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A Savior Has Been Born to You December 25, 2011

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Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Day

December 25, 2011

Focus: God remains faithful to His covenant.

Function: That the hearers see Christ’s life as a whole, not a set of pericopes.

Structure: This or that?  Both this and that.

 

A Savior Has Been Born to You

            As most of you know, we’ve spent the past month celebrating the season of Advent.  And as Advent means coming, we take that time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah.  It’s a time to reflect on ourselves, our lives, and how we are doing in our walk with God.  But it’s also a time for us to focus more on the history of creation.   It’s a chance to expand our knowledge of our past.  Too often as Christians, we can focus so narrowly on one event that we miss out on the true masterpiece that God has created.

During our midweek services this Advent, we took the time to look at the rest of the masterpiece.  We took the time to explore some of the depths of Scripture and to see the connections that make it so awesome.  But since not all of us could attend the Advent services, a brief summary should be considered.

We all know that God created the heavens and the earth, Adam and Eve, and all things.  We know about the fall into sin when Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  At this point, God had the right to do away with His creation, just like we do when a car breaks down or we break a plate or a glass; we throw them away.  But instead, God chose to stick it out.  He made a covenant, an unbreakable vow, to Abraham that He would be their God, and they would be His people.  He would make them into a great nation, giving Abraham more descendants than he could count.  Abraham’s line would produce kings, and Abraham’s descendants would inherit great lands.

As we moved along, we saw how each of these promises came true.  In Exodus, the people inherit the promised land.  In Samuel and Kings, we see kings who were descendants of Abraham.  And throughout it all, we see Yahweh being their God, providing for them every step of the way.

Yahweh was faithful to His covenant at all times.  Despite the worst of the sins of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, despite their turning away to worship false gods, despite their breaking of the covenant, God remained faithful to them at all times.  He continued to preserve them as a people, His people.  He continued to provide for them and help them grow as a nation.

But along with all of this, we kept seeing these signs, these little things along the way that pointed to something greater.  We saw a reference in God’s punishment of the serpent in the fall, that Eve’s offspring would crush his head.  We saw a reference in Isaiah of how a king would come from Abraham, a king of all people.  We saw a new covenant to be made in Jeremiah in which God would give forgiveness to men.  We saw a reference to One who would save and redeem the people of Judah.

All of these things pointed to the same man, a Messiah, a Savior who was to come.  All of Advent, we prepared for His coming.  And now, on this Christmas morning, the moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived.  “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior has come!

The bare essence of God’s covenant with us as His children is that He is our God, and we are His people.  When you boil it down, it’s all about our relationship with Him, a relationship which we broke by sinning against God and living life our own way.  But that’s why the Savior came.  Yahweh sent His Son Jesus into the world to fix the relationship.  God could have given up on us, but He didn’t.  He gave us a solution, a sacrifice to pay for our sins.

The past few weeks, the various Bible studies here at church have given me a few things to think about.  During our Wednesday morning Bible study this week, Pastor pointed out how American Christianity likes to focus more on Christ’s birth than Christ’s death.  A cooing baby boy is a more pleasant thing to talk about than a man who’s bleeding to death.  So Pastor actually shifted the focus of class more towards the cross than the manger.

And in Mark Wilkening’s class on Sunday morning a few weeks ago, he wrapped up the class with some good ol’ gospel, challenging any of us to think of a better gift, a greater gift, than Jesus and the salvation that He gives to us.  I had a smart-alic answer, but I kept it to myself.  But it connects today, so I’m going to say it now.  What about creation?  If push comes to shove, which is the greater gift: that God created you, or that He saved you?

It creates a paradox for us.  If God hadn’t created us, we wouldn’t need saving.  But if we aren’t saved, creation would be a terrible thing.  It’s a paradox, and that’s okay.  Paradoxes are one of the things that separate and distinguish the Lutheran church from other church bodies.  We’re okay with saying that we don’t know.  We’re okay saying that sometimes we have to hold things in tandem, even though it doesn’t make sense.

Think about that for a moment.  Paradoxes are all over in our theology.  Are you a saint, or a sinner?  The Bible calls you a saint, you know you are a saint via your baptism, but yet you sin don’t you?  Well, sinning means you’re not a Christian.  So which are you?  Are you a saint, or a sinner?  And Lutherans answer, Yes.

What about the Lord’s Supper?  How can the elements in the meal be both bread and body, both wine and blood, at the same time?  We don’t see the blood or the body, and we don’t taste them, but they’re there.  And yet, the bread and wine don’t just vanish either, as the Catholics teach philosophically, but they are both still there.  So what does Luther say?  In, with, and under.

