Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let God Come to You

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Isaiah 9:1-7
More than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God had a quarrel with His chosen people, Israel.

Israel, of course was called to be a light to all the nations of the world regarding God’s goodness, love, and power. But often, the people of Israel forgot who they were. That was the cause of God’s quarrel with them.

But really, when you think about it, the people of Israel were no different from you and me.

When things are going well, we get so full of ourselves that we leave no place for God. When that happens, trouble starts.

A woman Ann and I knew came to faith in Christ as an adult. She got a good start on her Christian life. But then, we saw her less and less at church. Then her husband stopped coming to church. Finally, one night, the husband called me with sad news. The wife, who had gradually left no place for God in her life and had made it uncomfortable for the husband to any longer be in worship, had taken up with another man. “Why?” the husband asked her. “I got tired of being perfect,” she explained. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you never were perfect.”

When things are going well in our lives, we can fool ourselves into thinking that it all has to do with our goodness (our perfection), rather than with God’s goodness (and God's perfection). We can lose touch with God. And when you lose touch with God, without even knowing it, you can begin to lose your integrity, your morals, your relationships, and the life that only God can give.

Ancient Israel fell out of touch with God. The eight chapters of Isaiah that precede our lesson present God’s indictment of a people so full of themselves that they had no place for God anymore. Through Isaiah, God said that the people of Israel were rife with wrong:
  • Bribery was an everyday part of their life.
  • They were indifferent to the plight of widows who, in those days had no property rights.
  • They didn’t take care of orphans, of whom there were many in those days of short life expectancies and of childbirths often ending in the deaths of mothers.
  • They had become like Gomorrah in their sexual lives, taking an “anything goes” approach.
  • Instead of worshiping God alone, they took a breezy attitude that all gods and all religions were really the same.
  • They relied on other things to help them to make decisions, rather than relying on God alone. 
In Isaiah, chapter 8, God warns that for living like this--choosing the world's darkness over God's light, His people would be enslaved by foreign conquerors. Israel would see, God said, “only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish…[and] be thrust into deep darkness.”

That’s where our first lesson, Isaiah 9:1-7, begins. Would you pull out the special insert?

Notice that verse 1 actually begins with the word, “But.” God is saying, “Nevertheless…In spite of…Even though. Even though you’ve brought this darkness onto yourself, I’m nevertheless going to make something new and good happen. You don’t deserve it, but I’m going to send it because I love you.”

Read verse 1 aloud with me, please:
But there will be no gloom for those who were 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 will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
Zebulun and Naphtali, named for two of the sons of Jacob from Genesis, were regions of ancient Israel. They were well north of Jerusalem and bordered the region of Galilee where, seven hundred-plus years after Isaiah, Jesus would be raised. At the time Isaiah wrote, the people of Israel were in the clutches of foreign conquerors who stole the produce of their land and sent some of their best and brightest people back to Assyria to serve as slaves. Because of their geographic positions, Zebulun, Naphtali, and even Galilee often bore the brunt of foreign intrusions.

In this verse, God is revealing that He not only will free Israel from the Assyrians, but will also one day shine the full light of His glory and love in Zebulun and Naphtali. God will enter these places of slavery, God reveals through Isaiah, and offer freedom to the whole human race. From Galilee, a place where not only Jews, but also many Gentiles, lived, God’s light would be revealed. Gloom would be banished!

Read on, aloud please, verse 2:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 
When I was in junior and senior high school, the light in my folks’ bathroom was a regular 100-watt incandescent lightbulb. Morning and night before the mirror that hung below that bulb, I’d slather on the Noxzema, scrub myself clean, and pop my zits. In that mirror, by that light, I looked OK. But I’ll never forget my first day of classes at Ohio State, Summer Quarter, 1971. I had a class on West Campus and needed to go to the restroom. There were fluorescent lights there and I caught sight of myself in the mirror. That was the first time I realized I had a major acne problem. Later, when a girl I was dating—Ann—told me about a dermatologist, my time in that light made me open to her suggestion.

Light can show us our flaws. Get close to Jesus, read about God’s will for our lives in the Bible, or ask God in prayer to show us how our lives can better reflect His love for us, and we see things about ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise know or acknowledge. When you’re in the darkness of your own sin, you need the light of God to show you your flaws. That’s the first step into relationship with God.

