sermon

So that we might declare His praise.

The book of Isaiah is a microcosm of the Bible as a whole.  There are 66 books in the Bible, and there are 66 chapters in Isaiah.

That’s kind of cool.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah can be compared to the 39 books of the OT, with their emphasis on the holiness and justice of God.

The last 27 chapters correspond to the 27 books of the NT.  They portray God’s glory, compassion and favor.

For 35 long, agonizing chapters, Isaiah prophesied condemnation and future captivity.  And then, after a 3 chapter parentheses (in which he told the story of King Hezekiah’s sin, sickness and stay of execution), Isaiah began to speak prophesies of comfort and hope.

Our reading this morning, is among the prophesies of hope.

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

These two verses are usually taught as one event – when God parted the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army.  But the Septuagint reads differently:

For thus says the Lord, the one making a way in the sea
and a path in strong water;
The one leading chariots and horse and a mighty multitude.
They were gone to sleep, but they shall rise up;
They were extinguished as flax being extinguished.

According to the Septuagint, the Lord is the one leading the chariots and horse and a mighty multitude, they don’t belong to Pharaoh. And in the future they will rise again. So perhaps Isaiah is referring to separate events – giving  separate examples of how God has acted on their behalf in the past.

When Israel and Syria were at war back in Elisha’s day, the King of Syria endeavored to capture Elisha by sending his armies to Elisha’s hometown.  The armies surrounded the city by night.  Elisha’s servant awoke the next morning terrified and exclaimed, “On no! What should we do?”

Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

There are many stories in the OT of God winning battles for the Israelites with his mighty multitude.

But in the gloom of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, God was no longer fighting their battles.  It was as if his armies had gone to sleep.

Now came the Lord’s assurance that He would once again arise and fight for them.

Not only would He deliver them from future captivity and protect them in battle…

“Behold I am about to do a new thing.”

Since this last 27 chapters of Isaiah are full of Messianic prophesies, that “new thing” on one level, is Jesus – a spiritual stream in the desert.

But the new thing would also be life lush with His presence.  He would once again be their God. Where they once languished in the consequences of their rebellion, they would now thrive.

Have you felt the winds of change blowing?  Have you ever perceived in your spirit that God was about to do a new thing in your life?  About to set your feet in a spacious place? Water the parched places and cause you to flourish?

Why does He do that?

The answer is in the final line of our passage: 

So that we might declare His praise.

That’s the line that jumped out at me as I prepared to preach.

It’s all about declaring His praise.

He acts on our behalf for His fame, not ours.

We bloom to show the skill of the Gardner, not to show off ourselves.

I used to ride my bike around Kensington Park regularly with Mr. Wright.

Not Mr. Right, Mr. W-r-i-g-h-t.

He was a biking buddy whom I barely knew.  But I liked riding with him because he pushed me to ride faster than I would on my own.

After one exhilarating ride, we caught our breath at a picnic table beside the lake.  He pulled snacks out of his bike bag and told me that right after he was baptized as a young man, someone prophesied all kinds of greatness over him.  And it kind of messed him up. Sent him chasing after fame. And now there he sat,15 years later, a math teacher at a prep school, eating apple wedges and cheese slices and telling his story.

“I kept waiting for greatness to happen,” he said, “discontented with ordinary life.  But now I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always just be a math teacher.”

Just a math teacher? I thought, Isn’t there greatness in impacting the lives of students?

I read a social media post written by a young woman.  She wondered, “Why don’t they ever prophesy that you’ll be a great wife and mother? Why isn’t that enough?”

Beware prophesies of greatness.  They tickle itching ears. They reel us in and get us hooked.

They remind me of when Satan tempted Jesus by taking him to the peak of a very high mountain. He showed Jesus the nations of the world and all their glory. “I’ll give it all to you,” he said, “if you will only kneel and worship me.”

But Jesus wasn’t seeking personal glory, His mission was to glorify His Father.

