serving the holy God of Israel who chose him and sent him. We too are called by God, called first to lives of holiness. We serve a God who is purely holy and we come into the presence of God only when we are made clean. And that happens not because we can be holy on our own, but because the Messiah forgives us. In that forgiveness, we are called to live guilt-free lives knowing the love and grace of God. In that grace, we are called to follow God's leading...here am I, Lord. Send me is our answer to God's grace.
The third theme in Isaiah is not so pleasant. Isaiah is shown the impending doom for the nation of Israel. The nation of Israel, the north and south kingdom had just had 50 peaceful years without war. And Isaiah brings God's words of judgment upon the nation for their sinfulness and self-righteousness. The opening chapter is a kind of summary of God's judgment; “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel...Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire...aliens devour your land...What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of brunt offerings...when you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you...even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.” Gives you an idea why Isaiah wasn't the most popular prophet. As we learned in our Bible Study The Word, Israel often came under God's judgment through the invasion of other countries. And Isaiah is telling them that it is coming again and again. But if you get the chance to read the whole book, you will discover many more words of hope than of judgment. God is a God of hope. And even this messenger sent to warn God's people actually brings God's message of hope. And I've finally found my way to today's reading, words of hope immediately following the judgments I've just shared.
“ In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 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;...they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.
It is a message of hope, that things will not always be gloom and doom for the nation of Israel. And since Isaiah brought the message of the universal nature of God's love and care, the message of hope is for us today as well. And I need to talk about that word, hope. We have a different idea of that word than what the scripture writers had. We might say I hope it doesn't snow, or I hope the Vikings win. We know that our hope in those cases is more of a wish.... Hope in the biblical sense means that we know something is going to happen, we just don't know when. So we say we live in hope for the resurrection of the dead, it doesn’t mean we wish it will happen, it will. We just don't the the when or the how. We live in hope of our own future in heaven with the Lord. It is a hope that is based on God's word...not wishful thinking.
Now with that said, even our hope in the biblical sense can be off target. The people of Jesus' times read the prophecies of the Messiah and had a much different hope for what he would bring than what he did bring. They believed the prophecies, and the prophecies were true, and their hopes were not in vain; the Messiah did come. But his victory was much different than what the people expected. And so it may be with our hopes for the future. We don't know when Jesus will come again; we don't know what it will actually look like; although there are plenty of bible teachers who will tell you these things. We live in hope because we trust in the grace, the goodness, the mercy of God. We live in hope because Jesus has promised victory over sin and death.
This season of the year is about hope. Hope for the promises of the season. Hope for the coming again of the son of man, coming at an unexpected time. Paul reminds us, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Hope for good will, for peace—the turning of swords into ploughshares. Hope that we can live out the love shown by the coming of the baby in the manger. For all these words, all these prophecies don't mean much if they don't result in action. Hope and Faith go hand in hand. Hope and faith are important, but do you remember what the Apostle Paul wrote about these virtues in 1 Corinthians 13?...”now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love”. And love is not just a warm feeling, love is action. Like the farmer at the beginning of my sermon, we need to recognize the signs of the time, but we need to act.
Jesus calls us to be ready, we are to respond to God's call, and open our eyes are open to the needs around us, and seek to live out the love of God. And this Advent season, may our worship and our music and our activities, and may the words of an ancient prophet all inspire us to hear the call of Christ, to answer as Isaiah did, “Here I am, Lord, sent me.” Amen.
Hymn: Here I Am, Lord 525 PH