Saturday, January 20, 2018

Love Your Enemies


It’s like a Geico commercial.  Everybody knows that if you are going to preach a few Sundays on love, you don’t start with love your enemies.  Everybody knows that you have to work your way up to that one.

Everybody knows that, well, maybe, except Jesus.  As you read through Luke’s gospel you get a Christmas story, Jesus presented in the temple, Jesus back in the temple at 12, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus rejected in his hometown, Jesus driving out demons and healing many, sometimes even on the Sabbath. 

You get Jesus calling disciples to follow him.  You get Jesus teaching that he is Lord of the Sabbath.  He is getting people’s attention for sure, but the first time that he really teaches about love, he starts with love your enemies.
That’s crazy.  That’s graduate level Christianity.  That’s super-mature Christianity.  How can Jesus start with love you enemies?

It seems hard enough to love friends and family sometimes.  How can Jesus dive into this topic—this mega topic—of love with love your enemies?

Let’s begin with a very simple but provocative statement.  Jesus did not enter this world to blend in with this world.  He was on a mission from his Father.  He came with purpose.

As it turns out, I’m a big supporter of his Father’s purpose.  I love that Jesus came on a mission.  He came to save us.  God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it through him.

There is something about being on a mission.  Having a little Marine Corps experience, I will talk first hand for the moment.  You have focus.  You have intensity.  Your whole force of personality is given to the mission.  What others not involved in the mission think becomes a blur.  It doesn’t even aggravate you.

You don’t sugar coat anything to others who are on the same mission.  You think that things might get nasty, then you tell your Marines.  This might get nasty.

If you have no good intel then that’s what you share.  We are going in here totally in the dark. Intel will develop as we run into people who like or they don’t. You don’t sugar coat anything.

If you are on a mission—have a purpose for your existence—tact and fluffy words and even a spoon full of sugar don’t help the medicine go down.  It is truth and truth administered the only way it is truly effective, and that’s full strength is what’s needed.

Jesus gave his disciples and those who would listen the same message about love.  Love must be administered full strength.  Love is not for one but not for another.

It’s easy to love those who love us back.  Even sinners and the ungodly know that.  Even the ungodly do that.  Tit-for-tat does not distinguish the one who follows Jesus from the one who belongs to the world.

Jesus said, they will know you are my disciple by your love—that you love one another.  Most of that love is directed at the covenant community.  We take care of each other because we are all brothers and sisters with Christ Jesus.

We do our best to live in one spirit, one hope, one accord and in love.  The family of faith that you know should be the most welcoming and accepting and loving place that you know.

We didn’t earn our way into this family. Jesus paid our admission fees in blood.  Jesus made us right with his Father so that we could live in this wonderful family of faith, but we know that our response is love.  We love one another.

And while we look at the history of the church that we know in scripture, we see most of the love expressed was within the covenant community.  That first century church in Jerusalem that you have read about in Acts, didn’t go out doing all sorts of things for the ungodly.  They did everything for each other.

The love of God is most fully manifested within the covenant community—within the family of faith.  But it doesn’t stop there.

We have a message of good news.  We have a mission to take that good news to the world.  For most of us that’s western Oklahoma, at least for folks that we see face-to-face.

And some of those people don’t like us.  Some might hate us.  Some might even get the classification of an enemy.  But our command as followers of Jesus is to love them anyway.

You see, the governing force here is not the nature of the recipient but the nature of the messenger.  We are messengers of good news and love.

The governing factor for us is love.  We carry and embody and deliver love because that is our nature.  That is the nature of the new creation that we have become and are becoming.  It’s a done deal but we are still working on it.  That’s a topic for another day.

The world’s model is if you like somebody and they like you, then you will probably get along.  You can do the tit-for-tat things.  It’s all about the other person and if you think they might be good enough for you to call friend.
Jesus tells us that it’s all about love not the nature of the people who receive our love.  We are the constant.  We are about love.

In the family of faith, love blossoms and grows and does things beyond our expectations.  The covenant community is a wonderful place to live.

