They Will Not Hurt or Destroy (12/5/04)
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Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We are in the church season of Advent, and the Bible passages suggested for study over these weeks are meant to prepare our hearts for Christmas—for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. These passages include words from the prophet Isaiah, who gave us some of the most famous words in our Bible. Old Testament scholars insist that Isaiah was not predicting the coming of Jesus into the world. He was looking forward to a future king of Israel who would restore that nation to the glory it knew under King David.
Almost a thousand years after Isaiah wrote those words, followers of the Christian faith re-interpreted those writings of Isaiah. In fact, the Christian faith re-read all of the Hebrew Scriptures and put a new slant on them. It is important for us to respect the original meaning of those Hebrew writings. It is in horrendously bad taste to insist that our Jewish brothers and sisters read the words of Isaiah from a Christian perspective. These scriptures belong to the Jews, first and foremost.
But Christianity grew out of Judaism. The scholars tell us that Jesus of Nazareth never sought to create a new religion. He was a Jewish prophet who, like the great prophets before him, attempted to reform the Jewish faith. Faiths need that every now and then—every faith. They all get corrupted over time, and thankfully God empowers some people to speak out against the corruption. The Roman Catholic Church has reformed itself from within many times over the centuries. The medieval church was so corrupt, the Protestant Reformation occurred.
And if anybody has any doubts about whether or not the Protestant Church has become corrupt, I invite you to watch any of the evangelists who come into our homes via the television with promises of salvation and grace for all who are willing to lend their particular ministry financial support. Or spend a little time looking at the “Christian” agenda being supported by the Religious Right. It would seem that this is the type of agenda, over the centuries, that Jesus and his followers were martyred for fighting against.
Yes, religion stands in almost constant need of reform, because it is so powerful. Power corrupts. And religion is powerful because it seeks to answer the most difficult and frightening questions surrounding human life. Why am I here? Where did I come from? How should I live? What happens to me when I die? Convince people you can offer them certain and comforting answers to those questions, and you’ve got power.
So Jesus was a reformer. The Jewish authorities of first century Israel, like religious authorities of all stripes through the ages, were a very powerful group. They knew who was in and who was out with regard to the grace of God, and they knew what a person had to do to be in God’s grace. There were laws—613 of them to be exact—the laws of the Hebrew Bible.
These laws told a person how to do just about everything: how to offer sacrifices at the Temple; how and when to have a male child circumcised; how a woman was to be cleansed after her menstrual cycle; how to wash one’s hands before eating; what and when one could eat.
And it is important to remember that Jesus was a practicing Jew. He made every effort to follow those 613 laws. But like the prophets before him, there were times when the letter of the law got in the way of the spirit of the law. The law was intended to keep God in the hearts and minds of people at all times. The rituals were devised to keep people from straying away from God into lives of idolatry, where money and lust and other worldly temptations took precedence over God. But sometimes the authorities got so obsessed with the law, they forgot about love and compassion.
It was a common message of the prophets: the religious authorities have allowed legalism to get in the way of compassion. Jesus stood in that tradition. He followed the Jewish laws when it seemed right to do so, but he broke those laws whenever they stood in the way of compassion. For example, on those occasions when he performed work on the Sabbath, thus breaking the law, it wasn’t because he thought the law was unimportant. He did so because he thought it was more important to perform compassionate work—helping those in need—than it was to follow the letter of the law.
I say these things because it is important for us to understand that we are borrowing the Hebrew Scriptures from the Jews. What we call the Old Testament is a series of Jewish documents, and it is a wonderful collection of writings. But when we read it with our distinctly Christian slant, we should acknowledge that we are doing so, and we should understand and accept that they mean something different to the Jews—our forebears in faith.
The scholars may be right. Jesus may not have intended to start a new religion. But a new religion did indeed come into being because of his life and death. I think one of the interesting arguments going on in Christian theology involves whether or not Jesus thought he was the Messiah. I must admit that some of my favorite New Testament scholars insist that Jesus did not think of himself that way—that the early church looked back on him as the Messiah, the Christ, but Jesus did not view himself as anything other than a prophet.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with those scholars on this point. I don’t necessarily think Jesus grew up thinking of himself that way, but I do think that when he walked to the cross, he did indeed view himself as the Messiah. When he struggles with God in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Father, take this cup from me—don’t make me go through with this”—the fact is he could have ran the other way. He could have headed back to Nazareth and opened up a nice little carpentry business. Found a nice girl. Settled down and raised a family.
