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Living His Love Throughout The Year

Living His Love Throughout the Year
December 26, 2004

[Preached as dialogue between Rubel Shelly and John York]

John York: I sincerely hope all of you are living some of the afterglow of a Christmas Day that is lingering with you this morning!

Rubel Shelly: And I sincerely hope that your plans for these few days were not terribly disrupted by the spurt of authentic winter weather we have experienced in the days just past. On the one hand, I really enjoy the incredible beauty of a snowfall – even the diamond-like brilliance of the ice that was on the barren trees around our house. On the other, of course, I cringe for the hazards of highway peril, potential downing of power lines, and the like that occur when we have such weather.

John: When Rubel and I swapped a couple of e-mails in midweek about this sermon, we both wondered if either the two of us or any of you would be able to get here this morning. But most of the major streets are drag strips again this morning! In spite of the cold temperatures, the ice has yielded to sun and salt and traffic.

What we were discussing in those exchanges was which passages in Isaiah we might want to revisit on this day after Christmas. There are some beautiful anticipations of our Savior in the words of Isaiah!

Rubel: Among the more familiar and recognizable of those texts are these words:

“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. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isa. 9:6-7).

If you recall, the first of the four advent candles lit earlier in this service was called the candle of hope. In the dark days Isaiah and his contemporaries faced, they were called to live in hope of a better time. The people of that time had chosen their own way instead of God’s. They had sought their own glory through ill-fated alliances rather than God’s glory through righteousness. Earlier in Isaiah 9, the situation of those people was variously described with terms such as “gloom,” “darkness,” and “deep darkness.” But the prophet was allowed to speak for God in order to promise the dawning of “a great light” and the breaking of the painful, burdensome yoke they were bearing. So the people were asked to lift their eyes to the future. But don’t misunderstand or trivialize the prophet’s message!

There is a common response to tragedy that goes like this: “Cheer up! Hard times don’t last forever. Things will get better soon. Just you wait and see.” This is the knee-jerk counsel of optimism – whether real or feigned. One doesn’t have to be a believer to offer it. And, sure enough, the bear markets have always turned bullish again – given a little time. The ice has melted and given way to spring – given the turning of a page or two on our calendars. But do you realize how trite and inappropriate the cheer-up-it’ll-get-better counsel sounds to some situations? How angry it makes people who hear it?

The several times I’ve been in hospitals with people who went there excited about a baby they were expecting and came home without one and to plan a funeral, I’ve never thought it appropriate to say, “Cheer up! You can still have another baby!” Do you realize how dumb that sounds? Do you realize how somebody on the receiving end of that might want to knock your block off? Let me ask you: Would it help you feel better about the death of your teenaged son or grown daughter to be reminded that you still have two or three left? Loving a person isn’t like losing money in the stock market. A little time doesn’t reverse the trend. You are grieving the disruption of a relationship with someone you love.

Isaiah was offering more than the trite pablum of positive thinking. He was looking to a time when God’s Anointed One would appear – the one alone who can be acclaimed as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – to set right what time and positive thinking and our best efforts never will. If pain or judgment or the sense of distance from God has plunged a person into darkness, the light of hope has dawned in Jesus.

To be brutally honest, some of you are swallowing the it-has-to-get-better pudding of naïve optimism when you need to chew on the apart-from-Jesus-I-am-hopeless strong meat of reality about your life! Without his blood, you will never experience pardon. Until he comes back, some wrongs will not be put right. Until the graves are emptied, what you fear most today will not be defeated. To live in hope of these things is to rest in the certainty that his promises will not fail. Living with such hope, you can begin to experience God’s shalom, his peace.

John: Speaking of peace, as we were lighting the second candle a few moments ago – the candle of peace – my mind raced to the parts of our planet this morning that are anything but peaceful. Places and people where alienation and differentiation and hatred and efforts to seize control by power and might or create chaos by guerilla warfare make the air itself thick with fear and suspicion – and death, not peace. I thought of all of the unrest and injustice that often resides just under the surface even in so-called peace times among us humans; all of the less-than-peaceful moments that have popped up in our homes this past week as we worked feverishly to get ready for Christmas. Peace seems to be one of those longings of our souls that, even when we have just a moment’s peace, it gets stripped away by some new trauma or tragedy or outrage. Peace is that longed-for glimpse of stability and security and bliss where life is in some sort of harmony and balance that is tranquil.

I was also drawn back again to these words of promise associated with the coming Messiah in Isaiah 11:

“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 near the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put its hand into the viper’s nest. 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” (Isa. 11:5-9).

These words prophesy a time in which all creation is at peace. The animal world and the human world will no longer be about the survival of the fittest or the food chain or “natural enemies” or the law of the jungle or anything else that disrupts harmony in God’s creation. The time is coming, says the Lord, when knowledge of the LORD will bring an end to the hurt and destruction.