In the ungodly world, love is often rejected.  Love is often repelled.  Love is not wanted.  Money, stuff, and the things of this world are always welcome, but love can just stay home if you don’t want to be treated harshly.

Jesus tells us to love them anyway.  The dynamic here is not the condition of others but of ourselves.  We are people of love.  Love governs.

And often, the reward for loving the ungodly is:
·       Being hated
·       Being cursed
·       Being mistreated
·       Disrespected
·       Condescending actions
·       Exploitation

Now in these cases, our response is…

Love.  It’s always love because that’s who we are now.  We were not always that way.

Many of us were very good at the tit-for-tat game.  We learned to navigate the one-thing-for-another world.  Our relationships were based upon what we saw as the value of others to us.

Let’s use one of Paul’s terms and call that the “old self.”

We are different now.  Love governs.  Love rules.  In the internal struggle that we sometimes face between the old and new person, love wins.
We chose love because we belong to a God who is love.

If you belong to the world and are hated, cursed, mistreated, disrespected, and exploited; then your ticket is punched.  The doctors will give you drugs.  The government will give you money.  Your ticket is punched.  You never have to deal with real life again.

That is until you find out that the drugs don’t really fix everything and your cravings for stuff have exceeded your allowance of free money.  The world is a cruel master.

But God is a God of love.  His deliverance is for now and for eternity.  We are his people.  We live in his love.  We love one another and enjoy being a part of the family of faith.

And…

We take his love to those who don’t love us, sometimes hate us, often disrespect us, and who will exploit us whenever possible; yet, we love them.

We treat them as we would want to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot.  If we were lost or blinded by the god of this age, wouldn’t we want those with eyes to see to help us even when we might be hateful towards the messengers of good news.

Wouldn’t we want them to keep coming back to try to rescue us?  Wouldn’t we want to be rescued even if we were being hateful towards our rescuers?
But the shoe is not on the other foot.  We are blessed.  We have eyes to see.  We have received the grace of our loving God.  Things are good for us.

We still have trouble in this world.  Jesus told us that we would.  We are not surprised but our hope is in Jesus and he has overcome the world and if we stick close to one another and love those in the family, then things seem to go pretty well.

So why do we have to deal with those who hate us?  I will give you the highly theological answer.  Take notes.  They will serve you well.  Why?
Because Jesus said so.

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Be like Dad.

While humankind was still loving sin, while we were rebellious towards our loving God, while people were still living an all about me life; Christ died for us.

Dad loved us when we didn’t love him.  Our Father in heaven loved us before we could muster a decent attempt to love him.  Dad loved us when humankind was not kind towards him.

Be like Dad.

Jesus did not get things backwards by starting with love your enemies.  The governing force here is love and that is the shape that the Potter is making our hearts.  How’s that for metaphor hopping.

Our hearts are being shaped like our Father’s heart.  Our hearts are becoming the heart of Love himself.  Love is who we are as this new creature that we are in Christ.

We feel a wonderful warmth when we love each other in the body of Christ.  We have a reward in the here and now.  But when we love our enemies, even if we don’t see any positive results in the here and now, God has an eternal reward for us.

Even when hate and disrespect and being cursed seem the continual response from those we love, our reward for doing exactly what Jesus told us to do is great.

Why would anyone love their enemies?
# 1  Jesus said so.
# 2  That’s just who we are.

Amen!



Friday, December 29, 2017

Right-Side Up in and Upside-Down World


Having read the Bible several times with somewhat different perspectives over the years, I often have thought; man, I am glad I did get called by God to do that.  Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah surely tops my list.

Moses listening to a burning bush would have been tough.  This voice called I Am told me to go back to where I am wanted for murder, that’s tough to swallow.  Moses wasn’t too keen on the idea himself, but I am glad it was him and not me.

