Friday, June 16, 2017

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-7, for Trinity Sunday (1 Year Lectionary), "The Fire of Holiness"

Sermon Outline:
·         Isaiah’s experience is largely unrelatable to us; feeling of absolute fear for his life, 1) seeing God in His glory, 2) inner sanctuary of the Temple (Holy of Holies). Raw terror of being where no human dares go—don’t have that same sense of fear of authority today to have a close comparison. Not a brush with death (Esther before King Xerxes or Moses and the burning bush are close examples; maybe also ancient Hawaiian kapu about the shadow of an alii falling on a commoner). Different from how people often think of God “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. 1Tim. 6:15-16. Unapproachable—so when Moses, or Isaiah or others are brought into God’s presence, the response is fear, retreat, face-down submission.
·         But the surprise is that God doesn’t use this power to trample or obliterate them, but purges away their impurity and bestows His holiness. God wants to draw humans into His worship, not as though He needed anything, but so that we might be saved. so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity. Ath. Creed basically means that denial of the Trinity is denial of the Christian faith—rejection of how God has revealed Himself. But Creed is not just about correctly “categorizing” or “explaining” God, but drawing us into worshipping the One True God, and knowing Him for salvation. They are statements of praise or doxology that enlarge or magnify God by describing His greatness, awesomeness, and power. Teach who He is, so we praise Him right
·         “Train of His robe”—actually ‘hem”—suggests Isaiah couldn’t describe God much above “floor level.” Cf. Exodus 24:10 pavement beneath God’s feet—words fall short to describe God Himself, but rather how His glory or holiness radiates out to things around Him and beneath Him. Even seraphim (the burning ones), the most holy angels that attend God’s presence, can’t look at Him but hide their faces and feet.
·         Fire associated with God’s holiness—seraphim, smoke, burning coal, purging lips. “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28b-29). God’s fire consumes what is unrighteous, unholy, wicked, impure. Fire can be a great blessing, but never easily controllable. Destroy or cleanse. Fascinating and terrifying (Oswalt, 184). God’s fire of holiness purifies and devours sin, so that we can be made holy like Him. Cf. Faith more precious than gold, that perishes by fire (1 Pt. 1:7) Faith survives the fire by God’s mercy
·         Makes our encounter with the Living God frightening, because our sin is like gasoline to the holiness of His fire. Like Isaiah’s terror: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the Kind the Lord of Hosts!” Not even a cry for mercy—convinced he was wrecked, undone, lost. What is our consciousness of sin? Deny it? Smuggle it into God’s presence? Put forward our “righteous deeds” for His approval (only to find they are filthy rags)? Or do we, like Isaiah own it and our helplessness to stand before Him? Want to be purged of these things?
·         Fire image—commentator Oswalt describes how God takes away the sin and guilt in which we have lived for years—a wrenching and searing experience—like a burn and scar. Do we stubbornly refuse to bow the knee before God, because we think we can fix ourselves, or don’t need His help? That was the uncleanness that Isaiah found in his people, and even himself. A man/people of unclean lips! God grant that we be given Isaiah’s humility and genuine repentance. “Apart from the fires of self-surrender and divine surgery the clean heart is an impossibility.” Do we submit to that searing pain of His holy fires purging away our sin? Ah, to be free, holy, pure (even with scars!) and to know that we are cleansed of that old sin! Joy vs. laboring under the delusion that we have no sin. Separation from our sin cannot be a painless experience as it’s so deeply ingrained in us
·         Angel descends to Isaiah, burning coal to lips (Ouch!?) “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Fire purged away what was unclean, sinful, unholy—but God permitted Isaiah to live, and in fact pardoned Him, because God had taken the sin away. Picture of how God intends to interact with us (and original audience Israel).
