The Third Sunday in Advent
The Next Exodus
Isaiah 35, Psalms 22:23-end, 99, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, St. Matthew 11:2-10
We find John the Baptist in prison, wondering. He has heard tales of a strange and wonderful rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus. This Jesus seems to do things no other can do, and to do them as routinely as stroking His beard.
Might he be Messiah?
John sends messengers with that question: “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” He gets an earful in return.
"Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
Our Lord’s answer would not seem elliptical to one schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is paraphrasing Isaiah 35, and the prophet’s message of salvation found herein is not limited to the creatures; it extends to the entire creation: “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the excellency of our God.”
We continue today with our Advent season theme: Whom do we want for our king, God or man? Two weeks ago we considered that question in the context of the church. One week ago, we applied the same test to the nation. And now we come to the world.
Whom do we want for our king, God or man?
We have heard already from the Psalmist: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD'S, and He rules over the nations.”
In the Psalmist’s day and in our own, of course, this is far from a unanimous sentiment. Only
last week I saw this thought from Hubert Reeves posted on Facebook: “Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that the Nature he is destroying is the God he is worshiping.”
Nature worship is as old as Zeus, of course, and it will not go away until the Lord returns to settle the matter once and for all. So another way of putting our question might be: Whom do we want for our king, Jesus Christ or Hubert Reeves?
I’ll withhold my response for now to keep you in suspense.
The people of God are in exile, making their agonizing way, step by step, along history’s longest learning curve. Yahweh has banished them to Babylon for their centuries of rebellion against His righteous rule.
But that is only part of Isaiah’s story. Yahweh has resolved to restore David’s throne in Jerusalem, to bring His people back from captivity and into the Promised Land. We have before us the prophet’s vision of the creation restored to its original splendor.
This is what Yahweh’s people will find when they complete this second exodus – for they are again living in bondage in a foreign land. The “ransomed of the Lord” will tread the Highway of Holiness on the long but jubilant journey home, singing, “with everlasting joy on their heads.”
But this is not the final exodus for the people of God. There remains still one more, and it awaits you and me, for we are not yet home. But our release from captivity in this sin-soaked kingdom, under the boot of the ruler of this world, is not far off now. The “Dayspring from on high has visited us” (Luke 1:78) bringing “the tender mercy of our God.”
Advent is that glad time of comings. A week ago, in Isaiah 55, we heard our Lord bid us “come.” “Yes, come, and buy wine and milk without money and without price” (v. 1) and “let your soul delight itself in abundance” (v. 2).
Today we hear Jesus’ assurance through the message He sent back to John the Baptist that indeed Messiah has come. But Isaiah provides for us still another picture of a coming, fulfilled first in Israel’s trek back from Babylon and again when our bodies rise from our graves and we take our places in God’s eternal kingdom on earth.
The prophet delivers in this chapter his picture of that delightful place, and he sets it here to mark the contrast between it and the realm of judgment he described in the preceding chapter: “For the indignation of the LORD is against all nations, and His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter. Also their slain shall be thrown out; their stench shall rise from their corpses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood.
“All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as the leaf falls from the vine, and as fruit falling from a fig tree” (34:2-4).
History rolls out for us times of blessings and curses that often seems eternal . . . but isn’t[MF1] . For these temporal things will grind to a halt in the end, when comes the day of eternal light for some and darkness for others.
Isaiah is begging us to step into the light . . . to step onto the Highway of Holiness. For this prophet above all others, holiness is the defining quality of God: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!" (6:1-3).
The blessings and curses of this life show us those ultimate destinations of light and darkness, of salvation and damnation, which are the ultimate expressions of God’s holiness, for He will allow no sin to contaminate His abode.
If you would dwell with Him, purify yourself in the water of life, choose the light, take the step.
The way Isaiah bids us travel is not merely the route to spiritual Mount Zion or the Celestial City, to the pearly gates and the streets of gold. It is the very pathway to God Himself. And that divine presence is our ultimate reward. We will not only revel in it; through Jesus Christ we share in it.
And the builder of this highway is God.
The prophet has bid us come; with a bit of help from John the Baptist he has shown us that God has come and will come. This will not, of course, be his final word on the subject. The highway in this chapter is connected, so to speak, with the one in chapter 40: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth; the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’” (vv. 3-5).
Both He and we are traveling the road to our assembly place. In this sense we are traveling together on the way of glory to our eternal home in the divine presence.
Exiled in Babylon, many Israelites abandoned hope of seeing Zion again. Eventually, some who could have returned did not. God did bring that second exodus about, of course, but even after it centuries passed before Messiah appeared. Again, some had given up the cause.