Balaam had to get his instructions from a donkey.  So God spoke to you through a burning bush?  Nope, he had my donkey talk to me.  Yeah, OK,

No way, I could have done Noah’s job.  He used Gopher Wood as instructed by God, but I always get the basic rule mixed up and measure once and cut twice and have to go for more wood.  I would not have been a good fit for the whole ark business.

Here is a position that I think I might have qualified for once upon a time—editor for the Christmas Story.  The editor position is not in the Bible, but I could have done it.  Really, how did some of this stuff get past the editors?

Let’s start with this whole babe in a manger scene.  That’s no way for the King of kings to enter the world.

No room at the inn, really?  That reservation would have been made before Adam lost a rib.  They can just keep that room empty until needed.

If there is a foal of a donkey waiting for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem three decades or so later, they could have held a room at the Inn.  I don’t mean Motel 6.  We’re talking Embassy Suites.  It comes with a full, to order breakfast, quite the happy hour in the evening, and suites—not rooms—suites!

But what do we get?  A kid that’s born in a barn or a cave.  At least they knew to edit out the first couple years of dirty diapers, but bring the one and only Son of God into the world in such a mean estate.  Who let’s that get by the first draft?

Try working the first divine dirty diaper into the lectionary readings every third year.  That’s when you go on cruise and get a pulpit supply.

And then this is this whole fleeing to Egypt bit.  What gives?  I am thinking a couple legions of angels get garrison duty.  That’s good duty for them.  It’s absolute security for the Son of God.   If Herod wants to mess with them he can just be known as Herod the wasn’t around very long.

The shepherds and Magi might not have like the full body search and getting X-rayed and wanded five times to finally get to the waiting area to see the one who was Lord at his birth, but hey, we eventually learned to handle TSA procedures, and we are a spoiled generation.  The shepherds could have handled it.

And who scored this story?  Silent Night, really?  I’m thinking Ride of the Valkyries!

Richard Wagner or the Little Drummer Boy?  Puh rump pa pum pum.  C’mon people, this is the King of kings!

If the careless editing only stopped with the Christmas story, I could live with that.  But it continues.  We get this whole last will be first and first will be last theme that Jesus delivers for about 3 years.

What gives?  He is the King of kings.  How about establishing a formal hierarchy here?  We put Jesus at the top and…

And why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors and talking to women that shouldn’t be getting anywhere near him even if he was just a common rabbi?

This whole story of God with Us seems upside down.  And then we come to a meal not too long before Jesus will return to the Father. 

He has done his time.  He surely rates a couple medals for having stepped out of heaven and lived the human life.  He obviously gets the Good Conduct Medal.  Throw in one for fasting, parables, and walking on water.

Jesus can go home to Dad with some fruit salad on his uniform.  He has done some stuff.  But, he is not just catching the next flight home.  He will be betrayed and sacrificed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and he knows it.

So, what does he do?  No, he doesn’t turn more water in to wine, though I would have no problem if he did.  C’mon, think of what lies ahead of him.

Jesus takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, gets a bowl of water and starts washing the feet of his disciples.  He doesn’t leave them with wet feet.  He dries them on the towel that’s wrapped around him.

Apparently, none of the 12 are saying anything about this.  Yes, Judas was still among them.  He didn’t leave until later.

So, Jesus comes to Peter, and Peter says—mind you this is in traditional Okie with much license and not in the classical Greek or even Aramaic—Peter says, “That dog don’t hunt, Lord.  Ain’t no way you are doing what the lowliest servant would normally do.”

Jesus answers, “OK, then you are not going have anything to do with what I am all about.”

Peter replies, “OK then, I’ll take the full body wash, spa package, and pedicure.  Give me the works!”

Jesus knows that they don’t get it.  Peter is just the spokesman for the dumbfounded disciples.  “What just happened?”

Jesus at least gives the disciples some encouragement by saying that they will understand what’s happening at some point in their future, but for the moment, these men are just stunned.

These dozen men have heard Jesus say that he must die but they witnessed him ride into Jerusalem to shouts and cheers.  Jesus has rebuked the religious leaders. He has chastised those doing business in the temple as if it were a common market place.