And what about predestination?  God, in His foreknowledge, saves the elect, those who believe.  But doesn’t that also mean He condemns everyone else to Hell as most Protestant churches today say when they believing in double-predestination?  No, that’s saying too much.

And then at the very heart of it all, we have law and gospel.  If I quizzed you right now, I would be willing to bet that every one of you would say the Gospel is the dominant one.  But it’s a paradox.  Think about it: without the gospel, we all know the law would beat us down.  But without the law, what need would any of us have for the gospel?  There is a sense of togetherness, of the both/and that is all over theology, and as Lutherans, we seem to love it.

It’s no different with Christ.  Which is more important: His birth at Christmas, or His death and resurrection?  Well, without being born, He couldn’t have died for us.  But, if He hadn’t died for us, His life wouldn’t have been much different than any of our own.  It’s a paradox, it’s a tandem, a team, a beautiful both/and.

As sinners, as covenant breakers, we counted on God giving us a Savior who was both born and sacrificed, died for us to forgive us of our sins.  We needed Yahweh to be faithful to the covenant even though we weren’t.  We needed our relationship to be restored.  And that’s precisely what God did for us when He sent His Son into the world.

And so we hold to the paradox of Christ.  Just like we should look at all of Scripture as a whole, rather than a bunch of small disconnected pieces, so we should think of the life of Christ.  When we think of Christmas, it is easy to think of His birth that day in Bethlehem.  But we shouldn’t limit our vision to just that.  We should always connect it with all of His ministry, and ultimately with His death and resurrection.  It’s not by any one act, but the whole of Christ’s life that makes Him our Savior.

Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, came into the world, born of a virgin named Mary in the little town of Bethlehem.  He grew up going to His Father’s temple and learning the things of this world (another paradox).  And once old enough, Jesus began His ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, baptizing, loving, and forgiving.  And when the Jews finally got the chance, they hung Him on a cross and bled Him to death.  Little did they know that they had actually played into the role God had set up.

Christ was the sacrifice for our sins, the necessary bloodshed for the broken covenant; He took our place.  And on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead.  He ascended into heaven where He reigns at the right hand of His Father, Yahweh.

As Christians, aka those who follow Christ, we must always look to Christ.  But when we see Him, we think of who He is and what He’s done for us.  We call Him Lord and Savior.  We call Him God and King.  We call Him Prince of Peace and Messiah.  We remember what He did.  He came into the world to fulfill the covenant by redeeming us.  He came into the world to restore our relationship with Yahweh, our Father.  And that’s precisely what that baby boy did.  Because of Him, we are loved, forgiven, and saved.  We will live with Him in everlasting glory.

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God Changed a Name: Hosea’s Kids December 21, 2011

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Hosea 1-2

 Advent Midweek 4

December 21, 2011

Focus: God remains faithful to His covenant.

Function: That the hearers find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Structure: Textual.

 

God Changed a Name: Hosea’s Kids

            When they teach us how to write sermons at the seminary, they say we really need to grab everyone’s attention with the introduction.  The same goes for public speaking in general.  So how about this one: prostitutes.  That’s right, Vicar’s going to talk about prostitutes from the pulpit today.  You know the type: men and women who use sex for pleasure or money instead of treating it as the marital blessing that it truly is.  That’s the image that God chose to call Israel, His people.  That’s the image He chose to burden His prophet Hosea with: a prostitute.

Before we dig into Hosea’s life, though, we need to recap our history up to this point.  A few weeks ago, we saw God make His covenant with Abraham, that He would make him into a mighty nation, with offspring too numerous to count.  Kings would even come from Abraham’s descendants.  He promised that He would give him vast lands, which came to be known as the Promised Land.  Yahweh would be their God, and they would be His people.

We see the covenant renewed with Isaac, Abraham’s son.  And we see it renewed again in Isaac’s son Jacob.  But in Jacob, it truly starts to come to fruition.  The command to multiply, the blessing of becoming a nation, all come about in Jacob’s sons, the tribes of Israel.  Read Exodus, and you’ll see the people inherit the promised land.  Read Samuel and Kings and you’ll see the kings that come from Abraham’s descendants.  Read through any and all of the Old Testament and you’ll see God being their God, leading them, fighting for them, strengthening them, and providing for them every step of the way.

This is the covenant of old.  And it’s all about the things God was going to do for them.  So what was expected from the people?  They were to be circumcised; they were to be blameless; they were to act and live as God’s people.

On that same read through of those Old Testament books, you’ll have noticed how the people behaved.  You can’t help but see them as they grumble, doubt, and commit atrocious sins against Yahweh, indeed even turning away from Him and worshipping false gods.  They were anything but blameless.  They did not live as God’s people.

