"Joy in What God's Doing"
Dec.12, 2010 Is.61:1-11
WELCOME TO OUR (WOEFUL) WORLD
Advent is about a Saviour coming - someone who can help us in our distress. The wonderful thing about Christ's incarnation is that He as Messiah has been injected into our human situation precisely at our point of need.
If you watch the news or even just talk to people you bump into, you start to realize there's a world of hurt around us. Waiting for my snow tires to be changed, another fellow opens up about the roadblocks he's encountering trying to adopt a child into their family. Paying for my tab at the restaurant, the server shares about a family member struck with cancer. You don't have to go far to find people with problems: just have an open sensitive heart and hearing.
We've gotten into the habit of downloading the ten-minute online podcast version of the CBC National news each weeknight after 6:30 or so. The danger of making this a regular routine is that one can start to become blaisé, if not cynical, about so much calamity happening all over the world. For example, one day this week it featured a mudslide burying a village; after we'd watched it, Yvonne asked, "What country was that in?" I had to admit I couldn't remember. Hadn't paid attention - just another disaster somewhere, not affecting me. The advantage of the downloaded version is we could rewind and listen to it again; the country was Colombia. I could tell you Lucan Ontario had been buried in 114 cm of snow, but I'd just been caught not showing interest in details of an event further away.
The Bible doesn't primarily address the issue of a theoretical world in the sky by-and-by; it addresses the real world we live in. God knows about our hurts, our predicament, and cares enough to get involved. Look at the negative terms in verses 1-7 of Isaiah 61: v1 poor, brokenhearted, captive, prisoners; v2 mourn; v3 grieve, ashes, mourning, despair; v4 ruins and ruined cities (speaking of mudslides), places long devastated (this is repeated); v7 - shifting to other areas of hurt and damage less visible externally - shame, disgrace. Change the technology a little bit and you might say the kind of world the prophet spoke to 7 centuries before Christ - nearly 3000 years ago - was the same world we live in today. People were carrying on as sinful people do, causing hurt intentionally and unintentionally; evil, sickness, and death were as destructive then as now.
Isaiah's not being melodramatic or exaggerating how bad things are. His book is very true to the situation after Assyria then Babylon (shortly after) invaded Israel and Judah: cities were burned, people had been killed or deported - the term 'devastated for generations' would be quite accurate. Yet, God in His sovereignty through the Holy Spirit is at work. It's not just going to get left that way. Yahweh is a saving God - that's the essence of Jesus' name - and His ultimate deliverance is cause for hope and joy.
Perhaps the description would be different in another worldview. For example, in a recent sermon series on the problem of suffering, Meeting House pastor Bruxy Cavey comments that the Hindu worldview could explain our suffering as 'karma' - we reap what we sow based on our choices in a previous incarnation, everything is already "just" now (as contrasted to the Biblical worldview in which God's justice will ultimately prevail, but not yet). "If we're hard up - we must have done something to deserve it!" Cavey notes it's no accident this karmic worldview is found in a society where the caste system is entrenched - there's no reason to try and help the poor and oppressed because that's their role; why would you want to change an 'untouchable'? But that's not the way the Bible sees it. With God, all things are possible: He specializes in redeeming lost causes, turning woeful situations around for His glory and the good of those He loves.
MESSIAH MEETS OUR MESS
The word "Christ" is a title in Greek translating the Hebrew word "Messiah" or "anointed one". Anointing with oil was the traditional way prophets, priests, and kings were consecrated to their role in the Old Testament. Here in Isaiah 61 the speaker is anointed though with more than oil, and for more than one task; v1, "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to...[and then follows quite a list, what Messiah's for]". But note the anointing - with God's Spirit rather than oil. This came true at Jesus' baptism; John the Baptist testified, "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him." (Jn 1:32; cf Mt 3:16)
Jesus applied this Isaiah 61 passage to Himself more than once; He identified Himself as the One the prophet foretold. For example, at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4(18f), He read it aloud, rolled up the scroll, and remarked, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Later when John the Baptist in prison sent messengers inquiring, "Are you the one who was to come," Jesus answered that they should report back to John what they saw: Mt 11:5, "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." A direct echo of Isaiah's prophecy.
In Luke's account, Jesus' public ministry begins with this passage being read at Nazareth. In Matthew's gospel, it's the Beatitudes instead; but even there in Mt 5(3f,6,11) you can see the same sort of effect: "Blesses (or, happy) are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." The world is a tough place, and Messiah has come to make a difference in our mess.
His effect is transformative: GOOD news (v1), binding up the brokenhearted. Psalm 147(3) says, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." Knowing Jesus provides comfort and assurance no matter what heart-break you may be facing.