Maybe, this man whom they witnessed walk on water and raise the dead was about to take his rightful place on the throne and take his place at the top of this world.

That is exactly what he did, but the world was upside down and did not know it.

He said—
·       You call me Teacher
·       You call me Lord
·       You are right on the money

I am your Teacher and your Lord, and I just washed your feet.  I just performed the job of the lowest servant.  Now, you have an example.  You have a model for what to do when I am gone.

You have a model for guiding this world to a right-side up position when it does not even know it is upside down.  In one more chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that because they follow him—even though he will be with the Father—they will do greater things than even he did.

At this very moment, he reminds them that a servant is not greater than his master.  The messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. 

Jesus is telling these men, and he is telling us, that the reward for following Jesus is not a bigger tent or a fatter paycheck—though there is nothing wrong with either unless they become your gods—but their reward for following him is greater service. 

We don’t see a lot of feet washing from the apostles in Acts or in the course of the New Testament letters.  This was not a religious ritual to be instituted in place of songs for children or reading the Apostles’ Creed. 

Jesus demonstrated to 12 men that their understanding of the world was upside down.  He showed them that the patterns of the world still had too high a place in their thinking.

Think to Paul’s words which came a few decades later.  Do not conform to the patterns of this world any longer.  Any longer denotes that the models and paradigms and patterns of the world already had their hooks in people.  People understood the world through the upside-down lens of the world.

Jesus would not send these disciples into the world to offer a plan B or option C.  He would not send them with a you need to hedge your bet spiel. 

Jesus sent his closest followers into the world—equipped with the Holy Spirit so they could make sense of what had been a mostly cloudy experience over the past 3 years—to bring grace and truth to the world. 

Grace came from God himself, was God himself, and walked with these men over a few hundred miles teaching and healing and proclaiming good news for the captives, until it was time to shed his blood on the cross.

The story did not end at the cross but the power of sin and death to separate us from the love of God did.  The story continues with resurrection and life and life eternal.

It is a story that we carry to this upside-down world today.  It is a story of love and faith and hope but how will we tell it.

Will we try to make it fit into the world’s model?  Will we try to make it less offensive to those who don’t believe in God or who think one god is as good as another?

Will we try to tell this story without disturbing the patterns that rule this world?  We really do want to keep our status in this world, don’t we?  We don’t want to be looked upon as if we were the lowliest servant around, do we?

Can’t we pay at least a little allegiance to the god of this world, so we blend in just a little?

Jesus alone saw the dichotomy of upright disciples in an upside-down world.  He gave them a stunning example of how out of sync this world had become with God the Father when he became what the world would regard as the lowliest servant and he washed their feet. 

These disciples—at least 11 of them—with the help of the Holy Spirit, would soon have these right-side up eyes to see as well.  But, do we?

How do we take this 2000-year-old example and put it to work in this out of control century?

Let’s start with truth.  We are talking Truth with a big T and truth with a little t.  We must always—not occasionally—be people of truth.  We speak it in love but love does not dilute the truth. 

Let’s not be dumfounded as Pilate was and have to ask, “What is truth?”

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  The truth is that God loves us so much that through Jesus, he made a way for us to be right with him.  We can live in this world as right-side up people.

God did not send his Son into this world to condemn the world but to save it through him.  

The truth is that through him, in him, following him, believing in him we have eyes to see exactly how we are to live in the truth—right-side up in this upside-down world.

Let’s not forget love.  Paul coined the phrase speaking the truth in love in a very narrow context, but the phrase is nearly universal in application.  We bring the truth of Jesus Christ to people out of love.  It’s not out of duty or obligation or desire for greater rewards.

It is love that propels us to bring good news of the Truth to people who think we are upside-down. 

It is love that shapes our heart like that of our heavenly Father’s—a heart that desires none to perish. 

Love does not dilute the truth.  Love doesn’t even make the truth taste better all the time.  Love causes us to bring the truth to the blind once more, when the world condemns us for it.