By the way, this covenant, God’s words, still apply to us today.  God still expects us to be blameless, He still expects us to live as His people.  By failing, by sinning and turning away from Him, pleasing ourselves and not our God, we lump ourselves together with the rest of God’s people.  We bind ourselves to the fate of Israel.

But this is where the prophets come in.  They were God’s messengers to call people back to Him, to call them to turn away from their sin and their wickedness and to walk again as children of God.  Isaiah to Israel, Jeremiah to Jerusalem, Jonah to Nineveh.  The prophets all came to bring God’s people back.  Some of the prophets, like Jonah, fought their calling.  Others required signs from God and some even became signs from God.  Hosea was one of the latter; he became a living sign of God.

Yahweh held nothing back from Hosea; He was honest with Him from the beginning.  He told Hosea to go out and to take for himself a wife who was a fornicator, a prostitute.  And on top of that, he is to have children with this woman.  Why?  Why should he do such a thing?

Because that is what the people are doing.  By forsaking God, turning away from Him to follow their own desires, God’s chosen people were just like prostitutes.  They had stopped living life for the blessing that it is, stopped respecting and appreciating the relationship they had with the God who had created them and made them into the nation that they had become. They were living for their own desires.  They whored themselves out for the pleasure and wealth of the world.

God let Hosea know what He was doing.  Hosea was to be the walking image of God.  Hosea represents God, and his wife and children from prostitution represent Israel.  It’s the ultimate in visual aids.  Whenever people would see Hosea, they would see the prostitute and they would question what this prophet and prostitute were doing together.  And when Hosea succeeded as a prophet, they’d realize that they were the prostitute who was being unfaithful to God.

So Hosea does as he was instructed and marries a woman named Gomer, who was well-known for being unfaithful.  And as time passed, they began having children, whose names were prophecies in and of themselves.

The first child, a son, was named Jezreel.  The name means “God sows.”  And here, it references God sowing destruction and ruin among the people.  It prophesies about the end of the nation of Israel, the exile into Assyria and Babylon that was to come.

Their second child, a daughter, was then named Lo-Ruhamah, which in Hebrew means “one who has not experienced compassion or love.”  Her name spelled the true doom of the people.  Through her name, God proclaimed to Israel that they would not know His mercy.  He even spoke with an absolute voice, “I will certainly, surely, not forgive them.”  And at the same time, God proclaimed that He would love and save Judah.  We’ll come back for this point a little later.

Gomer bore a third child, another son, whom they named Lo-Ammi, which means “not My people.”  And here is a good place to correct the English.  If you look at our text, to verse nine, you’ll see the explanation saying “for you are not My people, and I am not your God.”  The word for God is not there in the Hebrew text.  Literally it reads: “for you are not My people and I will not be for you.”  This is an important distinction, because it brings out God’s covenant faithfulness.  God hasn’t stopped being their God.  He hasn’t given up the covenant.  But, rather as they have stopped being His people, He has stopped blessing them.  He will not be for them, He will not act upon them favorably, generously, when they have turned away from Him.

God hasn’t broken the covenant, but His people have, we have.  The punishment for breaking a covenant is death.  This isn’t just a promise that you failed to keep your friend.  You failed God’s covenant, a pact made in blood, that’s the end for you.  That’s part of what makes the image of a prostitute so fitting here.  The punishment for prostitution is also death.  The people around Hosea would have wondered why he didn’t stone Gomer for her wickedness.  Not only did he let her live, but he married her, had a family with her, and went after her when she ran off with other men.  Hosea was faithful to Gomer just as God is always faithful to us despite our running off in wickedness.

That notion that God hasn’t abandoned the covenant, that God hasn’t stopped being their God, is revealed throughout this text.  We get the first glimpse in verse six, when God promises to save Judah.  He will not leave them in their exile, but will indeed restore them.

We see it again in verse ten, as the number of the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea, without measure or number.  Despite their wickedness, the people of Israel continue to grow and multiply as God had promised them in the covenant.

At the end of chapter two and as part of His covenant faithfulness, God performs the great reversal.  He changes names:

“In that day I will respond,” declares the LORD– “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth; 22 and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. 23 I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God. ‘”

 

God reverses the names of each of Hosea’s children.  Jezreel, God sows, goes from being seeds of destruction to the sowing a people.  The people of God will be planted, rooted, established as God’s people in the land that He has given them.  Lo-Ruhamah, the one who has not experienced love or compassion, becomes Ruhamah, because God will show love to her.  And Lo-Ammi, not My people, becomes Ammi, as God will claim them as His people.  “’You are My people,’ and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”

In the third chapter, this becomes all the more clear.  Gomer, in her unfaithfulness, gets into such a bind that she is now property to someone else.  Hosea literally had to buy her back.  He pays with silver and barley to redeem his bride unto himself.  Despite her unfaithfulness!

