St Michael’s 22nd November 09
What do we make of Old Testament prophecy? That’s a question I have been wrestling with for the past 7 years as very slowly I have been working on a MA on the Hebrew text of the book of Zephaniah. After all, it’s part of the Bible. We affirm when we hear it read that it is “the word of the Lord”. And we may even feel a little guilty that we don’t actually know that much about it. But when you pick up the book of Zephaniah, say, or this passage in Isaiah, and read about woe and judgement and death, it’s hard, isn’t it, to feel any great connection with what you’ve read, or be particularly inspired by the message you’ve just heard.
So what do we do with Old Testament prophecy? Well, if I was good boy and stuck rigidly to the lectionary of the Church of England, I certainly wouldn’t be standing here preaching on this particular text this morning. Now I happen to agree it’s good for churches to have a set pattern of readings so they can work through the Bible, but I do object to the fact the lectionary so often skips over passages about judgement, and instead cherry-picks the parts we find cheerful and uplifting. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe that if we are to be a mature church, rich in faith and love and hope, we need to take seriously the whole counsel of God, and we need to wrestle even with those parts of Scripture we find difficult or obscure.
And what I have found in my years of research is that, yes, these kinds of passages do take a little working at, but if you know where to dig, and you dig deeply enough, there is treasure aplenty waiting to be discovered, and a message that is important, urgent and relevant to each one of us today.
So how then do we begin to approach this strange passage written over 2500 years ago? I believe the easiest way into it is to look at what Isaiah says about human nature. Of course it would be nice to think that over the centuries that we as human beings have developed, that we have become kinder, more loving, less self-centred. But I have to say that at least from what I see around us the evidence simply isn’t there. The vices Isaiah denounces are precisely the same ones we see in the news, and on our street, and his words could almost have been penned for today.
For example, what about the desire for wealth? Verse 8: Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. Isaiah, it seems, has in mind those property speculators whose only thought is to squeeze as much profit out of the land as possible. No matter that there may be others living in the houses they want to develop or valuable crops growing out in the fields. Their one aim is to accumulate as much wealth and property as possible. Sounds familiar? Surely all the recent fuss about bankers’ bonuses, for example, has arisen because here were a group of people we trusted to look after our money and invest it wisely. Yet apparently their overriding aim was to enrich themselves, even if it involved dangerous investments and risky speculation. And I would go on and suggest that no government legislation or codes of practice are in the end ever really going to deal with the heart of the matter, which is the human heart. We all seem to have within us this desire to have more and more and more, even sometimes at the expense of others.
And if those words are relevant, what about Isaiah’s words about the pursuit of pleasure? Verse 11: Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. Is there really that much more to add? OK, our choice of beverage might be rather different, and we don’t go in that much for harp and lyre music these days, but that’s hardly the point of what Isaiah is saying. I do think however there is a real issue about the church speaking up about the excesses of our culture. We don’t like to be thought of as killjoys, or out of touch with today’s world, and we do like to show that Christians are human just as much as anybody else. In the meanwhile we are breeding a generation where deaths from liver-related diseases are soaring and alcohol abuse is ripping families apart. Surely, we should be standing up and saying something, shouldn’t we?
Then rather more subtly, but just as dangerous there is the sin of human pride. Going just beyond the end of our reading to verses 20-21: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Yet despite Isaiah’s dire warnings, one of the great slogans of this present age is “My life, my rules”. We have taken on board the words of the Victorian poet William Ernest Hadley who wrote I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul and created a culture of rampant individualism where everyone decides for themselves what is right and what is wrong. So the idea that the church, for instance, might have any sort of authority or has any right to teach others how to live has long gone out of the window. Life is what I make it, and it’s up to me to decide how I make the most of it. Some people would call this attitude freedom; others would dress up as a fancy philosophy called post-modernism; the Bible calls it sin.
Which is all very well, but how do we communicate Isaiah’s words today? I think the world is suspicious and rightly so of preachers who loudly denounce the sins of others from the pulpit or on street corners and such people have only damaged the reputation of the church in the past. Besides which, I guess we all know that when we point the finger at others, there are three fingers pointing back at us. Simply pointing out other people’s faults, then, runs the risk that we are written off either as harsh and condemnatory, or hypocritical, or both.
So what then do we do with this passage from Isaiah? This is where, I believe, we have to dig a little deeper and ask ourselves who exactly Isaiah was addressing. Because the point we often miss is that the prophet wasn’t talking to people out there, people who didn’t know the Lord or were ignorant of the law. He was talking to the people of God who should have known better, who should have realised that their calling was to be distinct and different from the culture around them. And because their lifestyle and their witness was fatally compromised, the message was that they themselves would fall under judgement. Verse 13: Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst.
And this was no empty rhetoric simply designed to scare his hearers into reforming their ways and their actions. After all, I wonder if you’ve ever asked the question why the book of Isaiah was preserved and why his words were kept and honoured over the centuries. The short answer is that what he said would happen, happened. 150 years or so after Isaiah uttered these words the people of Judah were carried off after a prolonged siege and the most appalling suffering to the land of Babylon. And as the people of God reflected on what had happened to them, they realised that these words of Isaiah they had been so happy to ignore for so long actually contained God-given, Spirit-filled truth. They could see that their attitudes and the desires of their hearts had brought about disaster exactly in the way Isaiah had predicted.