Let’s speak the truth, live the truth, and bring the truth to the world but always in love.

There are many other areas—faith, hope, patience, kindness, peace, and more.  Many of these we will discuss in 2018.  But there is one more area that I would like you to consider as you enter this new year.  Consider inclusion.  Consider communion.  Consider that someone cannot know the fullness of life that we know from the outside looking in.

I have said this year after year, but this year, I charge us to live this as followers of Christ Jesus.  Abundant life in this modern century centers around inclusion in the body of Christ.

Jesus didn’t just pick a dozen guys walking down the road and pulled them over for a foot wash.  He didn’t send Judas out to round up some people with dirty feet, and tell him to take care of his other business while he was out.

This lesson was for those who already had been cleaned.  They just needed their feet washed.  They didn’t need a whole bath.  Their salvation was in Jesus and it was secure, even before Jesus went to the cross.  Jesus noted to his Father in heaven that he saved all that were given him, except for the one that had to bring about the sacrifice that was to come.

But Jesus needed to give these men eyes to see right-side up in an upside-down world.  He washed their feet as the lowliest of servants would.  He knew that with the Spirit’s help, they would see the world as it was and as the Father in heaven designed it to be, and know the difference between the two.

We do a lot to bring people into the body of Christ.  We really do.  A response to serve the Lord seems rare these days when we minister to the disconnected and the lost.

Think of the waitress at a restaurant that you visit only occasionally.  She takes your order, gets it right, checks on you regularly, remembers what you asked for, and takes very good care of you.  You give her a decent tip. 

One minute after you pay your bill, she can’t remember what half the people at her table ordered.  She is focused on her other customers and those just now walking in the door.  It makes her a good waitress.  She can deal with her customers until they are out the door and then it’s on to what’s next.

Many of the people that we help with bills, food, baskets, gifts at Christmas who are not really an active part of the body of Christ, stop trying to connect with us once the bill is paid or the gifts are in hand.  We might see a single visit at a worship service, but then it will be another 10 months before they surface again.

Like the waitress, it’s on to what’s next.

Sometimes paying a bill, buying Christmas gifts, loading up a family with food, and other acts of benevolence work against us with those who are not really connected.  For those active in the body of Christ, all of these things are blessings.

So we come to a New Year.  For many it is a time to catch our breath from Christmas.  Some are still wired waiting on the outcome of the football playoffs.  Many have resolutions.  Many have resolved not to do resolutions any more.  It’s a new year set before us.

In this year, I challenge us all as the body of Christ to bring the truth and love to the world and to bring the disconnected home.

Without the distraction of a food basket or Christmas ham, lead people to the truth.

Without the obsession over Christmas gifts, invite people that you know need to come home back into the fellowship.

With all the love you can muster, speak the truth to those who remain content apart from the body of Christ.  You have been given eyes to see the world right-side up.  Will you leave people that you know—some you call friends—subscribing to the patterns of the world.

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to give them an example.  His actions were extreme.  He was and is Lord.  What was he doing washing feet like a lowly servant?

If Jesus was so extreme and provocative and bold to show his disciples how upside-down their world was, how can we be timid in our discipleship?  

How can we be reserved in our evangelism?

The New Year is upon us.  What will we do?

You may reject or receive what I challenge you to do, but you cannot say that you didn’t know.

Take truth and love into the world from day 1 of this new year.  Without promise of anything of this world—food, money, gifts—call people home.  Invite them to know the truth and know love and know what it is to live right-side up in this upside-down world.


Amen!

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us!


If you want to hear the Christmas story, you go to Luke’s gospel or Matthew’s gospel.  That’s just the way it is.  You get a little genealogy in each.  You get a couple songs in Luke.  You get the Magi in Matthew.  The child Jesus is presented at the temple in Luke.  The family flees to Egypt in Matthew. 

If you take both together, you get a fairly full Christmas picture.

Nobody uses Mark’s gospel to tell the Christmas story.  It doesn’t have one.  John the Baptist and Jesus are pushing 30 when this account starts.