Though the prospect of personal greatness is intoxicating, if it is your personal greatness that is being prophesied, and not God’s greatness, then the prophesy is false.

Our mission is to glory God.

He makes a way for us in the desert, He causes us to flourish for His praise.

Paul said, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: to mind your own business and work with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

Lead a quiet life teaching math, rearing children, doing small things with great love.

Small things with great love brings us to our gospel reading.

It was six days before the Passover.  Since the raising of Lazarus, Jesus had been living quietly at Ephraim with His disciples. Now it was time for His public entry into Jerusalem. He would enter as both king and lamb, fulfilling both the prophecy of God’s promised King and the promised redemption pictured in the Passover celebration.

The crowds in Jerusalem for Passover were so great it was impossible to book enough rooms for Jesus and His entourage.  Bethany was close enough to Jerusalem to be appropriate for pilgrims’ lodging, so they headed there.

When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Bethany, His friends held a dinner for them.  After raising Lazarus from the dead the way He did,  Jesus was a celebrity, a local hero.  So of course they held a dinner in His honor.

Back when Lazarus died, in those moments before Jesus raised him, it was Martha who demonstrated unwavering trust in Jesus.

Now it was her sister Mary’s turn.  Mary had been the quiet, meditative sister, preferring to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him.  But now she dropped her reserve and unabashedly poured out her love.

Perhaps she felt the winds of change blowing, perhaps she realized His end was near, perhaps she sensed His grief.  The political tide was turning against Him and she wanted Him to know He had her support.

So she poured pure nard over His feet.

Matthew and Mark said she poured it first over His head, from an alabaster jar.  Then she let down her long hair that, in Jewish custom, would have always been bound in public.

She poured on his feet the most precious ointment possible as a token of honor and worship and then she lovingly and intimately dried His feet with her hair.

This vulnerable expression of love surely touched Jesus deeply.

This small thing done with great love.

The men around the table may have been uncomfortable as Mary knelt before Jesus and loosened her hair.  They may have been speechless. But as the fragrance filled the house,  Judas broke the silence.

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He demanded.

As if he cared about the poor.

Jesus didn’t call Judas out for embezzlement, as John did parenthetically, He called him out for harassment.

In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus said, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

It’s the only time Jesus ever used the word beautiful.  And He used it to describe an action.  Beautiful had nothing to do with how Mary looked, it had everything to do with how she loved.

According to John,  Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It’s wonderful to care about global poverty and injustice, but don’t overlook the need right in front of you.

Jesus’s grief – His impending blood, sweat and tears – was the need right in front of them that day, and Mary seems to be the only one who perceived it.

We always have the poor with us.

When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah way back at the beginning of His ministry, when He proclaimed His mission, He didn’t say anything about alleviating poverty.  

He said He came to set prisoners and the oppressed free.  He came to restore the sight of the blind.  He came to proclaim good news to the poor – the good news that they have a Savior.

But He didn’t wave a wand and make everyone rich.  Even though His Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

Jesus was concerned with spiritual poverty.  That has always been the greatest need standing in front of Him.

Perhaps He isn’t concerned with physical poverty because it has purpose.

It keeps us reliant on God.     

I met a woman who suffered horrific things at the hands of her father.  So horrific that they left her emotionally disabled.  Her physician father was a member of a satanic cult. Horrific things were done.  Her mother finally left him and now they were living on a small disability check.  Money was very tight.  

The woman came to Bible study one morning rejoicing.  She and her mother had gone to buy groceries the day before.  They stood in the checkout line with a dilemma: If they bought the toilet paper they needed, they wouldn’t have enough to buy all the essential groceries they needed.  They put the toilet paper back. 

On the way home the woman spotted something laying on the shoulder of the road in front of them.  It was toilet paper!  They pulled over and scooped up their gift from God.

She came into Bible study rejoicing the next day as though she had received a million dollars.  Of course she did – it’s the same thrill whether God gifts you with a 4 pack of toilet paper or with a million bucks because the thrill isn’t in the value of the gift, it’s in the fact that God sees you. And cares.