·         Isaiah’s crisis was not his alone, but saw his guilt in context of the nation… same problem. Crisis in the book of Isaiah—how can arrogant, sinful Israel become the nation by which the nations will learn of God? God had a holy purpose for them. By the same experience of humbling before God, repentance, God’s atoning for sin. Isaiah was a prophet describing God’s program of atonement for sin: Isaiah 1:18  “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. Isaiah 53:4–6  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  
·         God’s program was to reduce Israel to one man, One faithful servant of the Lord, Jesus, who would bear the sin of the world upon Himself. Become afflicted, wounded, and die for our sins, so we could be healed. The cross needed to happen so God could say to us, behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. God bore our sins in the cross so we could be forgiven  Hard to miss association to the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave it to His disciples: “Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood which is shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”  God places the cleansing fruits of His atonement in our mouth for our forgiveness. We receive what He accomplished for us there on the cross.
·         Crisis of Isaiah/Israel/us how do sinful, unclean people get transformed into a people of purpose? To witness to the nations of God? By God’s forgiveness, makes us clean again, holy, set apart for His purpose. Isaiah was commissioned by God “Who will go? Here I am, send me!” Isaiah would proclaim God’s redeeming work through the Messiah He would send. 7 centuries till Jesus.
·         Holy, Holy, Holy—threefold, in worship of Trinity, also superlative, as the highest and holiest of all. Again, see this not to analyze and reduce God to several simple parts that we can grasp, but to evoke worship and awe. Trembling and earthquake in Temple at God’s voice—but God’s presence was not there to destroy, but to cleanse and redeem Isaiah. This is the God revealed in Christ Jesus. Thankfully, not in terror and raw glory, but the humble, approachable child in the manger, the gentle Jesus who welcomed children into His arms, the incomparable King who forgave His bitterest enemies while they tormented Him on the cross. Not timid to rebuke the wicked or proud or self-righteous, but full of compassion to those who listened, who humbled themselves, who sought mercy. Full of mercy for all who needed it. God reveals Himself to us in Jesus to show us God’s holiness but also His goodness and love. This transforms our approach to God, as the author to the Hebrews says in Christ Jesus we can approach the throne of grace with confidence (Heb. 4:16) because of Jesus’ intercession. Having God reveal Himself to us in this way, what more but to worship God with reverence and awe, and offer to Him acceptable praise? Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, three we name Thee; though in essence only one, undivided God we claim Thee, and, adoring bend the knee, while we own the mystery. Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Note on the Athanasian Creed: The end of the creed makes reference to all people rising and giving an account concerning their deeds, and that those who’ve done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Examine these Scripture passages that refer to the judgment: Matt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; John 5:21-29, esp. vs. 24, 29 & John 6:28-29; cf. Rom. 8:1. While works are examined in the final judgment, those who have faith are spared judgment and condemnation on account of Jesus’ righteous life.
  2. When Isaiah has a vision of the Lord “sitting upon a throne” inside the Temple, where does Scripture tell us God’s throne was? 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; Psalm 80:1. Isaiah, since he was not the high priest, would have been forbidden to enter the Most Holy Place, or innermost part of the Temple. What was Isaiah’s response to this? Isaiah 6:5. What was he immediately aware of? Cf Exodus 33:20; Judges 6:20-23. Can we relate in any way or from any experience, Isaiah’s sheer terror at being somewhere he dare not go? What kind of experience would relay a similar feeling? Why is that an uncommon feeling or experience today?
  3. Isaiah recognized not only his own guilt, but the guilt of his people. Isaiah chapter 6, through Isaiah’s experience, is relating an important question that is explored in the writing of the prophet—“How can sinful, arrogant Israel become the holy people of God, through whom the nations will learn of God?” How does Isaiah experience the solution to this dilemma? Isaiah 6:6-7. How does God bring that same solution to us? Isaiah 1:18; 53:4-6, 10-12.
  4. The holiness of God is something completely “other” from ourselves. The word “holy” means “separate” in Hebrew. God is separate from His people in His perfection, power, and loving-kindness (among other things). God is absolutely uncompromising in His expectation of faithfulness from His people—anything less brings destruction. But God provides the answer for our sinfulness (Romans 3:28; Isaiah 41:14; 48:17) (The Lutheran Study Bible, Holy, Holy, Holy, p. 1099). 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost (1 Year Lectionary), "Babel and Pentecost"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today is the Festival of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus, so that they were able to speak and be understood in a multitude of known languages, by a large crowd of gathered worshippers from scattered Mediterranean nations. The apostle Peter then got up to publicly explain to the crowd what was going on with this language miracle. Pentecost means “fiftieth”, and it had been 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, and also 50 days after the Jewish Passover meal.
