Monday, December 29, 2008
sermon by Matt Kennedy
text: Isaiah 61:1-10
Soon after I became a Christian I became fascinated by “end time” prophesy. The book series “Left Behind” had just come out and everybody at my church wondered about whether we were living in the final days. How many have read the Left Behind series? Possibly the most difficult parts of scripture to understand are those that deal with the future. Revelation, for example, is John's inspired record of a vision given to him by Christ of things that would happen in his future. And at least some of the events he saw will take place in our future. He saw beasts, angels, dragons, plagues, a world war, fire shooting out the mouths of prophets...all kinds of images both beautiful and terrifying, some may be figurative, some may be literal. We just don't know. There are many who think they know and they disagree with each other and fight about it a lot. And that's just fine. The “end times” prophesies are manifestly unclear which means there is room for vigorous debate and discussion. In my view fighting over end-time prophesy is like fighting over tomorrow's weather. We know tomorrow will come. We know tomorrow will have weather. But we can't be definitive about it until it gets here. We know Jesus is coming back. We know there will be a resurrection of the dead and a final judgment. We know that he will establish his kingdom here on earth. But beyond that, we can't draw many firm lines. The Left Behind series presented one point of view about the end times based on one reading of scripture. There will be a seven year tribulation that begins with the rapture in which all believers will be taken up to heaven, bodily, in order to be protected from what comes next. Then the beast, the Anti-Christ will come promising peace and the world will love him, the Jewish Temple will be rebuilt on the Temple mount. Midway through the seven years, Anti-Christ will enter the temple and claim to be God and will be worshiped by all people, except for the Jews who will refuse and instead recognize Jesus as messiah. There will be world war. Christ will return. This viewpoint is called the “Pre-Tribulation” position. I don't agree with it, but it's not heretical and makes for a great novel. Left Behind sold millions of copies world-wide. One reason that book series sells so well is that so many Christians consider the present state of the world and wonder: How Long can the Lord let this go before he comes back?” We've been waiting 2000 years.
On Christmas Day, we celebrate another Day long promised by prophets. God promised Abraham that he would bring the light of salvation “to all the nations” through his “offspring” in 2000 B.C. Who was that promise pointing too? Jesus Christ. From Abraham to Jesus, people waited, longing for the promise. And they were as confused as we are about how, exactly, God was going to do it because the prophets of the Old Testament, like the apostles of the New, gave many different images and visions predicting what the future would look like. It was as easy for an Israelite to be confused about the first coming as it is for Christians to be confused about the second coming.
By time Isaiah began his ministry in the city of Jerusalem, in 740 BC, Abraham's descendants were divided. There'd been civil war in Israel and two kingdoms had been established; a southern Kingdom, called Judah, and a northern kingdom which took the name “Israel.” Israel established its capital in Samara and was ruled by non-davidic kings. The kings of Judah, reigning from Jerusalem were Davidic, descended from King David. During Isaiah's time, a powerful, expansionist empire rose the north called Assyria. Assyria, bent on bloody and unstoppable quest to conquer all the kingdoms between her and Egypt, had both Israel and Judah in her sights. Because the Israel rejected YHWH and worshiped Baal, God gave her over to the Assyrians; Israel was destroyed...its inhabitants dispersed. Judah, herself corrupt, rebellious and idolatrous, often led by wicked kings stood alone. That is the setting for Isaiah's ministry.
God promised a number of things to Judah through Isaiah. First. Judah would not fall to the Assyrians. They did not. Second, if they refused repent of their idolatry and wickedness, God would raise up a greater empire and give Judah over to it. Third, Judah would not repent. Fourth. Babylon would become great, destroy Jerusalem, and send the people of Judah into exile. Fifth after the exile, the people would return to Jerusalem and God's salvation promised to Abraham would finally come.
What kind of Salvation?
The answer to that question for Jews during Jesus' day was incredibly important.
Isaiah's first four predictions and promises had already come to pass. Only the fifth remained, the promise of God's salvation. As Peter tells us, people poured over the scriptures trying to understand the time to which the Spirit of God pointed and the kind or type of salvation he promised (1 Peter 1:10-11) And it was incredibly confusing because Isaiah, like John in Revelation, gives a number of apparently conflicting images of it.