When was the last time you had the thrill of knowing that God sees you?

Take a second and say thanks.

Gotthold Lessing said, “A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”

Poverty also gives those who have been gifted an opportunity to express compassion and generosity.  A privilege that we will only have here on earth.

And the beauty of it is, everyone – no matter how physically poor – has been gifted with something to share.  We all have compassion to give, love to lavish. 

So what are we waiting for? Are we waiting until we get to heaven to exercise compassion and generosity?  By then it will be too late.  There’s no need for generosity and compassion there.

Now is our chance to do small and beautiful things with great love.

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,

but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,

for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 9:23-24

Amen.

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faith, Jesus, Light

Low & Mighty on Passover Eve

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Exodus chapter 12 describes, well, the exodus, the mass departure of the Israelites from Egypt.  On the night they were to leave God instructed them to roast a lamb and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They were to eat in haste with their loins girded, sandals on their feet and staff in hand.

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

And so it is that the Passover is celebrated faithfully, year after year.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John we learn that the Last Supper took place before the festival of the Passover.  It was Passover Eve.  Not Christmas dinner, but Christmas Eve dinner.  The rehearsal dinner, not the actual wedding banquet. The Last Supper was not the actual Passover Seder, it was the night before.

John’s gospel tells us a few more things about that evening:

  1. Jesus was aware that He would soon be returning to His Father.
  2. He was aware that each and every one of His dinner companions had been given into His hands.  That’s what the phrase, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands” means.  “All things” is better translated as “each and every one.” Each and every one of them was gifted to Him, even Judas.
  3. He loved His charges with an agape  love. One aspect of agape is “to be full of good-will toward.”

And so it was with love and good will that Jesus sat down to His last human supper.

In Chinese culture, jade symbolizes nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality. It is viewed as the most valuable of all precious stones.

A Chinese boy set out to learn all about it. He went to study with a talented old teacher.  The old gentleman put a piece of the stone into the youth’s hand and told him to hold it tight.  Then he began to talk of philosophy, men, women, the sun and almost everything under it.  After an hour the teacher took back the stone and sent the boy home.  This procedure was repeated for weeks. Finally the boy became frustrated – when would he be told about the heavenly properties of jade?! – but he was too polite to interrupt his venerable teacher.  So he held the stone and listened. Again and again. Then one day, when the old man began their lesson by pressing a stone in the boy’s hand, the boy cried out instantly, “Hey wait! That’s not jade!”

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” (italics added)

It seems out of place, that third sentence, “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him,” since John doesn’t speak again of Judas until later in the chapter, but it isn’t out of place, it’s the reason Jesus got up from the table.

He knew He was about to be betrayed, He knew human nature full well. Perhaps at that moment He remembered back to the disciples’ argument about which of them was the greatest, perhaps He remembered all the way back to when Adam and Eve disobeyed so they could be like God, perhaps He remembered even further back to when Satan wanted to be greater than God. He may have also looked ahead to all the ways evil men would infiltrate the church and exploit Him for selfish gain.

It was His awareness of our propensity to competition, our desire to be “better than” that got Him up from that table.   It’s what caused Him to take off his outer robe, tie a towel around his waist, pour water into a basin and press a precious stone into His disciples’ hands one more time.

So they would remember what He feels like.

You know the foot washing story and you know Peter. When Jesus got to his ten piggies, Peter said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

In other words, “You’re too good to wash my feet!”

Jesus answered, “You don’t get it yet, but you will.”

Peter insisted, “You will never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

And so Peter, being Peter, said, “In that case, wash all of me!”

So Jesus laid it out for him. Again.

“One who has bathed does not need to wash.”

Wash and bathe in this passage are separate greek words.

“Wash” is nipto – to cleanse (especially the hands or the feet or the face); ceremonially.

It was customary back then – as it is now – to wash their hands before a meal.