Look at our Old Testament reading today. The Tower of Babel story is paired with the readings about that remarkable Pentecost. These two events, are separated by a few thousand years of human history, and take place in very different settings, one on a monumental construction worksite in ancient Mesopotamia, and the other at a house near the Temple in Jerusalem—but nevertheless they are intricately linked, and have more in common than just the topic of languages. In many ways they are a reversal of each other. The Tower of Babel is the account of God defeating human pride and scattering and confusing the peoples and languages—while Pentecost is the account of confused people of many languages being unified in understanding around the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Let’s look a little more closely. In the ancient history of humankind, God tells us that there was once a single human language. This is sometime after the Flood of Noah’s day. God had told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. He wanted them to repopulate the planet, which indicates spreading out and resettling the earth. But at the Tower of Babel, the people sought a different goal—to make a name for themselves and to keep from being scattered across the earth, by building a tower up to the heavens. A monument to their achievement. A friendly observer might say that they were trying to create “community” and “significance”, which are not in themselves bad things—but that was not the problem. The problem was that they were displacing God’s plan with their own plan, and instead of finding community and significance as God intends to give it, they went their own way and tried to create it themselves. They were idolizing themselves and trying to exalt themselves like gods on earth. God saw their unity that was bent toward disobeying His will, and God determined it was troubling enough to break their unity and scatter them. Better for them to be divided than to unite in rejecting God. Sadly, their unity could have been used humbly and with God’s blessing to fulfill His commands, but instead by their disobedience, He had to frustrate their plans.
The Tower of Babel explains to us how God confused the languages and scattered the people across the earth. It’s the explanation for the different language and people groups we have today—but with the reminder that we still all descend from one common human race. St. Paul also taught this to a crowd of philosophers in Athens: that God made from one man every nation on earth, and determined the periods and boundaries of the places where they would live (Acts 17:26). Our common human ancestry is a necessary reminder against the evils of racism, and endless conflicts between nations over land and territory. It reminds us that whatever else divides us, that we share the common gift of our shared humanity from God above, and that His command to love our neighbor as ourselves is universal.
But if the Tower of Babel story has these features: that God moved the people from one language to many; that men were trying to raise their own glory and achievements up to the heavens; that God was going to scatter the nations;  that God was breaking apart an ungodly unity; and that they failed to make a name for themselves—then the story of Pentecost has these reverse features: God brought the speakers of many languages to understand a unified message; the glory of God’s great deeds were being raised up to the heavens; that God was gathering the scattered nations together; that God was creating a new and godly unity, and that this unity came in the Name God glorified for Himself—the Name of Jesus. And that all who call upon the Name of Jesus will be saved! The trajectory of the Tower of Babel story is towards disunity, scattering, and confusion—while the trajectory of Pentecost is towards unity, gathering, and clear understanding. The Tower of Babel was a vain attempt to raise men’s names up to the heavens in glory—Pentecost instead raises up Jesus’ Name to the heavens in glory, for our salvation. In short, God gave a miraculous sign that He had begun to “reverse the curse” of Babel.
Still today mankind chases after glory and pride that we create apart from God. Still today we attempt to “play god” in ways too numerous to mention, and try to sit ourselves on the throne of God’s authority. Still today God lifts up and brings down the mighty from their thrones. Human pride and achievement throughout history have never brought permanent or lasting community, peace, or even monuments, for that matter. At most, the disrepair of ancient monuments tell us of the collapse of civilizations that died out centuries or millennia ago. For all their power and technology, they still have fallen into the dust of history like the rest of mortal men. But still today God has a bigger plan and better goal for our lives than our human attempts to etch our names into the heavens. God desires to give us community and significance, to be sure—but on His terms, and in ways that honor Him. God has an everlasting Word and an eternal community that will endures long after all empires and powers have risen and fallen.
