Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 2011 - "Don't Be Afraid" - Adent 2

Isaiah 40.1-11

A minister asked a little girl: “Do you know what's in the Bible?”
She replied: “Yes. I think I know everything that's in it.”
“You do?” said the minster, “Well tell me.”
“Okay,” she said. “There's a picture of my brother's girlfriend, a ticket from the dry cleaners, one of my curls, and a Pizza Hut coupon.”

Well, there is a lot in the Bible, that’s for sure.
Many years ago, a Sunday morning Bible Study - I recounted the story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba … and David’s plot to murder Bathsheba’s husband so David could marry her.
One of the class members suddenly slammed her fist on the table and shouted at me, “Where did you get that filthy story?”
She had never heard it, either in Sunday School or in preaching … she was shaken when she learned that it’s in the Bible.

The Bible is a big book, big stories, big ideas … the story doesn’t get any bigger than that of Isaiah - a book of multiple writers spanning at least 200 years of rough and tumble history.

In the 40th chapter, we hear the immortal words, Comfort, O comfort,my people, says your God.
Comfort - Israel’s time of suffering in Babylon has come to end … the days of exile are done … Israel is homeward bound.

Comfort, O comfort, my people.
The text begs the question, “Why comfort?”
So that Israel can be comfortable?
Kick back and relax?
At ease in Zion?
Comfort for the sake of courage! 
There’s a road to be built -
A world to be shaped.

God’s comfort give courage - press ahead, weather the storm, withstand criticism, and even face death.
Israel had been freed from Exile to continue the work it had formerly neglected.
Israel had failed … and paid a heavy price … the land ravaged, the temple destroyed … a hundred years in exile.

Comfort, O Comfort, my people … 
Now is the time to return home.
Pick up the pieces.
Regain your composure.
Take up the task given to your Father Abraham and your Mother Sarah a long time ago - build God’s Highway.
Raise up the valleys and flatten the mountains. 

Is Isaiah talking geography?
A real road, a freeway through Sepulveda Pass?

For commentary on Isaiah, turn to Mary’s song (Luke 1.46ff)
With Jesus in her womb, Mary sings to Elizabeth: God has shown strength with his arm … scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations … pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly … filled the hungry with good things … sent the rich away empty-handed.
Jesus spells out his ministry in his hometown sermon - from Isaiah 61: The Spirit of the LORD is upon me … to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed, proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor.

The year of the LORD’S favor is the clue … the Year of Jubilee [Leviticus 25]- every 50 years … the land remains fallow - no sowing or reaping; slaves set free, debts cancelled, land acquired as collateral in loans returned to the original families - the Year of the LORD’S favor, a fresh start for everyone …
When Jesus preaches about the poor, he truly means The Poor - those who have fallen on hard times; with his coming, the inauguration of Jubilee … Good News - a fresh start for everyone, a second chance at life - valleys lifted up; mountains brought down thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Release to the prisoners, says Jesus … who are the prisoners? 
In the time of Jesus, prisons were full of revolutionaries, rebels, brigands and thieves - everyone Rome considered a potential theat - two of them were crucified with Jesus, and one of them, Barabas by name, was released by Pilate.
Prisons were also full of Debtors …  
Can we see why Jesus uses the word “debt” and “debtors” in his Prayer?
Some English traditions use the word “trespass,” but the Greek language of debt is clear … a double meaning for sure - the debt of  sin, of course, but also “financial debt” - incurred in the unjust systems of the day - when the income gap widened, folks on the bottom didn’t have a chance - debt grew rampant in Palenstine - the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
100 years after Jesus, a revolt against Rome and the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem; rebels stormed the temple, burned all the financial records of debt and ownership.
Because the temple was the center of Judah’s banking system - records of ownership and debt were kept in the Temple; commodities-trading - thousands of sheep, lambs, bulls, goats and doves and tons of grain - only a little was sacrificed - the rest was food for the thousands of Temple employees, and the rest was sold in the markets - the Temple was big business.

When Jesus overturns the money-changing tables, calls them a pack of thieves, he disrupts the financial system of the day - especially during the season of Passover - tens of thousands from all over the Mediterranean world - their money had to be exchanged for Temple currency, so that animals and grain offerings could be purchased.