God's savior, Isaiah says, will come in the form of a servant: Isaiah 42 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.(1). He will be a “light to the gentiles” (6). He will open the eyes of the blind and set captives free (7).
There's more about the servant in Isaiah 49. His words will be powerful, like a sharpened sword (2) He will gather the exiles and, as in 42, be a light to the gentiles (6) He will be honored by the nations (7) He will call the Lord's people back. The divided dispersed nation of Israel will be restored and united (8-26) and its enemies will be judged (26)
In chapters 42 and 49 Isaiah predicts a spirit-filled servant savior who comes with power and compassion; who restores what's been broken, heals the sick, gives frees prisoners, restores Israel, brings light to the Gentiles and establishes an era of peace. Notice that king language is not found in these chapters. The servant is not necessarily a king. He is a powerful servant sent to do God's will.
But in chapters 52-53 an entirely different sort of servant is described; a servant who is sent not with a powerful word, but to suffer. The “servant” is mentioned there in 52:13. “My servant will act wisely...” But what will happen to him? V3. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” And he's not suffering at the hands of enemies. Notice the “we” language in verses 3-4. “We” esteemed him not. There was nothing to attract “us” to him. His own people disregard the servant. But that is part of his call “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:2-6)
So on one hand Isaiah speaks of a powerful spirit filled “servant” will heal, free, restore and bring light to the gentiles. On the other hand a “suffering servant will come who will be despised by his people and die to atone for their sins. How can these descriptions possibly be fit together? The picture gets even more confused by yet another saving figure in Isaiah, the Anointed one...the Messiah. We meet him in Isaiah 11: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”(1) a Davidic king will come. He, like the first servant, will be filled with the Spirit of God (2). The Spirit will give him wisdom and power. Unlike the kings of Judah, he will be obedient. His words will effect change. “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth”(4) He will establish a kingdom characterized by justice for the wicked, help for the poor, and peace (4-9). The effect of his reign will be that the whole world comes to know the Lord (9). Nations will flock to him (10). He will gather the exiles Israel and Judah and restore the kingdom of David (10-12).
So will the promised salvation come at the hand of a spirit-filled servant who frees captives, heals the sick and binds up the brokenhearted? Or from a suffering servant, despised by his own people, condemned to die for their sins? Or from a davidic king who will establish God's rule worldwide?
In Isaiah 61 we find something that they may have overlooked. In Chapter 60, the Lord has been speaking, promising to be the light of his people when he restores and redeems them(19). Then in 61, an new unidentified speaker comes: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me”(1). He is “anointed”as a king is anointed. His words effect what they proclaim. They lift up the poor, bind the brokenhearted, free captives and release prisoners. He distributes both wrath and compassion. (2-3). He “plants” his people like oaks and brings them honor and not just joy but “everlasting joy”(7) because he will establish an everlasting covenant (8). He takes away ashes, mourning, despair (3) devastation (4), shame, disgrace(7) and iniquity (8)
This speaker, brings together the spirit filled servant who cares for the poor and sick, the suffering servant who takes away shame, despair, and iniquity; and the anointed king who reigns with justice. The images of God's salvation come together in one Redeemer. As Christians, looking backwards, it seems simple...But before Jesus, it wasn't so simple. Most Jews of Jesus day missed the significance of Isaiah 61 and latched on to one of the savior figures in Isaiah.
Who remembers what Jesus did with Isaiah 61? Turn to Luke 4:16-19. Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue and read from this very text, sat down and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."(21) I am the Spirit-filled Servant. I am the Suffering-Servant, I am the Sovereign King who will bring God's day of salvation. Can you imagine what it must've been like. 1st century Jews lived longing for the fulfillment of the promise of God. And in their day, before their very eyes, the Promise personified walks in and gives the first reading. They tried to throw him off a cliff. They couldn't see it.
Isaiah in our text this morning reveals the right response to Jesus coming. Isaiah 61:10 is the response of delivered people to their redeemer. Israel, the church, all believers say, “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God.” that is how the people in Nazareth ought to have responded when the Servant King walked through the door. That is the “Christmas Spirit.” It is delight in the Lord, delight that he has in Jesus fulfilled the promises he gave Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets including Isaiah. Delight in the promise himself, in the person of Jesus beyond anything he can give you...a simple pure delight that Jesus is who he is and he loves you and has made his home here with his people and in your heart.