So at this time of the year we witness the peace and the calm of nativity scenes, where humans and animals are brought together around a child, and the scenes are always peaceful. There’s no time given to re-creating the labor pains of Mary in childbirth, and somehow the baby Jesus is never heard crying his lungs out when he is rudely brought into this world in the miracle of human birth. The animals are not disruptive, trying to eat straw out of the manger that is supposed to be their feeding trough. And for a few moments at least, we can even keep the story of Matthew’s Gospel held at bay. It’s not time yet to remember the death march of Herod’s soldiers into Bethlehem or Rachel weeping over her children, refusing to be consoled.

Peace has its moment in the announcement that Creator God has become one with creation itself, and in that moment the beginning of ultimate peace is made possible. But there is an opening announcement in Isaiah 11 that pertains to peace in ways more necessary to us humans than the visions of animals and children co-existing. It is the announcement that the one who comes from the genealogy of Jesse and King David will come in the power of the Spirit of the Lord:

“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. His delight shall be in 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” (Isa. 11:1-5).

I know that many translations do not capitalize the “S” of Spirit in this text, because it is doubtful that Isaiah’s original audience would have understood Spirit as part of the Godhead. But it seems to me the capitalization makes all the difference in our understanding of the promises of this text. The wisdom and understanding and counsel and might are not about our human capacities but about God’s transformation of creation by becoming part of it. It is the God-presence that goes beyond what human eyes can see and human ears can hear that announces righteousness and faithfulness – and gives both hope and peace – in our world.

Rubel: The third text we have chosen to share with you this morning parallels the third candle that was lit, a candle of joy. It comes from Isaiah 61. And the joy announced here is the bliss of both deliverance and empowerment, the gladness of both salvation and transformation.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Isa. 61:1-3).

It was this text that Jesus searched for in the Isaiah scroll handed him one day in the synagogue, read to the people who were present that day, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). If God’s Spirit – and I am spelling it with a capital-letter “S” here as well – was upon him, did enable him to bring good news, and provided “gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” then we do have reason to rejoice and sing, to dance and testify. But who could have believed he would do this as a despised-and-rejected man?

On March 5, 1994, Deputy Sheriff Lloyd Prescott was teaching a class for police officers in the Salt Lake City Library. As he stepped into the hallway, he noticed a gunman herding 18 hostages into the next room. With a flash of insight, Prescott – who was dressed in street clothes for the day – joined the group as the nineteenth hostage, followed them into the room, and shut the door. But when the gunman announced the order in which hostages would be executed, Prescott identified himself as a police officer.

In the scuffle that followed, Prescott fatally shot the armed man. The hostages were released unharmed. God dressed himself in street clothes and entered our world, joining us who are held hostage to sin. On the cross, Jesus defeated sin and set us free from its power. Anointed with the Spirit of God, he was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. But please notice one more thing from this text that we typically ignore.

What was heaven’s intention for those of us who have heard the announcement of good news and accepted Christ’s offer of release from sin? “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (v.3b). He has not only delivered us but is ready to transform us. He wants to turn us into “oaks of righteousness” – a “planting of the Lord” in this world to “display his glory.” We are meant to live the things we say we believe. Our faith is given in order to produce good fruit. Christians are not only saved but empowered for God’s holy purposes in this world.

Back in Isaiah 1:27-31, a people that had forgotten Yahweh was compared to “an oak whose leaf withers.” Here – with the anointing of the Anointed One upon them – God’s redeemed people are the healthy “oaks of righteousness” he intended them to be. We have a purpose to fill for God in this world. To be strong in his power. To put his glory on display. To be his vessels of love and mercy and justice to the world.

John: And that is the fourth candle of advent, the candle of love. “God so loved the world,” we remind ourselves. In the coming of Jesus there is the recognition of God’s steadfast love for creation and his all encompassing presence that never abandons us. We hear our own call to love as we have been loved, not just in the Christmas Season. This is a 24/7 assignment in every season of the year.

To live his love throughout the year means that we become vessels of his mercy, service, and justice. It also means that hope must sustain us in the midst of all that is not yet fully formed in his kingdom reign. It is to constantly plead “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is to recognize that birth of Jesus and his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation have opened a new way for us to be in this world. But we are not yet fully formed. So we long to be completely alive and in God’s presence. It is the promise of Isaiah 65 that John turned to in Revelation to keep hope alive for his audience. Listen first to Isaiah’s longings:

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD – and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent – its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 65:17-25).

Now hear John’s adaptation in Revelation 21 and 22:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (21:1-8)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (22:1-5).

So we lit advent candles of hope and peace, joy and love this morning as a way of affirming what happened 2000 years ago in the manger – and some 30 years after that at Golgotha. We affirm what happened on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God was poured out on all flesh. We affirm what happens in our own time when the transformation of water and Spirit begins in a human life as God makes us his ambassadors of reconciliation in this world. We pray “Lord, come quickly” even as we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

A few months ago I was introduced to a song that comes from the Taize community, and the words capture our hopes and our assurances as we approach the New Year.

May your heart find grace,
May your soul know peace,
May your mind be renewed.
And may your eyes see the light,
May your ears hear the glory,
Of Jesus Christ in our midst.

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