You might recall Jesus quoting from the prophet Isaiah when confronted abut why his disciples don’t practice the ceremonial tradition of washing their hands before a meal. The quote comes from Isaiah 29:13 and is a charge that God has against his people, Israel:
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
There are a couple of things that strike me in this passage. First, the obvious is that these people have learned to say the right things, project holy things on the outside…but their hearts are far from God. Therefore, there is little to no relationship with the Lord, they just listen to the holy words and memorize them. They sing the songs they know and go through the rituals, but they do not KNOW God. Second, God charges that the fear they are to have, due to the closeness of the relationship has also been cheapened. This “fear of the Lord” is now something that is taught. Perhaps it is practiced and perfected, and then performed, but the fear of the Lord is not authentic; something that would grow out of real relationship with the Lord.
So, the very things and people God set up to draw his people closer and provide them with a healthy “fear of the Lord” has become a barrier to authentic faith. Now, when we see the “fear of the Lord” we must understand God’s holiness and God’s care to truly engage this phrase. Fear can mean respect, yes, but with the Lord it is that understanding that the holy God who has every right to destroy us and the evil of the world has invited into relationship to care for us. This is more than respect, but the awe and wonder of how this is possible mixed with the responsibility to live in thankfulness for this opportunity.
What Jesus doesn’t share with the Pharisees is the verse a few passages down. Listen to the words of Isiah 29:16 =
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
I sometimes wonder if in our construed way of making God our divine servant who exists to make us happy and content, if we have indeed turned things upside-down. You see, the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders made the mistake that God served them, and I think that Christians have bought into a popular version of American Christianity that does the same thing. How can the clay regard the potter as the clay?
I must admit that it is easier for me to say the Christian things and read the Christian book than it is for me to spend time with God, walk with God, and relate to God. It is also easier to think that God wants me to be happy than it is to live as if the purpose of my existence is to make God happy. God’s priorities are not my priorities, and God’s happiness is not even close to the things that make me happy. This is why we are asked to follow Jesus and learn to be disciples of Jesus; because it was his life, not ours or the Jews or anyone else, that truly glorified God…that is “made God happy.”
So, I want God to please remind me that I am clay and you are the Creating Potter. Help me walk with you and talk with you and never substitute what I’m taught about you with who you are in my life. Help me to bring something that is of worth as I worship you with my life that you may be honored by my life…up close…not from a distance.
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
It is hard to believe that a baby being born might actually save the world. I mean, where was Satan when the baby was vulnerable and helpless, when he squirmed in the arms of that pre-teen mom of his? What happened to the evil kings and the lords that saw him as a threat? Surely Hell noticed…I mean, if we have the boldness to still claim there is one. Perhaps because I grew up knowing the story, I forget how bizarre it is…how hard it is to not believe, but to live out on a daily basis.
There are so many other, more tangible things for me to hope for and thank God about…for example the fact that I live in the most powerful nation in the world, the beacon of freedom and liberty. I have a job, a family, a group of friends, a house, a car, and I could keep listing. And therein lies the rub of this story I’m living, in the midst of my comfort I am supposed to long for something greater, purer, and better than what I have.
I am convinced the Bible wasn’t written to me. I know this because it was written to people who lived a long time ago and their names, stories, and dreams are found in the pages I read. And they, unlike me, often longed for a better life free of war, famine, hunger, and pain. Sure those things exist in our contemporary world, but I have to search for them because they are not at my door (well, at least on in this moment).
But, eventually, the things I like so much about this life I live and this story that is me will change…something will happen that is unexpected and perhaps even tragic. That may be where you find yourself right now as I write this. Often, and you can read it to be certain, but often the Bible doesn’t allow us long to wallow in the reality of our vulnerability and weakness before it shows us a vision of God’s Kingdom…the place we hope to call home. This is the case in Isaiah 34, in which war is being described and then without hesitation we get this in chapter 35:
1 Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days.
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses.
2 Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers
and singing and joy!
The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon,
as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon.
There the Lord will display his glory,
the splendor of our God.
3 With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
and encourage those who have weak knees.
4 Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
He is coming to save you.”
I would advise you to read the whole chapter, because it is all good! You see, there is a day coming when “the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God.” This will reconstitute our existence and recreate our world. It isn’t a government that was the signal of this change, it wasn’t a family, or a house, or car, or money…the signal of God’s Kingdom was a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Satan was bound by Him, evil was defeated by Him, kings and lords were limited by Him, and Hell only does what Jesus says to do! For those who need it, there is always hope to be found in the Bible, especially in the darkest most dreary times. Live hope today!
Just before this chapter, God declares punishment on the people: “the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.” The trees, the people -- both will be clean cut off. And then God provides this visionary promise through the prophet:
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair? It was the leftover of God’s punishment. There was no life in this place. I’ve sat there myself, perhaps you have, too. You may be there now -- at that place where hope is hard to find, where loss and despair have desensitized your heart.
But God’s word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to spring up and celebrate. The prophet’s vision is surprising, but small. The nation would never rise again as it was. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar. The shoot that was growing would be different from what the people expected.
Faith doesn’t look only at what has been, wishing to return things to the past glory of something that is long past. Faith strains to see the “fragile sign” in the present that points us to the future. A future full of hope is what awaits for those who develop the eyes of faith. Yet, whether our eyes struggle to see what God is doing with the old stump or whether we are fully in tune with God’s work, God’s word sits with us at the place where it finds us. We can sit on the stump counting the rings, remembering the past…God’s word sits with us. So, today—right now—God’s word is with you in mourning and in joy, in pain and in celebration, and the work of God surrounds us as God continues to LOVE you, us, this world—the handiwork of creation.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.