Zoom out momentarily to the big picture of the whole Bible and story of salvation, and you’ll see that God is building for us a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:28; 13:14). He desires to gather all people to His heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal home of all who call on the name of Jesus and are saved. But zooming back into our lives and Pentecost, understand that God desires community, fellowship, and significance for us, that is centered around Him. And He has a particular plan to achieve that, that He has carried out in Jesus Christ.
It was the first Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, that His disciples went public with that message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On Good Friday, they had been reduced to 11 men frightened for their lives, and a handful of faithful women. They were powerless, cowardly, and dejected. By 50 days later, just before Pentecost, their number had grown to 120. On the day of Pentecost, that number exploded to 3,000! (Acts 2:41). A short while later, to 5,000, and then continued growth beyond (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). Today more than 2 billion people claim the name of Jesus. That incredible growth and transformation came because of what the disciples saw for themselves—the Risen Jesus. It was by their unmistakable witness of His resurrection and by His gift of the Holy Spirit, that they were emboldened to proclaim God’s salvation plan to all, at great personal risk and loss to themselves, but for the gain of God’s spiritual kingdom.
Through the proclamation of the apostles on Pentecost and afterward, the Holy Spirit signaled to the world that God is gathering people of all languages to unify around the Name of Jesus Christ. In 2:11-12 the crowds exclaimed “we hear the telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God! And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to on another, ‘What does this mean?’” God’s deeds were being exalted, Jesus’ saving works were being proclaimed in many languages to many peoples. Peter goes on to explain the miracle by telling them about the teaching of Jesus, His unjust crucifixion and death, and God’s subsequent raising of the innocent Jesus to life again. This, Peter says, is the explanation for the miracle you are seeing and hearing. He called them to be baptized and saved, calling on the Name of Jesus. He was holding up for them a godly purpose for unity and community, showing them how God was going to return the scattered people to Himself.
The Holy Spirit still today proclaims the Name of Jesus for our salvation—as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit will always bear witness about Him and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught. The Holy Spirt still calls and gathers Christians together in community—across and beyond barriers of language or culture or class—and to people of one human race He proclaims the forgiveness of sins and peace with God that we have in Jesus Christ. He makes the mighty works of Jesus to be known so that we would have a Name to glory in—but His Name, and not our own. And He gives us purpose and significance by loving us and sending us out to all the world to bear witness to His Name and His love for us. So let us rejoice that God has made a Name for Himself in the sight of all the nations, and that He gathers His scattered children to be His own under the care and love of Jesus Christ His Son. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Compare and contrast Genesis 11:1-9 & Acts 2:1-21. How does Pentecost (Acts) show a reversal of many of the details of the Tower of Babel (Genesis)?
  2. What was the sin of the people of Babel? Genesis 11:4? What did they seek to gain, and what did they seek to avoid? Why was that contrary to God’s command in 9:1, 7? How did God ensure that it happened? Genesis 11:7-9; 10:32.
  3. Why is the Tower of Babel important in explaining 1) the origin of people groups and languages, and 2) the common ancestry of the human race? Acts 17:23-27; Genesis 10:32. What implications does that have towards racism and relations between different people groups?
  4. How does Genesis 11:7 hint at, but not fully reveal, the teaching of the Trinity? Cf. Genesis 1:26; 3:22.
  5. In Acts 2:11, what did the crowds hear in their own languages? Where before (at Babel) they had sought their own glory by their own works, who was now receiving glory, and whose works were proclaimed and understood by all? What is God-pleasing and desirable about this unity? 1 Timothy 2:1-4. How can this basis of unity help to bridge the divisions between people across the world? Why will Christ still remain a dividing point for many? Matthew 10:32-39
  6. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he explains that the work of the Holy Spirit, poured out that day, will culminate in this truth: (2:21) “Everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” Read further in Acts 2:41. How did this message ignite the “birthday of the Christian Church? What recent event was the literal life of this message? Acts 2:31-32, 36.
  7. To whom does the Holy Spirit still point today? John 14:26; 15:26.