This is the same way God is with His people, both Israel and us.  Despite our unfaithfulness to His covenant, despite our continuously chasing after false idols, He continues to keep it.  He continues to bring us back to Himself.  He sent His only Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die on the cross.  It is Christ’s death that redeems us.  It is His blood that buys us back.  He alone is faithful.  Just as we saw in reversing each child’s name, Yahweh continuing to show His faithfulness to His covenant, so we are redeemed in Christ.

This Advent season, we have dwelled upon God’s covenant and the relationship He has with us as His people.  In this time of preparation, we wait for the coming King, the Messiah promised to us long ago.  This Savior is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with His people.  This Messiah brings about mercy and forgiveness.

While we do not live as God’s people, He still makes us His people.  We don’t deserve God’s mercy, but we get His mercy.  We don’t deserve forgiveness, and yet God forgives us anyway.  We break the covenant, but God keeps the covenant.  We sin and run away, but God redeems us and brings us back.  We aren’t faithful, but God is faithful.

 

 

God Changed a Name: Pashhur December 14, 2011

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I preached this sermon this afternoon.  I wanted to upload the audio file, but WordPress isn’t that cool, they wanted my money.  So, here is the text at least.  Read it with a slight Arabic or even Middle-eastern accent.  It is a dramatic monologue, rather than a typical sermon, my first of the kind.  Enjoy!

Jeremiah 19:14-20:6
Advent Midweek 3
December 14, 2011

Focus: God restores His people.
Function: That the hearers fear Yahweh.
Structure: Monologue.