But what about us? As the church we are not in a physical sense the people of God and we are not any time in the near future going to be carried off to a foreign land for our faith. But – and this is the point we have to take seriously – it is possible to forfeit the blessings of our relationship with Him. It is possible, like the church of Laodicea, to be so blind to our own faults and failings that we do not realise that the God who has loved us and saved us in Jesus Christ is actually displeased with the way we are living our lives and that our behaviour will have serious consequences.
You see, I believe we have lost sight of the vitally important truth that we find in Revelation 3:19 – Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. We have bought into the spirit of the age that love simply means tolerance and acceptance and letting people alone. But real love is not like that. As any parent or teacher knows, love involves setting boundaries, it involves teaching right and wrong, it involves sanctions when a child wilfully disobeys. And if that is true of parents and teachers, how much more is that true of our loving Heavenly Father. He rebukes us – not because He always wants to find fault with us or make us live in terror before Him – but because He wants us to realise that the best way to live is to follow His commands and actually do what He says. In fact that word we translate “discipline” originally had the sense of training children. It carries with it the idea of our Heavenly Father wanting to shape our minds and our thoughts and attitudes so that we live less and less according to the world’s values and more and more by His.
And just in case you think I am making too much of one little sentence from Revelation, listen to these words from Hebrews 12:10-11: Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Or again, from 1 Corinthians 11:32: When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. The New Testament writers all see discipline as being an essential part of discipleship, and indeed the two English words are connected. To put it another way, we cannot hope to grow and to develop our Christian faith unless we are willing for the Lord to challenge and to change us. Sometimes He will use events that happen in our lives. Sometimes He will speak to us through another person. Sometimes He will lay a word of Scripture upon our hearts. But the key thing is, that when we realise the Lord is speaking to us, we listen and respond.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. How earnest are we about our faith? Maybe one reason why we don’t take this teaching about discipline that seriously is that, if we’re honest, we’re a bit lukewarm, just like the Laodiceans. Our faith has, quite literally, gone off the boil, and while it is still there, we don’t really have the fire of the Spirit filling us with a passion and love for Jesus that actually affects the way we live. We come to church when we can, we read the Bible when there’s time, we pray when we have a particular need, but our faith in Jesus isn’t really the thing that gets us out of the bed each morning, or shapes the pattern of our day.
And that’s why there’s a need for all of us to consider seriously the Lord’s challenge to repent. Now I know that word repentance is one that’s often misunderstood. We think of repenting in terms of sackcloth and ashes, or making a general confession, but that’s not what’s at the heart of repentance. Repentance literally means to “change your mind” – not in the negative sense of making a decision and then doing something else, but opening yourself up to the call of Jesus upon your life and allowing the Holy Spirit to shape your inmost being.
So what then does repentance look like in practice? Let’s go back to these woes of Isaiah, and think what questions they might ask of us this morning as we seek to apply His word.
First of all, what is our greatest desire in life? Is it in fact to serve the Lord, or is it have a nice little property empire, or at least a good home, a good job and a little bit put by for a rainy day? Of course wealth in itself is not wrong but what it can do is blind us to the fact that as we say Sunday by Sunday All things come from you and of your own do we give you. And that includes not only the money in our plate, but our hopes, our aims, our ambitions. They all need to be subordinated to the one who loved us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place for our sins and to give us eternal life.
Secondly, what it is our greatest pleasure? Is it the knowledge that we are doing the Lord’s will or is it staying up late enjoying a pint or two or three? No, I’m not saying that we should have a pleasure-less, dreary kind of Christianity where we are afraid to let our hair down. But let me ask you – when was the last time you were thrilled to realise God was working in you and through you? As we go out from this Communion Service this morning we will say Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory. Maybe before we say these words we should ask ourselves whether we indeed want the Lord to send us out in the power of the Spirit, and whether that would be our greatest pleasure.
And thirdly, are there areas of our lives where we live independently of God? I have learnt over the years it is the easiest thing to say, “Jesus is Lord”. It is the hardest thing to let that statement actually transform my life. Allowing Jesus authority over the way I spend my money, the way I use my free time, the way I do my work goes not only against our human nature, but, as I said earlier, right against the spirit of the age.
But if we learn what it means to be earnest and repent, if we can accept the Lord’s discipline of us, then I think we will be able to answer the question I raised earlier as to how we can communicate the message we heard from Isaiah. For a church which is serious about doing business with the Lord and which is open to the work of the Holy Spirit is a church that will be seen to be visibly different, a church which will be salt and light in the local community. As lives are transformed and set on fire with a deep, deep love for Jesus, then we will have no need to preach on street corners or harangue others about their sins. Rather, our life together will start to attract others who will see something of Jesus in us and be open to inviting Him into their lives, to cleanse, renew and heal.
So the final question to ask this morning is: how serious are we about doing business with the Lord? Jesus says in Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. What an amazing invitation! Jesus standing here among us, just waiting for us to invite Him in, to let Him take over hearts, to allow Him to shape and transform us so that others might catch the fire of the Spirit from us. So what is our response? Is it a cold “no thank you, I’d rather stay as I am”? Is it a Laodicean lukewarmness, “I might possibly think about it”? Or is a hot passionate “yes” to Jesus that He might become our greatest desire and our greatest pleasure, and that we learn to live for Him alone?