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A Joyful Harvest January 22, 2017

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Isaiah 9:1-4

Third Sunday After Epiphany

January 22nd, 2017

 

Focus:  God grants salvation to all people in and through His Son Jesus Christ.

Function:  That the hearers rejoice in Christ.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

 

A Joyful Harvest

 

The first image I want you to consider today is a little hard for us to picture.  It’s difficult because we’re so far removed from it.  But the idea of the spoils of war is more than the loot a pirate steals.  It’s the reward of a battle hard fought, a victory won.

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is filled with examples of dividing up the spoils of war.  Even the very entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land, as they then divide the land amongst the tribes.  Or, more connected to prophets and their writings, when Babylon came and conquered Jerusalem, as they laid waste to that holy city, what do you think they did with the temple?

Our present day economists have estimated the value of the temple and its furnishings in today’s dollars to be about $2 billion.  Now, while I don’t want to imagine the bloodshed, and the tears, the pains of war, I think the reward is something we can understand.  Imagine an army of a few thousand men splitting a couple billion dollars’ worth of gold!

That’s not quite how it went down, but it can help us understand what God is talking about in our prophecy from Isaiah.  There’s both the relief that the war is over, that your life is no longer on the line in battle as it’s now a time of peace, and also the excitement of some new prosperity.  Which of you wouldn’t get a little giddy if someone just handed you $10,000?

The other analogy that the prophet speaks is much easier for most of us to picture.  And while I’ve never personally lived it, many of you have.  As you spend month after month, tirelessly pouring your strength into the soil of the earth around you.  Praying, trusting in the Lord’s provisions.  And then they come.  October, November, whenever it may be, as you head out into the fields to reap the harvest.

Many more weeks, a lot more sweat, but in time, you’ve gathered in all the crops from your fields.  What comes to mind with that picture?  You’ve trusted in the Lord for His provisions, and He’s provided.  There’s great comfort in being able to care for your family.  There’s great relief in knowing that your labor was not in vain.

I’ve been intentionally avoiding the word the prophet Isaiah used for these things.  Because I’m hoping to help you better define that word.  It’s joy.  Joy at dividing the spoils.  Joy at the harvest.  Peace, relief, comfort, excitement.  These things help us encapsulate joy.  Because while happiness can be a part of joy, you can have joy without happiness.

I recently heard a friend, a faithful brother, describe joy as comfort.  And as he reads Scripture, whenever he reads “joy,” he reads “comfort,” whenever he reads “rejoice” he reads “be comforted.”  That’s pretty helpful, and takes the focus off of us and our emotions, and puts the focus back where it belongs, on God and on what He has done for us.

As we pour through the text, that’s what it’s all about, what God has done for us.  And so, when we get there, let’s sub in the word “comfort” and see what encouragement that gives us.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

 

This is written to an exiled people.  They’ve lost a war that they never had a chance to win.  They’ve lost their homes, seen family and friends die.  And worst of all, they’ve betrayed their God, and have no hope, no comfort in His promises.  Gloom is a fitting word for the spot they’re in right now.

And even though this prophecy specifically references the exile, the destruction of Israel by the Assyrian army, it still applies to us.  In fact, in this particular case, this prophecy is more for us than it is for them.  And not just because it mentions being for those beyond the Jordan, for all the nations.

This prophecy is yours because the Israelites rejected it, but God has given it to you.  That’s the beauty of this text.  “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.”  Anguish, mourning, crying out over the pains and consequences of our sins.  This prophecy begins with repentance.  There is no more gloom for those who repent.   And repentance, again, is one of the chief gifts God gives to us.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
Again, us.  Darkness is a common metaphor in Scripture for sin.  We, as sinners, as those who rejected God openly from the moment of our conception, we are walkers in darkness.  We love our sin.  We revel in our sin.  We cling to our gossip and slander.  We obsess over images and perfection.  We regularly fail to trust in God above all things, rather trying to control and micromanage every single aspect of our day to day life.