God Changed a Name: Pashhur

I am here gentle people of God to offer you a warning. What, you do not recognize me? How can you pretend that you don’t know who I am? Oh, how far have I fallen. I am Pashhur, or at least I was Pashhur once. You must hear my tale; you must mark my words. These are desperate times.
I was once a great leader of my people. I, Pashhur son of Immer, held the office of priest in God’s temple. No, more than that, I was the lead overseer of the temple. The people respected me. When I spoke, they listened to my every word. I had status. I had wealth. I had power. Now, now I would give all of that up for a scrap of dignity. I have lost everything I once held dear.
Curse you Jeremiah! Curse the day you stepped foot into my temple. If only I had listened…if only…
Most of you probably do not know the day of which I speak, so let me tell the story of this young man. I had heard of his rabble before. I had heard whisperings amongst the people. He spoke to the people in Topheth and told them that they would be killed with the sword. He broke a clay pot and told them that like that pot could not be fixed, neither could they. He spoke to others too. He was spreading these rumors that a powerful nation would come and lay our holy city under siege. That they would bind up our towns and starve us out. That they would tear down the very temple of God! How dare he utter such blasphemy! No one could destroy God’s temple! Or at least, that’s what I used to think.
I will never forget that awful day. That cursed day when Jeremiah walked into the temple. He was an absolute nut, completely mad. He raved like a lunatic. He started shouting these prophecies, these wretched blasphemies. He claimed to be a messenger of God. He claimed that our temple would crumble. I was the overseer of that temple. How could I allow him to get away with speaking such blasphemy?
I did what any sane man would have done. I beat him. I punched him, whipped him, and swore at him. He must know that his false words must come to an end. I left him out in the stocks overnight. That was supposed to give him the chance to think about what he’d said and done. But did he? No!
Instead of repenting of his treachery, the scum came out preaching at me. He spoke to me the final words I would ever hear him say. He prophesied about my demise; He claimed that Yahweh changed my name. “No longer will you be called Pashhur,” he told me, “but Magor-Missaviv.”
Maybe you don’t understand the ramifications of this. To you, names mean nothing. But to us Hebrews, names matter. You could even say we are superstitious when it comes to the meaning of our name. A name matters. Your name has an impact on your life and who you will become. My name was good enough. Pashhur is “one who tears the linen in pieces.” Sure, it may not sound like the greatest name, but it sufficed. People who worked with linen things were honorable folk. But Magor-Missaviv?! Could Jeremiah have cursed me anymore that day?!
Magor-Missaviv means terror from every side. At first, I shrugged off this concern, this prophecy. I ignored the words of this man for some time. After all, he was nothing more than a babbling fool, a false prophet. Sure, Babylon was strong, but no way could they take the temple, the holy city. We were a proud people. And that arrogance ended up being part of our downfall.
As time passed, I remember hearing of the growing power of the king of Babylon. He was claiming land after land and inching his way closer to us. That’s when I started to remember the words Jeremiah had spoken that day. That’s when I started to fear the name he called me that awful day.
There was nothing I could do. Nothing. I mean, if God had truly decided to turn against us, what could I do, just one pathetic little man. My fear grew…and then they came.
The army of Babylon marched upon our city. Nebuchadnezzar marched on us. No allies came to our aid during that time. The Babylonians scared our farmers and drove them into the city walls. And then, when they had us pinned down, trapped like prey, the sat. They just waited us out. In our pride, we wouldn’t go down so easily.
We starved. We exhausted our food supply. Sickness and death dwindled away at our population. It was as Jeremiah had told me. I was cursed. I had to sit and watch as my loved ones died horrible deaths. Why didn’t I listen?!
The curse didn’t end either. Those of us unfortunate enough to survive were dragged off; taken away from our homes and our land, taken to that God-forsaken land of Babylon. We were less than slaves to them. They worked us day and night. If we died in labor, what did they care? We weren’t slaves, slaves have value. We were vermin. We are vermin. And I am still cursed.
I work alongside what few are left of my brothers here in Babylon. I have lost all for whom I cared. All of my loved ones, those close to me, dead. Either killed by starvation, or mercifully by the sword so that it would be painless. Our number grows smaller by the day.
There are rumors among us. Some of us who listened more closely to the prophet’s words, to Jeremiah’s words, some of us heard him tell of freedom, of redemption. He foretold of a day when our mourning would turn to joy; a day when our people would return home and rebuild; a day when our children would no longer know this suffering. And they say that he even spoke of a new covenant. A new agreement between God and men in which Yahweh Himself will put His law upon our hearts; a day when He will be our God and we shall live as His people. It will be an age when all mankind will know Yahweh as their God. No one will have to teach another about Him, for they will all know Him. He foretold of forgiveness. That somehow our sins and iniquity would be forgiven. I know of no such sacrifice. But the people are starting to believe. They are starting to hope for this new covenant, a new day, and a God who forgives.
Whatever that may entail, I know that I will not taste it. Everything else the prophet said from God has come true. And he foretold my end that blasted day. I will not escape this grave. I will die. I will be buried among these foreigners who care nothing of my existence. I will die in this shame and dishonor.
But this, this is why I have come to you this day. I fear I must warn you before it’s too late. You must know what Jeremiah said. You must know that his words, words that were truly given to him by God, these words came true. Yahweh is a righteous God who wants nothing of sin. That much I know. In His holiness, He has surely struck us down for sinful and prideful living. He is definitely a jealous God who pours out wrath on those who turn away to worship false deities.
Fear the Lord. But more than that. Believe in Him. If these words of the prophet Jeremiah continue to hold true, there is hope yet. The God I knew, was not who God really was. I knew a God of wrath that even our sacrifices failed to appease. But this Jeremiah, and other prophets too, speak of a God of love and forgiveness. I do not know if I will ever know this God or if I will die here where I stand.
But you, you must listen to me now! If you remember anything that I have said to you this day, remember this. There have long been whisperings, rumblings, of an heir. An heir, a son of David. These speak of One who will come in glory and triumph. They speak of a coming King, a Messiah if you will. He must be tied somehow with this new covenant, with this loving God who forgives the sins of His people. The prophets say He is coming. I say look for Him! And blessed are you if you see Him or believe in Him. For apart from that hope, there is nothing.
Now I must go, before the taskmasters beat me for my sloth and for speaking to you outsiders. But it is with this, I will leave you. I have lived the nothing, you must live in the hope of this Messiah and His covenant!

The Oaks of Righteousness December 11, 2011

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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

 Third Sunday in Advent

December 10-11, 2011

Focus: God restores His people.

Function: That the hearers rejoice in God’s righteousness.

Structure: Then and Now.

The Oaks of Righteousness

            Prophecy is a lost art.  If we hear someone prophesying today we either think they’re demonic or just off their rocker, completely crazy.  But it wasn’t always that way.  There was an age when prophecy was a part of life.  There was a time when the world saw a number of real prophets among all the fakers.  Much of the Bible attests to this.  From minor prophets like Haggai and Malachi, to major prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, even to John with the book of Revelation.  The apostle Paul identifies the ability to prophesy as a gift of the spirit in the church.  Prophecy is an important tool God uses in His kingdom.

With the depth of prophecy in the Scriptures, it’s important for us as Christians to understand how prophecy works and to look at it from time to time.  Prophecy is a gift from God, but more than that, it is a gift from God to the ones who hear it.  When a prophet speaks, the words are not his words, but God’s words meant to impact and shape the hearer.  When Jonah went and prophesied to Nineveh, he wanted to see God pour out His wrath on those wicked pagans.  But God wanted to bring about repentance in their pagan hearts.  And when Jonah proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed, God’s words struck the hearts of the people, and they repented.  It was God’s message and God’s intent that the people of Nineveh heard that day.

