Jesus’ wholistic mission and the Church (John Oswalt on Isaiah 9)

follow-me-satan-temptation-of-jesus-christ-1903.jpg!HalfHDIn his comments on Isaiah 9:2-4, Dr. John Oswalt makes this astute reflection on the wholistic mission of Christ that the church must keep ahold of in talking about salvation in Christ.

They [God’s people] rejoice because the Lord has freed them. It is not necessary to look for some specific liberation which Isaiah has in mind. It is apparent from the whole context that it is final deliverance which is in view. This is what God holds out to his people and that for which they justly pray and believe. Two extremes are to be avoided here. One extreme is to take the way that the Christian Church has often taken, saying that true bondage is to personal sin from which Christ frees us, and thus turning a blind eye on actual physical oppression. The other extreme is the way of certain forms of liberation theology that seem to suggest that the only sin is the sin of political oppression, and that Christ’s only purpose in coming was to give human beings political freedom.

Neither extreme is adequate in itself. To make God’s promises primarily political is to overlook the profound insight of the NT (and the OT) that the chief reason for the absence of šālôm (harmonious relationships) among human beings is the absence of šālôm between God and human beings through sin. Without šālôm between persons, freedom cannot long exist. But to act as if the forgiveness of sin and the consequent personal relationship are all that matters is to succumb to a Platonic distinction of existence into a “real” spiritual world and an “unreal” physical world, a distinction which is thoroughly unbiblical. The Messiah lifts the yoke of sin in order to lift the yoke of oppression. The Church forgets either yoke at its peril.

From John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 243.

Taking Shelter in God: reflections on Isaiah 25

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You have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
and a shade from the heat. (Isaiah 25:4a)

This chapter from Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to the restoration God will bring for His people even as “ruthless nations” rise up against them. Isaiah speaks of both a future restoration as well as a present help from God that is rooted within God’s “perfect faithfulness” (vs 1) and sovereignty (“wonderful things planned long ago” – vs 1). We see here that the overriding vision of God gripping Isaiah’s heart and mind transforms his outlook on the present circumstances. Let’s consider again the phrases Isaiah uses to describe God in verse 4:

  • “a refuge for the poor”
  • “a refuge for the needy”
  • “a shelter from the storm”
  • “a shade from the heat”

Isaiah reminds us that in a wide variety of circumstances, both natural and social, God protects and keeps His people. It is not a question—”will God do this?”—but an expected certainty—”God will do this.” At the same time, notice what Isaiah does not tell us here. He does not say, “Because you trust in God you will never face distress, meager times, storms, or heat.” Isaiah is not so unrealistic in his faith as that. He has weathered his own storms, and is facing some when writing these words. Instead, he reminds us that when stormy times come upon us, God is with us and available to us as a trustworthy refuge, shelter, and shade.

Isaiah continues his prophecy with images of restoration that we later encounter in the final book of the New Testament (Isaiah 25:6-8; Revelation 21:1-5). John drew upon Isaiah’s words in the closing chapters of Revelation, and so they are familiar to many of us. These images depict darkness’ removal like the lifting of a shroud, death decisively swallowed up, tears wiped away, and disgrace eliminated. Such beautiful imagery grabs our hearts and fills our imagination with hope. When our present circumstances resonate more with darkness, tears, death, and disgrace, it is good to read again words filled with such ebullient hope. Isaiah speaks with prophetic power that our dark circumstances are not the end of the story, whether our story or that of the broader world. God is still at work.

The critical calling in all of this for us is to trust God. “In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him” (Isaiah 25:9). As it did for Isaiah, what characterizes God’s people in distress, storms, and heat is their overriding vision of God that shapes their outlook through trust in God. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are easily overcome by anxieties about what will come, confusion about how to live in the present, and paralysis about what to do and what not to do. Every day the news changes, leaving us like a boat cast upon rough and stormy waters. This is the natural reality of being human with all our limitations.

However, the question that each of us must answer is what we will do when these anxieties surround us. Will we let them overwhelm us so that our outlook is shaped more by our circumstances and the anxieties that so readily result from them? When it comes down to it, what will shape our vision and outlook in life?

In a sense, we have entered into the moment of our faith’s testing. Although it may sound simplistic, do we trust only what we can see or do we trust the Living God? “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Certainly faith also sees what gathers around, but that is not all the eyes of faith sees. When our overriding vision is of God and not just our circumstances, we know we can bring our anxieties and fears to God in prayer. That movement of faith to reach out to God enables us to encounter God as our refuge, shelter, and shade. We move forward driven by faith—active trust in God—and not by fear—agitated anxiety about our circumstances. In these days all of us need that reminder again and again. I believe this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote from prison to the Philippian church:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We have entered into a time of deep distress that will mark our lives in many ways. But take heart, my friends, our God is with us as “a shelter from the storm.”

Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent

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I had the privilege to write an article on preaching in Advent for Preaching Today, which was just recently released. You can read the entire article, “Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent,” at Preaching Today, but here’s a taste of what you will find there.

In my childhood, one of the greatest moments of anticipation was Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the chance to decorate, eat Christmas cookies, and, of course, open presents on Christmas Day. Every Christmas Eve I struggled to go to bed, and was usually the first one up to see what was waiting under the tree. The anticipation and wonder were like adrenaline coursing through my body.

As we grow older, most of us lose some of our wonder. The novelty of Christmas starts to wear off, at least a little bit. Along with that, our anticipation gets trampled down under the weight of responsibilities, the rush of preparations, and, at times, the heaviness that comes on those of us for whom the holidays bring sadness.

There is a remedy for lost wonder and trampled anticipation. That remedy is not getting more expensive presents, having flashier decorations, or inviting the right people to our parties. The remedy is stepping back enough to realize what we have lost it, and then going through a journey of recovery. Like a relationship that has lost its spark or a hobby that has lost our interest, we need to take time and effort to see what’s right in front of us with fresh eyes.