And yet, we walkers of darkness have seen a great light.  On us, the light of Christ has shown.  That the very Son of God, not just to Israelites, that Christ came to all nations.  He has come to save us.  And that’s the New Testament picture of the spoils of war.  A war between God and the devil. Angels and demons.  With us stuck in the middle, no man’s land if you will.  But it’s in the midst of this war that the soldiers divided the spoils.  That expensive, purple garment that they had used to mock Jesus.  As He hung there on the cross, dying for the very sins that they were committing even in that moment, they sat there casting lots, to see how they would divide the spoils of their victory.

You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
This verse is a great comfort.  Let’s try it again.

You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its comfort; they are comforted before you as with comfort at the harvest, as they are comforted when they divide the spoil.
Comfort, peace, relief, excitement.  We have a treasure, but it’s worth far more than gold.  We have a treasure in our faith, in our God.  We have a treasure in Christ the King of Heaven and Earth!

This is where we stop to think for just a moment about the New Testament harvest.  We could also call it God’s spoils of war, us.  As Christ Himself said, “the fields are white for harvest.” (John 4:35).  God is saving His people.  These New Testament pictures are fulfillment of the prophecy.  These words about Christ, from the very mouth of Christ are the source of our joy and our comfort.

In Christ, in His death and in His resurrection we have all the promises of God.  The promise of peace through the forgiveness of sins is yours in the blood of Christ.  The promise of relief from all our efforts to achieve the perfection of the Law to no avail is yours in Jesus Christ through the perfect life He lived for you.  The promise of comfort that comes in the form of daily bread and provision is yours in the King Jesus who rules over His creation.  And the promise of excitement at not just a glimpse at Paradise, but of a life there that knows no end is yours in Jesus Christ through His resurrection.

And so we read our final verse:

For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

 

While we could make this verse be about Israel, it doesn’t fit.  Again, they rejected the promises, they rejected God.  So, the more fitting referent of this verse, the “him” of the verse is the Immanuel born of the virgin from chapter 7.  It’s the Christ.  The burden of bearing our sins, the agony of the cross, the torment from His enemies, and even the last enemy of death, broken.  That is, defeated.  The day of Midian is the day that Gideon the judge and his 300 water lapping men fought against, and defeated 135,000 Midianite soldiers.  Without casualty.  It wasn’t their work, but God’s.  It is the same here.  Christ has overcome your sin.  Christ has overcome even your death.  And He’s done it for you.  And that brings to us great comfort, great joy.

 

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An Incomprehensible Mystery January 8, 2017

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Ephesians 3:1-12

The First Sunday After Epiphany

January 8, 2017

 

Focus:  God grants His grace to even the least of all people.

Function:  That the hearers perceive into the mystery of Christ.

Structure:  .

 

An Incomprehensible Mystery

 

I know that any number of you enjoy those fixer upper shows on HGTV.  It’s been a while since I’ve watched one.  I just can’t stand the thought of paying for cable.  But, I assume, they haven’t changed at all.  Some family with a run-down home calls up the Fixer Uppers and cries out for help.  So the Fixer Uppers come in, kick the family out so they can’t watch the work as it progresses, and then they pick up their sledgehammers.

Sometime later, once the work is all finished, they invite the family back.  And the show always makes a big deal out of the big reveal.  They build up to this moment in the episode where the family finally gets to see what their home looks like.

That’s what today is.  We’re celebrating the big reveal!  Epiphany comes from the Greek word epifanoj, which means, revelation.  What is the big reveal that we’re celebrating today?

Christ to the Gentiles

The arrival of the Magi, whenever that happened, is the traditional end of the season of Christmas.  Twelve days of Christmas ending in Epiphany.  Ending with these men, these Magi, these priests, astrologists, magicians, whatever exactly they were, coming to see the Christ child.  These men from the East, not Jews, not people of God, coming to see the Christ who came to the world.

And He came to a world in shackles.  Paul describes himself as a prisoner, in shackles to Christ, but that’s not the same.  The world is in shackles to sin.  We are prisoners to our depression.  We find ourselves wondering how God the Almighty could even care about me, about a wretch like me.  We despair and wonder what use or what value we could possibly give to God.  We doubt, sometimes if we’re honest, we doubt that God even exists.