Few use John’s gospel to tell the Christmas story, but it’s there.  There is no genealogy, no baby leaping in the womb, nobody singing We Three Kings of Orient Are.  But the Christmas story is there.  Only 14 verses into this gospel, John says Merry Christmas!

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Most of the year I preach and teach discipleship.  I offer charges and challenges to be a disciple of Jesus.  Follow him!  I am a little, OK, I am very passionate about this thing called discipleship.  How could I not be knowing what God has done for me, for us.

I am preaching to people who have said they follow Jesus.  I don’t preach much about salvation when I am talking to the saved.  Occasionally, I will sell a little ice cream to the Eskimos.  I love to tell the story to those who know it best.  You don’t need to walk the aisle every 6 months to be recertified in salvation.  I am not going to use the Evil One’s tool of guilt to get you to profess your faith yet once more.  No!

I talk mostly about following Jesus.  That’s a big subject area.  There is no dearth of material from which to preach.  Discipleship is our focus.  We want to get good at following Jesus.

We want God to be pleased because our hearts and our effort are in concert with each other and we are putting a lot of effort into pleasing our Lord.

I will offer words of invitation on a recurring basis but most of my teaching and preaching is to the saints, and you guys are saved.

Most of what you hear from me is about what we are called to do as disciples of our Lord.  I don’t look around the congregation and think, “Well, his salvation didn’t take.  I don’t know if she is really washed in the blood of the Lamb.”

I don’t think, “It must be time for a Seven Sunday Series of hell fire and damnation sermons.”  It might be sort of fun for me just to yell at you for an hour and see who is sweating my message, but I have been ordained to deliver good news.

And you have received the good news.  You celebrate the good news.  So sometimes, we just need to acknowledge and celebrate.

At Easter, I will say, He is Risen dozens of times in the course of that Holy Week which precedes the Resurrection Service. 

He is Risen!
He is Risen Indeed!
Christ the Lord is Risen today!

You usually get a short message at Easter.  He is risen just about covers every Easter message that I have delivered.
 
But at Christmas, we need angels and shepherds and overbooked inns and people going to their home towns to be counted so the Emperor could make sure he got all the tax he thought he needed.

We have to decide whether we will tell people to enjoy their worship service for the Christ or enjoy all of the holy days that we have this time of year.  Yes, that’s Merry Christmas or Happy Holy or Holly Days.

Easter is so much easier.  We just say, He is Risen!  That’s the message.

Have a merry worship service for the Christ—enjoy your late December worship hour—doesn’t convey the same thing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like He is Risen at Christmas time?  Wouldn’t it be nice...

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

That cuts to the heart of the matter.  God, who 3 chapters later in this gospel is identified as Spirit, came in the flesh.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

Jesus stepped out of heaven and came into this world.  Matthew and Luke cover some of the conception highlights, deliver golden nuggets about his birth, and early childhood events, but John gets to the heart of what happened.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

Not only did we—humankind—suddenly jump from the world spinning out of control to a babe in a manger, we witnessed the magnitude of God’s mighty act.

And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

He came with grace—not sent here to condemn us but to save us.

He came with truth—not humankind’s version of its own situation.

And John said, we beheld His glory.  Humankind witnessed God with us.  We sing Emanuel because people witnessed God with us.  He became flesh and lived among us.

But he was like no other.  He was unique, one of a kind, one and only Son of our Heavenly Father.

Today, we are not diving into our discipleship.  We are not picking up the pace of our race of faith.  We are not even going to spend a lot of time rightly dividing the word of God.  These are all good things that we should be doing.
Today, just think on John’s simple message.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

Just as we frequently say, He is Risen as we approach that Easter Sunday each year, start saying, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

John gets to the heart of the matter.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.



Merry Christmas and Amen!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Oaks of Righteousness


Read Isaiah 61

Imagine being the lowest and least regarded person at your job.  Some will say, “Hey!  I don’t have to imagine that.”