The other important aspect to bear in mind when discussing prophecy is that it often has a two-fold time element.  By that I mean it carries a both a present meaning, and a future meaning.  The words of the prophet have an impact for the immediate hearers, a specific relevance for them in their lives, but prophecy sometimes also refers to future reality which is tied to Christ.  In the fall, when God was laying out the punishment for Adam, Eve, and the serpent, He gave an example of a two-fold prophecy.  He told the serpent that He would put enmity, or hatred between the serpent and the woman, and between their descendants.  He also said that Eve’s descendant would bruise the serpent’s head, while the serpent bruised his heel.  We see that in life with the hatred of snakes, crushing them, or when they bite us.  But it was also a prophecy of Christ, who would conquer Satan.  We see another example of two-fold prophesy today in our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah.

Much of what the prophet Isaiah spoke about during his lifetime was the exile of Judah, the fall of Jerusalem.  His work begins with a rebuking of God’s people for their sinful living.  Through Isaiah, God goes as far as saying He no longer wants their sacrifices and their burning of incense.  He no longer wants their new moon and Sabbath festivals.  He despised them; they had become an abomination.  He called them out on their hypocrisy, their worshipping of false gods, and their rampant wickedness.  Yahweh even said He would no longer listen to them when they spread out their hands in prayer.

Isaiah goes on and puts this in imagery they’ll understand, images of nature.

But rebels and sinners shall be broken together and those who forsake Yahweh shall be consumed.  For they shall be ashamed of the oaks that you desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen.  For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water.  And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.

He chastises them for their idol worship when he compares them to oak trees and gardens.  It’s a reference to the pagan worship of certain fertility gods.  But it also rebukes them for thinking they could be just like a mighty oak tree, for being proud, dominating, and thinking they were self-sufficient.

And while they were a sinful bunch deserving exile and death, we see in our text today that they’ll receive something better than that.  In the first half, Isaiah speaks to a people who are oppressed.  His words and imagery extend to a people in exile, in slavery.  He tells them they will be freed from their captivity, broken hearts will be healed, the grieving and the mourning will receive comfort.  Instead of covering themselves in ashes to mourn, they will wear a crown of beauty.  Their mourning will turn to gladness.  And instead of despair, they will give praise to God.

Isaiah then brings back the image of the mighty oak tree.  “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of Yahweh for the display of His splendor.”  He reverses the image from before.  No longer is the oak a negative.  But now, it mean firm, rooted, strong, lasting, tall, inspiring.  All of these describe the picture.  And when King Cyrus sets the people of Judah free from captivity in Babylon, they return home, rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple of God.  They rejoice in their freedom and give praise for their newfound gladness.  Their behavior, at least temporarily, exhibits the righteousness of God for the rest of the nations to see.

But as we said, prophecy often has a two-fold function, a now and a then.  And it’s a good thing too, because Judah didn’t remain righteous very long.  The present reality of Isaiah’s words came and went swiftly.  But the future reality remains to this day.  For when we look at these words, we see a prophecy about the Messiah, about Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Messiah is the Lord’s anointed.  He is the One who was sent into the world to preach good news to the poor, to heal broken hearts, to free prisoners from darkness and captivity.  He came to comfort the mourning and the grieving.  All of these things speak of being spiritually dead in sin.  The poor and the mourning, the captive and the grieving.  All are ways of expressing sins grasp on mankind.  A grasp which Jesus Christ destroyed on the cross.

In our baptisms, we were clothed with the crown of beauty, the oil of gladness, and the garment of praise.  We received all of these things from Christ when the Holy Spirit created faith in us.  We have been set free from our bondage to sin, and now live in Christ.

And now we return to being called Oaks of Righteousness.  We return to the point where we have been called to be a “planting of Yahweh for the display of His splendor.”  We are called to live out our faith, to live and to love as Christ loves us.  We are called to be holy, to be righteous, that others may see it and come to know Yahweh and His Son Jesus.  We see this in our text:

“Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples.  All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people Yahweh has blessed…the Lord Yahweh will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

We are called to be mighty oaks, displaying God’s righteousness, love, and salvation.  It’s as Christ said: first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles.  The message of our God is not for a select people.  God desires His love to be known by all men.  As Christians, as children of God, the world looks at us differently.  They expect us to be perfect and pounce on us whenever we sin or show signs of weakness.  But we must remember that we are God’s children, we are His oaks, and we are strong because He is strong.