But he didn’t. He allowed himself to be taken, he did not defend himself in a way that would have saved his life, and he died on the cross. In my mind, he knew exactly what he was doing. He too had read the Hebrew Scriptures. And he was especially fond of Isaiah. You might remember that when he began his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, he read from the scroll of Isaiah. I think the time came when he saw himself in those scriptures.
And so let’s turn to Isaiah, the great Hebrew prophet whose words, as we re-consider them in the light of the life of Jesus, have become an integral part of our own faith. Jews understand these words to be a vision of the suffering Jewish people as they endured the Babylonian Captivity. And that was surely Isaiah’s intent. But for Christians—and perhaps for Jesus himself—it is hard to imagine these words speaking of anything other than Jesus. From Isaiah:
…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Was Jesus praying over that passage as he contemplated his walk to the cross? Nobody can say for sure. But those words cut across 2500 years and speak directly to the heart of the Christian today. Isaiah had a knack for that.
This is the time of year most people think about Jesus more than usual. Part of that is because the signs of Christmas are everywhere. And I like that. I catch some grief from some of my more serious minister friends, because I just love Christmas—the whole thing! I’ve been culturally conditioned to be one of the masses who just love the Christmas season. We like the bells, the glitter, the lights, and lit-up Santas and angels and reindeer all over our front yards, the music blasting from speakers with the songs we know so well we find ourselves singing them without even knowing it.
I love this time of year. But I also remember the reason for the season. I believe that the life of Jesus was the central point of human history. And there is something about the baby Jesus. Isn’t that just like God to do something unexpected. I mean, let’s not argue about the nature of Jesus, fully God and fully human according to our traditional creeds. And let’s not give ourselves a headache wrestling with the idea of the Trinity. We should not dismiss the Trinity, but we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about whether or not we have managed to define the godhead with our introspective theological explorations.
Let’s get past all that philosophizing and theologizing and just say something simple about Jesus—he revealed God in some way. We can’t get our minds around God, but we can get our minds around Jesus of Nazareth, and most Christians agree that in some way, Jesus revealed something important about God’s nature.
The baby Jesus. That’s just not what I would have expected. If God were to decide to reveal the divine nature in this world, I would expect something a bit more spectacular than a helpless baby, born to an unwed teenager, in some politically insignificant backwater, two thousand years before humanity developed the ability to even broadcast the event world-wide.
How about this: The clouds form words across the sky, the stars suddenly spin around in amazing and hypnotizing shapes, kaleidoscopes of color fill the air, and the thunder roars forth words we can all understand, announcing the arrival of the divine messenger. And then he appears—an appearance that makes the most spectacular Hollywood blockbuster look like child’s play. He is fifty miles tall, and he has flames shooting out of his eyes and a giant, five mile long sword clenched in his mouth, and…and…
But wait a minute. If Steven Spielberg could do that, why can’t God? What kind of God have we got, anyway? This… this… this baby—this is a reflection of God? This is what God is like? And it would help to know that this baby was going to grow up and turn into that fifty mile tall guy with the flames and the sword, but no! No! He ends up getting nailed to a cross and dies a slow, humiliating, agonizing death. What kind of God have we got, anyway?
Eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah envisioned the future deliverer of God’s people. As Christians interpret his words, part of his vision came true and part did not—at least not yet. Listen to Isaiah:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
That part of Isaiah’s prophecy came true. Or at least, it sure sounds a lot like Jesus. But it is the rest of his prophecy that really intrigues me. It is some of the greatest poetry in the Bible. Some would call it a dream. Most would say it could never come to pass. Others would say it is poetry and imagery and should not be taken seriously. But those are the people who expected God to arrive with the flames and the swords and the thunder.
It’s up to the rest of us—those of us who have enough of the crazy dreamer in us to believe that God could actually be revealed as a helpless baby—its up to us to hear these words from almost three thousand years ago and say—yeah, that sound like something God would do. That sounds like the type of plan that our God would make—the God who shows up as a baby and gets nailed to a cross. We close with the words of Isaiah, the half of his prophecy as yet unfulfilled, and now in our hands:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Amen, Isaiah. Amen.