Now imagine that you have been promoted to a senior executive.  Lowest guy in the hierarchy to the top dog just like that.  Most people would think, “I could live with that.”

The prophet Isaiah knew that this was what was in store for God’s people.  They would be totally devastated.  The Babylonians would complete that process, but the Egyptians—sometimes an ally—and the Assyrians had been dismantling all of God’s Chosen People for some time. 

The political landscape of the time was complicated.  It was even more complicated as God’s people moved farther away from the righteousness of God and looked more and more like their pagan neighbors.  The more they blended in with the pagan nations that surrounded them, the more they became entwined in trying to solve their problems without God.
It was a vicious cycle.

This land promised to Abraham and his descendants and delivered to them under the leadership of Joshua would be in ruins.  God’s people would be captured and taken into exile if they had not already fled the area before the conquerors arrived.

The days when God gave victory after victory to his people under Joshua’s leadership had given way to people who desired kings and received them, wanted armies and then fielded them, and who accepted gods made in man’s own image and they embraced them.

Think to the end of the book of Joshua.  The land is conquered and settled.  Joshua’s time is about up, but he issues a challenge to the people.

Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God.

 Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.  But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt.

 “‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out.  When I brought your people out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. But they cried to the Lord for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time.

 “‘I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land.  When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you.  But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand.

 “‘Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands.  I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you—also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow.  So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’

 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!  It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled.  And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.  If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”

 But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”

 Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.

 “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”

God’s people knew this story and they knew it well.  Even when they were disobedient, they knew their history and what God had done for them.
They had been disobedient for a long time and God was withdrawing his protection from them.  Remember the words of the Lord that came through Joshua.

If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.

This was happening.  After all the chances that God’s people had been given to repent and return to the Lord, they remained comfortable in their apostacy.  They would receive what they asked for.  They were witnesses against themselves.

If this was your favorite television series, this would be the season ending episode.  Everything is falling apart.  Come back next season.  Isaiah could have left the people hanging, but he didn’t.

For the Lord had not given up on them.  When they would hit the lowest of lows, God offered them hope and a future.

Isaiah had been given a vision of hope by the Spirit of the Lord.  This hope was more than just a chance to go home to a desolate land.  It was more.

It was good news for the poor.
It was healing for the broken hearted.
It was freedom for captives.
It was salvation for his people.
It was beauty instead of ashes.
It was defeat for enemies of God’s people.
It was comfort for those who mourn.
It was gladness replacing grief.
It was songs of praise instead of sorrow.
It was ruins rebuilt.
It was to rule over foreigners who would work the land and care for the livestock.
God’s people would be laborers no more.
Shame and disgrace will end.
Wealth will abound.
They will be priests of the Lord.
Joy will last forever.
The world will see God’s people and say, “They are blessed!”
Jerusalem—the city in ruins—would be adorned as a bride.
She will be clothed with victory and salvation.
The sovereign Lord will save his people and the nations will praise him.

Now that’s something!  God’s people would know the lowest of lows and then be restored beyond their dreams. 

It’s not like when we send our kids to their rooms because they have acted out.  After a while—long or short—we say, you can come out now and life resumes.

When God says, “You can come out of your room now,” it’s a whole new world.  It is everything made new again.  It is wonderful.  What God has in store for us is full of wonder.

We were never captives in Assyria or Babylon or had to flee oppressors.  We have never seen our homeland devastated.  We were attacked at Pearl Harbor.  We were attacked on 9-11.  But you have to go way back to when the British burned Washington D.C. to get anything close—remotely close—to what God’s Chosen People would know firsthand.

But we know lives that have been given over to poverty, brokenness, captivity, mourning, grief, shame, disgrace, and even some hopelessness.

We have not all been through these things, but most have been through some.  Today, our separation from God’s favor takes the form of addiction, apathy, lives without purpose, self-gratification, and so many other things that pull us away from God.

But whether you were exiled to live as a servant among the pagans or in a self-imposed exile of drugs or disconnection; God never gave up on you.  God may stand back for a time, but he never gives up on you.