As oak trees have roots that dig down into the earth to keep them strong, so does our faith.  It is not something we come up with on our own, but a gift given to us by God; a gift which He strengthens and nourishes.  In the same way, we can only be oaks of righteousness, we can only follow His command, because He gives us the strength.  It is only by His power that we can come to faith and live the way that He wants us to live, righteous as His children.

Isaiah uses another image to help us understand his message.  He talks about weddings and wedding clothes.  I would say that we’ve done up weddings today much more so than the people of the Old Testament.  After all, the average cost of a wedding in our country these days is $26,000.  Most of us know the drill.  It’s a big celebration of a big event.  We have the ceremony in the church, which is decorated with flowers and pew bows, candles and aisle runners.  And of course, everyone is dressed their best.  But none quite like the bride and groom.  The groom in his tux and the bride in the wedding gown.  It’s a beautiful event made to be picture perfect.

But what would all of the pomp and grandeur be if not for the actual wedding itself?  If it weren’t for the bride and groom becoming one, everything else would just be a worthless show.  That’s the image brought together here by Isaiah.  The garment of salvation or the robe of righteousness, the headdress or the jewels, apart from God, these would all be nothing.  Salvation and righteousness are only ours because of God.

The New Testament expands this image when it makes Christ the groom and the church His bride.  Because of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice, we have the fullness of this prophecy.  Not only are we free from captivity and healed in the heart; not only has our mourning turned to rejoicing and our grief to praise; not only have we been called oaks of righteousness; but we have become children of God, blessed and saved by Him.

He has taken us to Himself, made us a part of His covenant, and thus a part of His family.  All of His love, His blessings, His mercy, and His care are given to us.  And now we are blessed with the opportunity in life to give Him thanks and praise, and as oaks of righteousness, we are on display, that we can witness and share His love with those around us who don’t yet know Him.

And as we wrap up, it’s as good a time as any to mention that prophecy can refer to the end time also.  As God’s children, we await the day when Christ returns and together with Him we all live in everlasting paradise.  And as paradise implies, there will be no grieving or mourning, no prison or captivity, no broken hearts or poor.  There will only be comfort, gladness, and praise.  So “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

God Changed a Name: Jacob December 7, 2011

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Genesis 32:22-32

 Advent Midweek 2

December 7, 2011

Focus: God blesses His people through His covenant.

Function: That the hearers find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Structure: Working the text.

 

God Changed a Name: Jacob

            Last week we looked at the life of Abraham and his wife Sarah.  We saw Yahweh establish a covenant with Abraham, that He would make him into a great nation, with numerous offspring, and that He would give him the entire land of Canaan.  He then changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai to Sarah, to remind them of the covenant, and how that would keep the promises of God constantly in their minds.

Sure, the promises of God were great.  But what’s a promise if it isn’t kept?  For many of you, perhaps you thought I lacked a gospel punch at the end of the sermon last Wednesday; that I didn’t tie the covenant into the coming Messiah quite enough.  We’ll get there, trust me.  We’re building up to that this month; we’re preparing for the Messiah; we’re making straight the path for the coming Christ; it is Advent after all.

So today, we take the next step.  We begin to trace the covenant beyond just Abraham.  While many Christians know the more important people and stories of the Old Testament, it often seems like we fail to truly connect the dots.  We don’t really piece together the masterpiece that God’s Word truly is.  So while name changes are a fun thing to look at, well, at least they are for me, that’s not truly what this Advent sermon series is about.  See, the name changes help us paint the bigger picture.  The changes that God makes help us draw the picture of the gospel throughout the history of creation.  That’s why I’m happy to say: it’s back to the drawing board.

When Yahweh promised Abraham the land and all the offspring, He did it through Abraham’s son Isaac.  As time went on, Isaac grew up, became a man, and had children of his own in Esau and Jacob.  Grandpa Abraham died when his two grandsons were just fifteen years old.  A few years later, a harsh famine hit the land.  To survive it, Isaac packed up the family and moved them to Gerar, in the land of the Philistines.  He even began to think about permanently relocating them down to Egypt, to a rich and fertile land.  But just when he seemed to have forgotten, Yahweh appeared to him to remind him of the covenant.

And Yahweh appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. 4I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Gn 26:2-5

 

Again, we have absolute gospel in the Old Testament.  God promises to bless His people in all His fullness.  There is even a Messianic promise in there: “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”  The word for offspring in Hebrew there is singular.  It refers to a one heir, a specific descendant who will come some fifteen hundred years later.  Yahweh is referencing the Christ.  But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We’re working at the bigger picture.