And it's an essential continuing step for the maintenance of our relationship with God. Psalm 139: 23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

This is why, if we will pay heed to them, even God's commandments are gifts of grace. Obedience to them cannot save us. But attention given to them will show us the places we need to grow in our lives, the sins of which we need to repent, the temptations we need to look out for. God's commands are a mirror that show us who we are and send us to God to help us be the people He has called us to be.*

But light does more than show us our flaws, the sins for which we need to repent. Light can also show us the way. God wants to light your way through the dark passages life sometimes brings. A woman came to me with a problem. “Have you prayed about it?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, “but God hasn’t shown me how it will all turn out.” “God never will show you how it will all turn out,” I told her. “He’ll just give you enough light to take the next step.”

That’s not entirely true: God has shown us how things will ultimately turn out. If we follow Jesus, we’ll end up with Jesus for eternity. But, along the way, we just keep following His light.

Verses 3-5, show us that one day, beyond what you and I can see right now, God is going to bring an end to this age of violence in which we live.
  • One day, murders with assault rifles will end. 
  • So will wars. 
  • So will selfishness and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the hungry. 
  • So will child abuse and spousal abuse. 
  • So will unkindness. 
  • So will abortion as a form of birth control. 
All the ways in which we kill others, in fact, will come to an end.

Jesus, Who has died and risen to bring life, will ensure that all who repent and believe in Him, will be freed from the violence of this world forever.

In Matthew 5, in a portion of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth." Eternity, He tells us, will belong to those bold enough to surrender their lives and wills to Christ alone, through faith alone, and God's Word alone. We can’t see the day foretold in the words God gave to Isaiah or those of Jesus yet, but that day will come when Jesus returns and makes His whole creation—including you and me—forever new.

Now, please read verse 6 with me:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Seven hundred-plus hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God revealed that a particular child would be born and that, among other things, this human child would also be Mighty God.

Some are troubled that Jesus’ given name isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies about Him. I’m not troubled by that at all. If the prophecies had said, “Watch for Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, Whose mother is named Mary and Whose father will appear to be Joseph,” where would faith come in?

God wants us to have a relationship of love with Him, a relationship in which we choose to love Him for Who He is. And so the prophets, while never identifying Jesus by name, do identify Him by Who He would be.

That’s why people like Anna and Simeon, two people who knew God through His Word, could look at the baby Jesus when He was just eight days old and know He was the Savior, while doctors of theology, who loved earthly power and prestige, didn’t see Who Jesus was and passed a death sentence on Him.

Yesterday, in Catechism class, we watched the film, The Nativity Story, a deeply moving telling of the story of Jesus’ birth.

In one of the early scenes, the young Mary is shown with a woman in Nazareth who told the local children a part of the story of the prophet Elijah, as recounted in 1 Kings, chapter 19.

During the reign of King Ahab, an unprincipled compromiser who allowed his wife, Jezebel, to bring the worship of a foreign god called Baal into Israel, Elijah was used by God to defeat the prophets of Baal at a place called Mount Carmel. Elijah’s faith in God was vindicated.

But when Jezebel heard about what happened, she vowed to kill Elijah and, terrified, Elijah ran. He was certain that he was alone and that nothing could help him. In a panic, he desperately looked for God. After hiding in a cave, Elijah sensed God directing him to go to a mountain and look.

Then we’re told:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:1-12, New King James Version)
Are you looking for God?

Be still.

Stop striving.

Quit trying so hard.

Let Him come to you, not only in prayerful silence as He did with Elijah, but most emphatically, in Jesus, the child and mighty God foretold by Isaiah seven centuries before Jesus’ birth.

Let Jesus come to you in His Word and in studying it with others as well as on your own (I wish that every adult here were in Sunday School class each week), in prayer you offer in Jesus' Name, in the fellowship of imperfect believers that is the Church, and in the Sacraments of Christ’s Church, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

You are not alone.

And in Jesus Christ, you are assured of an eternity with God.

Let Jesus guide your steps, one step at a time and you will see Him, know Him, and love Him because you know He first loved you. Amen

*In his introduction to a book of lectures from last year's conference, Seeking New Directions for Lutheranism, Lutheran theologian Carl Bratten writes:
The gospel does not nullify the law [God's commands]. After all, [Martin] Luther devoted a part of his Catechisms to teaching and explaining the Ten Commandments. It would come as a huge disappointment to him that Lutherans today are crediting him for replacing the law with the gospel...
In a lecture included in the book, Braaten speaks of "the gospel" and notes, "I do not mean the "gospel" in the narrow sense as opposed to the law, but in the wider sense that comprehends the whole counsel of God, the twofold Word of God, both law and promise." One reason that my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has fallen into error is that it dares to denigrate God's inviolable commands, subordinating them to a culturally acceptable "gospel" that doubts or denies the need for repentance, faith in Christ alone, or an understanding of the Bible that stands under the Bible as the authoritative source or norm of our life, faith, and practice. I pray to God that this will change.

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