God may let you deal with the natural consequences of addiction, foolishness, wickedness, or just insisting on your own way, but he has never stopped loving you.

And when it is time to come home, it’s a big deal.  It is a very big deal.  It is gladness over grief.  It is healing for the broken hearted.  It is praise over sorrow.  It is freedom for the captives.

We have never been held captive in Babylon, but we have been held captive by our foolishness, laziness, apathy, and even ignorance.  But when our eyes were opened to the truth, we knew victory and salvation.

There was one part of a verse that I didn’t say anything about.  Isaiah prophesies:

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

You can have bad news and good news and then more bad news again.
You can be captive then free then captive again.
You can have ashes then beauty and then ashes again.
You can have grief then gladness then grief again.
You can have poverty and wealth and poverty again.

But the Lord speaking through Isaiah wanted his people to know that their restoration would last.  Some of this restoration began in the 6th Century B.C. when the captives began returning from Babylon.  Some comes in the age ahead.

The imagery of Isaiah is of an Oak tree planted by the Lord. 

I bought my Burns Flat house after coming back from Iraq in 1992.  The price of the house and the new car that I had bought were about the same.  My thought was that the house needed a lot of work and that would be more expense.  I didn’t know that the car would too.  I haven’t bought a Ford since, though both of my kids have some.

Enough Ford bashing…

The house that I bought only had one tree.  It was perhaps the ugliest tree that I had seen and it was too close to the foundation.  So, one summer Christopher and I came to Burns Flat from California for about a week.  I planted a few trees around the house.  One of them was an Oak.

It was just over six feet tall when I planted it.  When I checked on it a couple years later, it seemed that it hadn’t grown much.  When we moved into the house in 1999, it still did not seem like it had grown much, but it’s roots were getting deeper and deeper.

Finally, over the past few years, it looks more like the oak trees that I remembered as a child.  Little did I know that the trees that I enjoyed climbing and that shaded parts of the yard when I was young had been around a very long time.

My grandchildren’s children may get to make a tree house in my oak tree.  It takes a while for an oak to become massive, but once it has grown for a few decades, there a few trees like it.  It will be there for many generations.
Isaiah used imagery that the people could understand.  This oak of righteousness would bring glory and honor and splendor to the Lord.

The Lord was doing a mighty thing.  He was taking people who could never be righteous on their own accord and making them right with him.

This would be a lasting thing.  This would be an everlasting righteousness.  This would be more than a trip home from Babylon.  This was an invitation to receive the best gift ever—God with us.

We celebrate Christmas—the Babe in a manger—knowing that it is not a stand-alone story.  Emanuel was there at the beginning and will be with us for all eternity.

We know that God lets people endure the consequences of their decisions, but he never gives up on them.  His desire is for none to perish.
We know that restoration goes beyond what our hearts can conceive.

We know that God came into the world as a baby, not because we as humankind were finally getting our act together, but because we could not.
We know that when our human heart knows only hopelessness, God will give us hope.

We know that no matter how broken our lives become, God heals all wounds.

We know that no matter how much the world seems to be closing in on us, God is the ultimate liberator.

This Christianity that we know, this discipleship that we know, this following Jesus that we tried so hard to get right comes with an eternal reward.

Not something temporary and transient as the world offers.
Not something that corrodes or can be stolen.
Not something that is here today and gone tomorrow.

We, like the mighty oak that thrives for centuries, will be God’s righteousness for ever and ever.  This profession of faith that we have made is no small thing.

Our proclamation that Jesus is Lord are not passing words.

This assurance in our heart that God raised Jesus from the dead is not a momentary emotion.

God has claimed us from sin and from death and has made us through the blood of Christ Jesus to be his righteousness for ever and ever.

That’s no small deal.

Remember that it’s not all about you.  It’s all about God, but he did this very special thing for you, for us, forever.  Remember that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it but that through him we might be saved.

God has done a mighty thing.  He has made us right with him for all eternity and doing this mighty thing for us is to his splendor, and honor, and glory.

Amen.