The church has a recovery program of sorts for lost wonder and trampled anticipation leading toward Christmas. That recovery program is called Advent, which means “appearing,” coming from the Latin word adventus. Advent looks back with wonder at Jesus’ birth over two-thousand years ago, while also looking forward with anticipation to his future return at the end of human history.

As preachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our congregations enter into that recovery of anticipation and wonder. My hope in this article is to offer four pathways for preaching in Advent so that our congregations both taste the longing that leads us to cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and savor the joy that sings, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Finding Peace: Isaiah

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[This is the devotional I wrote for the first week of Eastbrook Church‘s Advent 2018 devotional. Join in with the daily journey through Advent here.]

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

There was a telling headline in a newspaper not that long ago: “Are We More Divided Than Ever? Yes!” The number of divisions and levels of distrust feel stronger than ever in the public square, and we’re feeling it in our lives. A recent study from a psychological journal traced a marked increase over the last thirty years in individual’s anxiety levels corresponding to indicators such as trouble sleeping, inability to remember, poor appetite, and more. Divided on the outside and anxious on the inside…we need peace.

The prophet Isaiah spoke a word from God at a time that is more like our own than we might realize. In his day, the 8th century B.C., turmoil at the national and international level had reached a fever pitch, eventually leading to the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. People felt conflicted and confused, and people were even described as “the people walking in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). In the midst of this reality, God inspired Isaiah to bring a word about peace that was on its way from God Himself. There was a miracle child coming, and in the midst of the might and wonder coming with that child, He would ultimately be called “Prince of Peace” (9:6). For the fear-filled people lost in the dark clouds of divisions and distrust, Isaiah’s word pierced through the dark clouds like a shaft of heavenly light.

In the gospel of Matthew we are told that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the promise of God-given through Isaiah (Matthew 1:22). In describing Jesus in one of his letters, the Apostle Paul wrote: “he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). Jesus brings both inner peace and relational peace, both peace with God and peace amongst humanity. This is very good news for those of us living in a world tortured by anxiety, conflict, and chaos.

Near the end of His earthly ministry, after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus said to His disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). This Advent, let us join Isaiah as one of the people of Advent, turning toward God for the gift that only He can give in Jesus, who is our peace.

Reflect:

  • Why do you think Prince of Peace is one of the key titles given to Jesus?
  • As you consider this season in front of you, in what ways do you need to experience more of the peace Jesus brings?

A Prayer for the first Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

God of justice and peace,
from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness,
that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder
before your marvelous deeds.
Raise our heads in expectation,
that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord
and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.

All Saints’ Day: A Celebration

fullsizeoutput_ae3.jpegToday, is the celebration of All Saints’ Day. What is All Saints’ Day and why should we celebrate it?

Since the 4th century, Christians have celebrated the lives of saints and martyrs. However, it was not until AD 609 that Pope Boniface IV dedicated one day of remembrance for all martyrs. Since that time, and after a broadening by Pope Gregory IV in 837 into a celebration of all past saints, All Saints’ Day has been a solemn holy day in the Roman Catholic Church, often connected with reverence for past Christians and relics.  While often criticized for idolatrous veneration of departed Christians, even after the Reformation, most Protestants continued to celebrate All Saints’ Day as a way to connect God’s faithfulness to His people in times past with God’s faithfulness to His people now.

In Hebrews, chapter 11, the writer takes us through what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” We hear of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Rahab — all of whom faithfully walked through their ups-and-downs with God. The first words of chapter 12 take a sudden turn to the present: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The lives of great heroes of the faith are celebrated as an inspiration for the Christians listening in the present moment, that they too might live with God faithfully in their everyday lives.

I love that phrase: “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” Those witnesses are the believers in God that have gone before us. They bear witness to us that there is a way to live faithfully with God upon earth now even as they also bear witness that there is future hope with God beyond our earthly lives. Although it may sound strange to our ears, all past believers are ‘saints’ in that they are ‘holy ones’ (the literal translation of the Greek word hagioi) through Jesus Christ. All Saints’ Day brings to the foreground the spiritual bond that exists between believers from all times and in all places. More specifically, All Saints’ Day highlights the connection between the saints who have gone ahead of us into God’s presence (sometimes called “the Church triumphant”) and the saints still upon this earthly plane (sometimes called “the Church militant”). We celebrate those who have gone before us so that we might be encouraged to run the race before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus.

In a culture dominated by the ever-pressing latest and greatest that is new and now, All Saints’ Day is a powerful corrective. It reminds that we are an important part of God’s story, but we are not the only part of the story. When we celebrate the saints of previous times we realize that we would not be here were it not for Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, David, Esther, Isaiah, Mary, and so many more.

In a culture that is obsessed with our present opinions about our present matters, All Saints’ Day offers us perspective. It helps us grow beyond “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” to steal a phrase from G. K. Chesterton. We reconnect with Catherine of Siena and Augustine of Hippo, with Perpetua of Carthage and Janani Luwum of Uganda, with Sojourner Truth and Blaise Pascal. We need them; perhaps even more than we know.

In a culture that has forgotten how to think about the future, All Saints’ Day reminds us to have hope of a future day. Since there are saints who have gone before us, we can persevere now as saints upon earth. Jesus Himself told us that He is preparing a place for us and, as John testifies, there will be a great company there of saints from every tribe, tongue, and nation around God’s throne celebrating in God’s eternal kingdom.

By God’s grace, we, too, will join that great company. But until we do, we celebrate God’s faithfulness in their lives as a means to lean into God’s faithfulness in our own lives as persevering pilgrims in this land that is not our home.