Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sermon: 1 Lent (1 March 2009)

Sermon: 1 Lent (1 March 2009)
(Genesis 9:8-17/Psalm 25:1-10/1 Peter 3:18-22/Mark 1:9-15)

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

So here’s the guy I feel sorry for: the one who has worked thirty-five years at the same place, day in and day out, doing a solid job, whether it was personally satisfying or not, just to provide for his family. He has put away a considerable amount in the company’s retirement program looking forward to the time he and his wife could spend a few retirement years together – really have some time and freedom for a change. He is two years away from retirement when he receives his termination notice: the business has filed for bankruptcy and is closing immediately. There will be no severance package for the employees. His health insurance is cancelled. Worst of all, the retirement account has collapsed and is essentially worthless. The guy’s sixty-two. He has been responsible and played by the rules all his life. And now, what does he have to show for it? He has lived a story – one of commitment and responsibility, a certain self-sacrifice even – and he has outlined the next chapter, a good chapter. But the story has gone badly wrong; it has taken a detour at the last moment in a direction he never intended and could not even have foresee. Where does he turn? To whom does he call out for assistance: the courts, the government? We’ve seen far too many of these good stories gone bad lately, and I fear there are many more to come. Yes, that’s the guy I feel sorry for.

Isaiah had a vision in the year that King Uzziah died. While in the temple he saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

2 Above it [the throne] stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one cried to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!”
4 And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” 8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:2-8, NKJV).

With this vision – with this prophetic call – Isaiah begins a new story, a new decades-long prophetic ministry to Israel and Judah. With such a glorious beginning I imagine Isaiah’s mental script – the way he envisioned the story developing over the next several years – went from glory to glory: God working wonders for his people, perhaps even reunifying Israel and Judah under a righteous son of David. But, his story went badly wrong, and that right quickly. Israel moved ever farther from the LORD and, within some twenty years, was obliterated by the Assyrians – ten tribes just lost. And despite this example of disobedience and judgment, despite Isaiah’s faithful prophetic ministry, Judah also continued its own downward spiral toward destruction. The LORD revealed to Isaiah that the temple in which his vision occurred would be razed: men would come as with axes to groves of trees and lay it low. Jerusalem would be taken and destroyed, with not one stone left on top of another. And the people – God’s people? Death or captivity in a foreign land.

Isaiah has lived a story – one of commitment and responsibility, a certain self-sacrifice even – and he has outlined the next chapter, a good chapter. But the story has gone badly wrong; it has taken a detour at the last moment in a direction he never intended and could not even have foreseen. Where does he turn? To whom does he call out for assistance?

1 Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence— 2 As fire burns brushwood, As fire causes water to boil— To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence! 3 When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence.

9 Do not be furious, O LORD, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look—we all are Your people! 10 Your holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful temple, where our fathers praised You, is burned up with fire; and all our pleasant things are laid waste. 12 Will You restrain Yourself because of these things, O LORD? Will You hold Your peace, and afflict us very severely (Is 64:1-3, 9-12, NKJV)?

Isaiah calls out to the only one who can save, to the LORD God Almighty, to the God of his vision, to the God on his throne high and lifted up and Holy, Holy, Holy! O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! With this plaintive cry of the prophet whose story went so badly wrong, we began our Advent observance just three month ago. O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Centuries pass – seven of them – and Isaiah’s prayer goes unanswered. And then, in the fullness of time,

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:4-8, ESV).

Seven centuries for Israel, seven centuries too late for Isaiah, but only weeks for us: these words marked the beginning of Epiphany just two months ago. And now, today, the story continues.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV).