The Messianic line traces all the way back to Abraham.  Any time someone had multiple children along the way, the family tree splits.  We know that, when there’s two kids you draw separate lines to each of them, and they start their own trees.  Well in the case of the Messiah, this happens generation after generation when you trace it back.  Isaac’s first two sons, twin boys, were Esau and Jacob.  Esau was born first, with Jacob grasping his heel as he came out.  That’s where Jacob’s name comes from.  It means “he grasps the heel.”  It also carries a connotation of cheating or deception.

In this stage of culture, the firstborn son inherited everything.  All the wealth, the land, the livestock, the servants, everything that was his father’s goes to him.  In Isaac’s case, that also meant the covenant blessing of becoming a great nation, and eventually the Messiah.  That was Esau’s birthright.  A birthright he sold for a bowl of red stew.  Perhaps you remember that part of his life.  He came in from hunting one day claiming that if he didn’t eat something right then, he’d die of starvation.  It just so happened that his brother Jacob had some red stew hot and ready.  Starving to death, Esau bartered away his birthright for that stew.  He gave up the privilege of bearing the Christ.  And then later, when Isaac was on his deathbed, Rebekah helped Jacob trick Isaac into thinking he was Esau.  And so Jacob stole the father’s blessing as well.

Jacob, he who grasps the heel, the cheater, the deceiver, the one who snuck his way into the Messianic line.  But then again, who in that lineage was perfect anyway?  There’s even a prostitute in that family tree.  It’s a miracle that God worked through sinners to bring about salvation in Christ.

So the covenant, the promises, the blessing continued on in Jacob.  And as time passed, Jacob moved in with Laban, a relative of his, married both of Laban’s daughters, and worked for him for fourteen years.  Yahweh prospered Jacob there among the people.  Eventually, Jacob decided it was time to return back to his homeland, and it’s on his way that we pick up our first lesson.

It’s the crazy and befuddling tale of Jacob wrestling with God.  Most people never get past the idea that God couldn’t win a fight with a man.  But let’s put that detail aside and look at the point of the appearance of Yahweh.  Did God have a hidden motive?  Well if He did, it’s still hidden.  But Yahweh did appear to Jacob; He came to meet the heir of the covenant face to face.  After God departs, Jacob realizes this and names the place Peniel, or “face of God,” because He saw God face to face there and lived.

And in terms of the reminders we mentioned last week, God definitely handed Jacob a couple of them.  First, He leaves him a physical ailment, a limp.  And as though that weren’t enough of a reminder, God changes his name.  No longer is he to be Jacob, a deceiver, but now Israel, one who strives or struggles with God.  Yahweh tells him that specifically, and even adds that it’s because he’s striven with God and men and he’s prevailed.

There’s an interesting connection here that’s lost in English.  The Hebrew verb that makes up the root of Israel, that means “to strive,” is Sarah.  It’s the name of Jacob’s grandmother.  Did God rename Sarah that because of His foreknowledge that He would one day wrestle with her grandson, and change his name to Israel?  Just something to think about.

God appears to Jacob again in our second reading.  Again Yahweh blesses Jacob and tells him of the name change to Israel.  But it’s more than that.  God comes specifically to Jacob at this time to remind him of the covenant that He has with him.  God is God.  Nations will come from Jacob.  Kings will be among his descendants.  And the promised land of his fathers would be his also.  The covenant, the promises, the blessing already being fulfilled in him are laid out again for him to see, to know, and to remember.

When Yahweh changed Jacob’s name to Israel, it’s perhaps the most important name change in the Bible.  I say that because Israel becomes more than just a name.  Israel had twelve sons, each of whom had more children of their own.  Indeed, each of them became tribes of their own.  And together they were known as the sons of Israel.  Over time, that phrase was shortened, and they became the nation of Israel.  Jacob’s offspring became a nation as promised.

We know of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  We know them as the ones whom Moses led out of slavery in Egypt.  We know them as the ones who inherited the Promised Land.  But this is their past.  They are Israel because Jacob was Israel.  The play on that name is that while it was Jacob Israel who strived with God, it is now God who strives with Israel the nation.  They are the ones who grumbled about the lack of water and food.  They are the ones who then complained that they had to eat the same thing every day.  They are the ones who erected the golden calf to worship instead of Yahweh.  We could go on and on about the sins and complaints of that nation that God struggled against.

But even through all of that, Israel was still the chosen people of God.  He could have ended His relationship with them at any time because of their failures and their falling away.  But instead, Yahweh chose to remain faithful to His covenant.  He continued to hold on to the promises that He made to them and their fathers before them.  And over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to unfold our history.  We’ll continue to paint the picture of the covenant, of God’s faithfulness.  We’ll see kings come from Israel.  And on Christmas Eve, we’ll see the grand masterpiece, we’ll see our King.  Amen.