The prophet says Christ will 'proclaim freedom for the captives': speaking to the Jews who believed Him, Jesus likened sin to a type of slavery and said that if they hold to His teaching, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free...So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (Jn 8:32,36) Maybe there's some addiction or craving or tendency trying to trap you, it's taking control of your life: Christ has power to set you free from what would reduce you to the gutter.
63:1 promises "release from darkness for the prisoners..." A sinful or carnal outlook on life is a dark mindset, focused on deceptive idols. Paul says Jesus called him to be an apostle in these terms: "...to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'" (Ac 26:18)
63:2 begins, "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour..." Paul wrote to the Corinthians in view of what Jesus had accomplished, "I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, now is the day of salvation." (2Cor 6:2) Have you opted to take God up on His favourable offer rather than His approaching wrath? Jesus has done you a HUGE favour by paying your way.
63:2 also refers to "the day of vengeance of our God..." Paul wrote that when Christ comes a second time in glory, "He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." (2Th 1:8) God's justice and vengeance will settle the score for those who reject Him and His ways.
63:2 also says Messiah will 'comfort all who mourn.' Knowing Jesus, Paul could write that the God of all comfort "comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." This happens as "through Christ our comfort overflows" (2Cor 1:4f).
63:3 says Messiah will "provide for those who grieve" by bestowing beauty, "the oil of gladness instead of mourning..." Jesus' death and resurrection offer real hope and consolation for those who grieve. Jesus told His followers, "I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy...(and) Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." (Jn 16:20,22) When we truly encounter the Resurrected One, death no longer is the last word.
Verse 8 says, "I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them." As those who are Christ's we benefit from what we call a 'new covenant', the New Testament; Hebrews 13:20 says God "through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus..." That covenant or deal is cut on the basis of Jesus' precious and holy blood, given for us. As a result those who believe in His name can sport what v10 refers to: "...He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness..." Where's that going to come from in our sinful world? Galatians 3(27), "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." Philippians 3(9), Paul writes about "not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith."
So, you can see that Jesus has checked off the list - each of the Messianic predictions in Isaiah 63 has its fulfilment in the New Testament as a result of His coming.
JOY'S UNFLICKERING SOURCE: GOD'S UNCHANGING PASSIONS
Recently installing our outdoor Christmas lights and putting up the indoor lights on our Christmas tree, I was reminded of the fickleness of this world's constructs. Have you ever checked a set of lights on the floor or ground, then put them up and they won't work? Isn't that infuriating? All it takes is a little jiggle and if one bulb becomes loose, the whole chain won't light up. This year wasn't too bad, just one section of the string wasn't working. I went through the section one light at a time and replaced bulbs in their sockets from an older 'skeleton' set. But is the joy the Bible talks about like that - here one moment, gone the next? Is what it's based on that fleeting and fickle?
Joy predominates in this chapter of Isaiah. And we can see what it's based on is at the core of God's character: our joy comes from God's unchanging passions, what 'drives' Him. V3 "the oil of gladness...a garment of praise..." V7 "they will rejoice in their inheritance...everlasting joy will be theirs." V10, "I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God.[WHY? What's motivating this joy? Note the little preposition that follows, linking joy to its source] For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness..." Being found in Christ, cloaked in His righteousness, is at the heart of joy for the Christian. We rejoice because of what God's done for us -- that's not flickering, it's not going to change.
Likewise, note that same little preposition bridging vv7&8: "...everlasting joy will be theirs.For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them..." What's joy rooted in here? God's attributes, His passions; joy will be theirs FOR [3 things] I love justice...I hate robbery and iniquity...My faithfulness...
Take those one at a time. Yahweh loves justice. Remember that great verse when we were studying Jeremiah, 9:24? "...'but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the LORD." God really, deeply, passionately cares about justice.
This week the provincial government faced criticism about the 'perimeter law' during the G20 summit. Now the premier has expressed his own misgivings about it. The Toronto chief of police followed suit with some comments that showed more openness, admitting mistakes may have been made, bounds overstepped. They're agreeing justice is important. Radio commentators noted that if the premier accepted responsibility, that seemed to encourage the chief of police to own up to his responsibility as well.
What else is on God's heart? V8, "I hate robbery and iniquity..." A local businessman related his employee didn't report for work one day because his truck had been stolen; he'd left the keys in it while popping into the grocery store for a bag of milk, and when he came out again it was gone. The police told him the thieves would probably use that truck all night for stealing things. Sheer robbery. Then another man tells me of vandals who set fire to his deck - no good reason, just mischief. That's our human bentness expressing itself - iniquity. Or, how many times would your innocence have been stolen by the media, or an internet search result turns out to be a page offering to find someone selling sex in the Exeter area?