Lent begins for us with the answer to Isaiah’s prayer – finally, after seven centuries: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Isaiah had prayed. And on this day of all days, in the presence of another kingdom prophet and a carpenter-turned-rabbi, God answers. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God has, at last, torn open the heavens and come down. Whatever else this may mean, it must mean this: the story that went so badly wrong seven centuries earlier is now being set right again in the water of baptism, in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Even more, the story that went so badly wrong in the Garden is now being set right again in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of God, the Beloved. God was not content merely to answer Isaiah’s prayer for Judah; that was far too small a thing. No; God, when the time was right, answered the inarticulate groaning of all mankind – indeed of all creation: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! God has come at last not to reestablish a small, middle-eastern kingdom, but to transform all the world into the kingdom of God: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15, NRSV). This is the story set right.

It is, of course, still a very strange story – not one that we could have foreseen. God has torn open the heavens and come down and we might expect immediate, wholesale change: evil banished, righteousness restored, judgment and justice executed, a heavenly rule evident throughout creation – in short, the Isaianic vision:

6 “ The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:6-9, NKJV).

If God has indeed torn open the heavens and come down, we expect to see these signs. Instead, life goes on – pretty much as usual – except for this: Jesus, still dripping wet from his baptism in the Jordan, is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, there to be tempted in all points like as we are. Forty days he is there – fasting, praying, struggling. And he emerges victorious – tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin. What has this to do with the story put to rights? Everything. Jesus is recapitulating – living out in his own experience – the story of Israel, but getting it right where Israel got it wrong. Jesus comes through the Jordan in baptism as Israel came through the Red Sea. Jesus wanders in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptation, as Israel wandered in the wilderness forty years. Jesus enters the land and conquers its inhabitants – disease, demons, bigotry, corrupt politicians and hypocritical religious leaders – as Israel struggled against the indigenous tribes: Hittites, Amalekites, Amorites. Jesus confronts the dominant pagan empire of Rome, endures the exile of death, and returns victorious from the grave. Jesus puts the story of Israel to rights by recapitulating Israel’s history – getting it right this time – by becoming righteous Israel, and by doing what Israel did not and could not do. Then he offers Israel the opportunity to join in his story and thereby fulfill theirs: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” is how Jesus put it.

But Jesus does far more than recapitulate the Jewish experience – he assumes into himself, takes up into himself, the entire human experience. As he became righteous Israel to fulfill God’s covenants with the patriarchs, so, too, he becomes righteous man to fulfill God’s intent for all humanity. Jesus becomes the new Adam that he might put to rights Adam’s story – our story – and restore the image of God in man. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, as Adam was tempted in the Garden; but, this time man, in the person of the Incarnate One, chooses rightly and sin is defeated. And though sinless, though immune from death in his divinity, Jesus suffers death in his humanity – takes it up into himself – for all mankind, to conquer death for all mankind. He assumes our nature that he might heal our nature, for “what is not assumed cannot be healed” (Gregory of Nanzianzen). He recapitulates our story that he might put our story to rights.

3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But 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. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Is 53:3-6, 11-12, NKJV).

And now that Christ has put the human story to rights, we must take our place in that story page by page, chapter by chapter, moving toward its glorious end when the last enemy, death, finally has been destroyed and God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28). Christ set our story to rights by identifying fully with us; we take our place in the story by identifying fully with Christ. As Jesus entered the story in the baptismal waters of the Jordan, so we enter the story in the baptismal waters of his church. There we are cleansed. There we put on Christ. There we are saved and there we begin our salvation. There our story begins anew. And yes, like Jesus following his baptism, we will be driven out into the wilderness to face temptation. But, like him, we go in the power of the Holy Spirit. We go in the company of the one who defeated temptation. We go with the assurance of his love and mercy and forgiveness. We go in the communion of saints: supported by the prayers of the faithful; nourished by the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, and the living word of God; blessed by the worship of the church that casts for us a vision of God high and lifted up and holy. And we go carrying a cross – completing our Lenten journey with the One who carried the cross for us – knowing that if we carry the cross with him, we shall also break forth from the tomb with him in glorious splendor on the great day of resurrection to be forever with the Lord. This is the story put to rights.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3, HCSB).


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