When Jesus overturns the tables, he makes a clear statement - Israel’s financial system is corrupt - and worse, it uses religion as a cover for its greed - the legal experts who cheat widows out of their homes parade around in long robes and say long prayersthey love to be greeted in the markets and have the best seats at synagogue and banquet [Luke 20.4ff].

Jesus seals his fate … no more tolerance from the authorities - they put up with his preaching and healing, but “don’t disrupt our financial systems.”
Were Jesus to overturn money-changing tables today, where would he do that?'

Would Jesus go to a church and overturn the rummage-sale tables? Would Jesus put the kibosh on a church raffle or a bingo game?
Where would Jesus go to overturn the tables of the money-changers? 
The local bank?
Wall Street?

Isaiah offers comfort; so does Jesus … not to put us to sleep, but to awaken us … comfort for the sake of courage.
The courage to walk with Jesus and build God’s Highway!

Who are the Highway Builders?
I think of England’s Wilberforce - in his conversion, he found the comfort of God, then he met a group abolitionists - and the comfort of God became the Courage of Christ.
Wilberforce took up the cross and began the good fight - great cost, much sorrow, but Wilberforce was a force to be reckoned with, because he had the comfort of God and the courage of Christ …  26 years it took, but in 1807 Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act - ending a brutal, horrible, sin against humanity.
In our own time, Bonhoeffer and Barth stood up against Nazi Germany and called it what it was - an idolatry of nationalism, and the corruption of the church … Nazi flags were raised high in congregations across the land; pastors ended worship with sieg heil and heil Hitler. 
Barth and Bonhoeffer said Nein! No!
We will have none of this.
Barth lost his university job and was sent home to Switzerland; Bonhoeffer lost his life.
Bishop Tutu of South Africa proclaimed the gospel to the high and the mighty, the rich and the powerful, to pastors who didn’t have courage, and to congregations who didn’t want their pastors to have courage … the Bishop proclaimed, and one-by-one, Christians became courageous, stood up tall, to challenge the government, call for justice … the price they paid was steep and serious, but the day finally came when Apartheid ended and a new day dawned for the nation of South Africa.
For decades, churches in the Soviet Bloc bided their time, preached the gospel, broke the bread, and then one day the light of Christ began to dawn powerfully, people picked up the dream of a better world, found their courage, and the Berlin Wall, like the walls of Jericho, came tumbling down.
Just recently, a note from our own Presbyterian World Mission - for 30 years, mission co-worker Doug Baker has been working in Northern Ireland to help local pastors build bridges between the pro-British and pro-Irish factions.

For all of us:
Choose the ways of Christ, a gentle word when tempers flair, yet we must never be afraid of overturning unjust tables.
An apology when we’ve misspoken ourselves … but we must never be afraid of the powers-that-be when they tell us to be quiet, to keep our faith private, and say our prayers like good little boys and girls.
A positive word in the face of negativity, but we must never be afraid to speak up for what’s right … and we learn what’s right when our lives are filled with Jesus.
Growing, learning, serving … to walk with Jesus intelligently, faithfully, truly.

If we’re not striving for the world of Jesus, we’re not living for Jesus - no matter what we believe; no matter what we say … sure, we’ll go to heaven, because God is generous, but here on earth, we’re of little value to the Kingdom of God! If we fail to live what we claim to believe.
The Christian faith is a walk of life, not a book of beliefs.
The Bible says, even Satan believes.
We speak of God, say our prayers, go to church, live a moral life, but unless we build God’s Highway, God says of us: your lips are moving, but your heart is far away from me … 
James writes: Faith without works is dead.

It is our task to prepare the way of the LORD; build God’s Highway - with prayers, personal piety, spiritual discipline, going to church, all of that and more; but what we do on Sunday has to be connected to what we do on Monday - letters written to our representatives, conversations with neighbors; study groups, social-action teams - fill our minds with Jesus, with Isaiah, with God’s call, raise up the valleys; lower the mountains, overturn the tables, name the thieves who steal widows’ homes and amass wealth at everyone’s expense …  the Bible in one hand; the newspaper in the other.

And that’s why God offers us comfort.
For the courage of Christ … the courage to build God’s Highway! 
Are you with me on this?
I know that you are!
Because you are Calvary on the Boulevard!
Amen and Amen!