And yet, it’s to this world, to these depressed, despairing, doubting people that God incarnates His own Son.  Not just to the Jews, but God reveals His love for His creation, He reveals His love for all people in Jesus Christ.  The big reveal, that salvation, that forgiveness has come for you and for me.  Christ has come for all people.

One of the key words in our text from Ephesians is the word mystery.  And it really is a great word.  It’s not mystery as in Clue or a good detective show, but rather mystery in the greatest of all senses.

Paul talks about the mystery of God’s grace in Christ.  That the all-powerful God who created the universe and everything in it would love us, even though we reject Him.  That He would continue to shower His love down on us, even in the depths of our depression.  We may not be able to fully understand or fully answer the question of why God cares about us, but we know that He does.  That’s the big reveal, the epiphany of the Savior.  Jesus Christ for you and for me.

Paul talks about the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles.  Here they are, not Jews, not the people of God.  Not the people God set apart for His purpose.  Not the people with whom God made a covenant, not the people that God declared His own nation.  Not the people to whom He promised a Savior, and deliverance, and peace.

And yet, to these very people, to these Gentiles, the Christ-child comes.  In the wake of His birth, the Magi come.  They take the news home.  In the wake of Herod’s anger, Joseph and Mary take the Savior of the world down to Egypt.  To the very people who have nothing to give to God, who bring nothing to the table, Jesus comes.

We may never fully understand or grasp why, but we know that God revealed His Son, the Savior of the world to all people.  That Christ came, that He shed His blood upon the cross, not just to forgive the Jews, but to forgive all nations.  And for you and for me, that’s a revelation worth celebration.  Because we’re Gentiles, and yet, God expands His promises to include us.

Paul talks about the mystery of the hidden plan of God.  The so-called greatest minds of the world reject Him, they say He can’t possibly exist.  Miracles can’t happen, your prayers can’t be answered.   The world, you are nothing more than an accident of primordial ooze.  A caring God wouldn’t let these awful things happen to you.

Before we even had an inkling of any of those doubts, God had a plan.  From before He even formed you in the womb, before He even crafted the world with nothing but His Word, He had a plan to save us doubting people.  A plan that involves a baby boy, and some shepherds, and some magicians travelling from far away because they saw an incredible star in the sky.

A plan that involved the endurance of torture and beatings, nails and thorns, and a spear in His side.  A plan that shook the earth, tore down the temple curtain, and cast darkness over all of creation.  A plan that involved doubting women going to cover the scent of a decaying body, but when they got there they saw no decay.

We may never fully understand or grasp why God chose to save the very people who doubted Him and even hated Him, but we rejoice in the revelation of a Savior.  That God sent Jesus Christ to die and rise again to announce not just to sinful men, but the very devil himself, that God triumphs over depths of the grave, over the worst of our sins, and over the fiery serpent.

The early church fathers loved this idea of mystery so much that they used it.  They began to call pastors “stewards of the mysteries.”  That is, it is the job of your pastor to bring to you the mysteries of God.  To bring to you His incomprehensible grace in His Word.  To bring to you His insurmountable love in the form of water. To bring to you the unsearchable riches of His Son in bread and wine.  Pastors were made stewards of the mysteries of God, they were to care for the people of God, by bringing to them His Word and His Sacraments.

To you, the big reveal, the gift of God’s grace in His Son Jesus Christ.  To you the big reveal of the gift of forgiveness of all your sins that leads to a life that never ends.  To you the gift of the unsearchable, incomprehensible, insurmountable riches in the blood of a Savior.

That’s the revelation worth celebration.  The epiphany is this: you are a child of God, despite your depression in the midst of the battle of this life, despite your despairing over the things of this world, despite your very doubts of God’s love and existence.  You are His.  It’s a mystery.  But that’s okay.  We don’t have to understand it, the gift of Christ is ours anyway.