God hates robbery and iniquity. "Hate" is a strong word - but a holy God has strong convictions. Strong enough to send His only beloved Son to the cross so you might be rid of what would keep you from fellowship with Him forever.
V8, "In my faithfulness I will reward them..." Faithfulness is a core attribute of God; you can count on Him. He doesn't lie. "...the Father of the heavenly lights ...does not change like shifting shadows." (Jas 1:17) We can have deep, unwavering joy based on who God is and what He's passionate about at heart.
JOY PROMPTS A MINISTRY OF MENDING
So, where does that leave believers - just sitting around soaking up heavenly joy-juice, oblivious to this world of hurt that surrounds us? Would we have even had a Messiah if Jesus had just stuck around heaven soaking in the eternal loving fellowship of the Father and the Holy Spirit? No - His joy spilled forth, it wanted to be shared.
61:3 says those bestowed with the oil of gladness "will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendour." We're to broadcast God's goodness, display His glory to others. In John 15(8) Jesus said, "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." Don't be closet-Christians - others won't get to see God-in-you that way. Paul prayed His converts would be "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-- to the glory and praise of God." (Php 1:11) What opportunities do those around have to see the fruitfulness of your spirituality - or is that hidden away in a 'Sunday morning only' compartment?
What are the redeemed busy about? 61:4 says, "They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities..." Christ in us is a rebuilder, renewer, renovating what's been wrecked. Are your thoughts and words CONstructive - or kind of like a wrecking-ball?
V6, "And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God." A priest mediates and represents; Jesus alone is the one Mediator between God and people, but people should sense we are God's ambassadors, we're safe to talk to, they can confide in us and even confess things they might tell no one else - which we can then pray with or at least for them about, bringing them to Jesus. Disciples are God's 'ministers' on earth. Peter wrote, "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." This is holy work, linking people to the living Lord. We're to present our bodies as 'living sacrifices' (Rom 12:1). The purpose of the pastor/teach according to Ephesians 4(12) is to prepare a whole churchful of people 'for works of service' - another word for ministry. Who's nearby that you can serve in the name of Christ?
A reporter once asked Mother Teresa where God was when a baby died in a back alley in Calcutta. She replied that God was right there suffering along with the baby; then added [I'm paraphrasing], "What's more to the point, where were YOU?"
We receive joy, we are comforted so that we in turn may comfort others with the same comfort we've been blessed with through faith in Christ.
We are called to minister to those we meet; what was Jesus' style of ministry? He was very willing and available. He got his hands dirty. He was criticized by religious types for hanging out with 'sinners' and outcasts. Our Father is glorified when we're willing to be unsung servants.
For example, weather caused the annual Wingham hospital Christmas service to be cancelled this past Wednesday. I wondered if there could be even the regular weekly chapel service, but the designated pastor couldn't make it in from Brussels. But we have a couple of dedicated volunteer singers who feel the Lord's called them to a ministry of singing each week at the chapel service. I called them up, and they were quite happy in view of the changed plans just to lead a time of singing Christmas carols. I told them they're a blessing to the patients, but the fellow replied, "Rather, the Lord makes it a blessing to us when we do it.It's good for us, too!"
Would faith in Christ prompt one even to mess with a terrorist? ChristianWeek newspaper reports that there's a surprising link between King's University College in Edmonton and famous Canadian convict at Guantanamo Bay, Omar Khadr. It's a long story but since 2008 English professor and dean of arts Arlette Zinck has been corresponding with Khadr, sending him encouraging words, novels to read, and writing assignments. She testified at his sentencing hearing in October. How would she describe Khadr, who was 11 years old when his father took him to Afghanistan to train as a fighter? She says, "The young man I met in his letters is courteous, outward focused - remarkably so - intelligent, thoughtful and generous."
Not everyone agrees with Zinck's connection with the convict - or that she and her colleagues for the next year are going to provide a curriculum to help tutor him in his Cuban prison. Some of the school's supporters have chosen to stop contributing to King's, and she herself has received angry responses. Yet she says, "When you fear God alone then you walk very purposefully and very decidedly toward that which you feel God calling you to do even when people write you scary letters."
And how does Omar Khadr himself feel about their correspondence? Who can tell what redemptive, healing effect this connection may have on his soul? He wrote to her from his cell, "Your letters are like candles very bright in my hardship and darkness." (REPEAT)
Messiah comes to proclaim "release from darkness for the prisoners...They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendour." You don't all have to go out and find a terrorist; but as obedient servants, share the joy of knowing Him however you can! Let's pray.