“Bathe” is “louo,” it is a word used in the context of washing a dead person or cleaning blood from a wound.

Peter was already bathed as a dead person when he was baptized, when he was crucified with Christ and raised to new life.  He never needed to be bathed in that way again.  Just as a person doesn’t need to keep going forward at every altar call.  Once is enough.

All of the disciples had been bathed in the waters of baptism, except one. Scripture doesn’t tell us how and when Judas was called to follow Jesus, but it is telling us right here that he was never baptized, never raised to new life.  Even so,  Jesus loved each and every one of the 12 His Father had given Him.

“So Peter,” Jesus was saying, “zealous, enthusiastic Peter, you don’t need to be bathed, you only need to be washed.  Bathing is for souls, washing is for feet.  Feet that get dusty trodding through this sin-filled world.”

If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive them and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Our souls need to be bathed only once – through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit – it’s our bodies and minds that need daily cleansing from the stink of sin.

After Jesus washed their feet, put back on his robe and returned to the table, He asked:

“Do you get it?

I just pressed something important into the palms of your hands.

I’m not too good to wash feet and neither are you.

Peter had it backwards. It’s not a matter of being too good, too high and mighty; it’s a matter of being good enough, of being low and mighty.

Servants are not greater than their master, so if I’m good enough to wash feet, then you be good enough, too.

Once you understand this concept, and do it, you will go through life blessed.

Isaiah said so, too: ‘take care of one another and then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;…

The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,’

Take care of one another and you will flourish.”

As someone who is chronically dehydrated and has osteoporosis, I like Isaiah’s wording – strong bones, well-watered….

Be low and mighty enough to serve others and you’ll like your life.

The lectionary for Maundy Thursday (you’re reading the homily I gave last night) skipped over the details of Judas’s departure, but you know how it went down. It picked up again at verse 31:

“When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.'”

Judas’s departure set Jesus’ finest hour in motion.

His finest hour as a man – enduring physical and emotional abuse, bearing false accusations silently, as a sheep before its shearer.

I watched a tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber Wednesday night.  At the end of it,  John Legend, who will play Jesus in Sunday night’s live presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar, asked Andrew for advice on playing the role.

“It’s all about redemption after all,” Andrew replied.

John mentioned the angst and fear and doubt Jesus experienced as He faced the cross.

“And yet He went through with it,” Andrew replied.

“Yes,”  John smiled slightly, “He went through with it.”

He was glorified as the Son of Man by going through with it.  By laying down his life for his friends – there’s no love greater than that.

His finest hour as God was defeating sin and death, which no man can do.

His Father’s finest hour? Showing a restraint in the face of His Son’s suffering the strength of which no human father could match.

John didn’t mention the bread and the cup in his account of the Last Supper, but our epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 11 did.

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

The Passover feast was a perpetual ordinance for God’s people to remember their deliverance from the physical bondage of slavery.

And now a new perpetual ordinance has been instituted, to remember our spiritual deliverance from bondage to sin and death.

My body broken for you. My blood shed for you, because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Jesus, Our Passover Lamb.

Our gospel reading ends with a precious plea:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer.

At my church the children come forward and crowd in the aisle between the rows of pews for “The Lamb’s Liturgy.” The pastor gives a brief lesson and then touches each of their heads and blesses them before they head off to Sunday school. It’s my favorite part of the service. I love to see them walk back down the aisle, their little heads blessed, their faces Hopeful, expectant that the future has good things for them.

The tenderness with which the pastor blesses our children is the tenderness with which Jesus beheld those at the table, on the eve of His great suffering:   “Little children, dear ones, my charges, my responsibility, my baby chicks, my friends…

I’m leaving and you can’t come with me.

So just love one another.

By this everyone will know that I taught you well, if you love one another.

By this my Father and I will be glorified.

By this our strength will be shown.

Because no one can live low and mighty apart from us.”

Amen.

#betrayed

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