Another 2,000 years have passed, and here we sit, scanning the horizon for our Lord on His Second Coming. Some think us foolish. For others, that is far too polite a term to apply to us. Many more have quit hoping.
But Advent has another theme, after coming, and that is waiting. It is waiting, as the faithful ones in Israel waited for Messiah on His first Advent. So here we sit, waiting, while some worship nature and others bow before gods they have invented and still others have decided the entire project of religion is futile.
It’s all so much tidier to believe in blessings without curses, salvation without judgment, heaven without hell. But if the creation has reason and purpose, it has a Creator, and this Creator might just want a decision from His creature.
Waiting forces us to make a choice . . . and God does require a choice from us. The difficulties with atheism and worship of false gods must wait for another day. So, whom do we want for our king, Jesus Christ or Hubert Reeves?
Philosophers and poets have been taking up the mantra of nature worship for as long as there have been philosophers and poets. More recently, politicians are finding it well suited to their purposes as well.
When he had sacked up the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008, Barack Obama declared the “profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations” with which he faced the challenge ahead and, later in the same paragraph, observed, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
He concluded with: “Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Few seem to have noticed the inherent contradiction – and I’m not referring at the moment to the wish for blessings without curses: If God exists, He directs His creation; if man controls nature, God does not exist. Or, to paraphrase Reeves:
Man is the most insane species. He assigns divinity to himself and worships whom he sees in the mirror rather than an invisible God who created a visible Nature. Unaware that the God he is denying is the Maker of the one he is worshiping.
The trouble with dethroning God is that doing so enthrones man, even with his “profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations.” Man then substitutes what he knows of the world, his science, for what God has revealed about it in His word.
Now, we are not know-nothings and I do not broach the subject to bash science. We should, in fact, investigate the creation and understand it to the highest degree we are able. But at the same time we should acknowledge that, unlike our eternal and never-changing God, science is in a constant state of flux.
An honest scientist will tell you all of his conclusions are tentative. In my lifetime, various foods have been good for me, then bad for me and, at the moment, good for me again. I read a few days ago that learning styles, a hallowed part of the creed of education for much of the past half-century or so, are a load of malarkey.
And that revelation comes from a scientist.
The idea was that people were more receptive to information that came through visual, auditory or kinesthetic means. A good teacher adapted his methods, to the extent possible, to the learning styles of his students, who became more knowledgeable as a result.
Science says today, however, that everyone processes information in basically the same ways and that the teacher who adapts his methods to a student’s supposed style may be doing him serious harm – if, for example, he allows a presumed auditory learner to slack off on reading because it doesn’t suit him.
Enough about learning styles. My point is that this nation – and the West in general – worships science – and worship is in the nature of religion. People who treat Christianity as myth and superstition blithely put their faith in man’s unfettered ability to understand and even control the creation. And that’s not very smart.
Those who trust in science are inevitably trusting in man – the one who studies the world rather than the One who made it. So doing, they remove any transcendent value system and embrace whatever is in vogue at the moment.
Writing in “First Things,” James Kalb begins by noting that the New York City Health Department now asks any parent requesting a birth certificate if the “woman giving birth” is female or male. He’s making the point that – putting aside the absurdity – we must try to understand the view of the human condition our elites hold today. He writes:
“We are dealing, it appears, with what might be called the technocratic project—the modern attempt to turn the social world into a universal machine for maximizing the satisfaction of preferences.
“This project’s goal is best understood as eschatological, or perhaps counter-eschatological: a social world that recognizes no transcendent authority above it, no history behind it except the history of its own coming into being, and no nature of things beneath it that cannot be transformed technologically into what we choose. It is . . . a world unlimited by the divine, by the past, or by nature’s laws—including the biological principle distinguishing male from female.”
Once attitudes like these become baked into the social fabric they work their way into the strategies we employ for responding to the world around us, and these reduce to two: promotion of individual subjectivity and the kinds of things the “hard” sciences study.
These strategies support two institutions, bureaucracy and capitalism, Kalb argues, and erode “all other forms of social organization.” It needs little imagination to see what they would do to the church, and a quick look around confirms their effect on the church.
For one of its most important functions for 2,000 years has been to impose on the cultures the values our Creator prescribes. If He made the world He rules the world, man’s impatience with God’s timing notwithstanding.
Institutions can now be reconfigured according to “objective” or “scientific” standards that omit any hoary old values like heterosexuality. And when science reaches a different conclusion objectivity can adapt to it and give us a new paradigm by which to live.
And so, my view – for which you’ve been waiting with baited breath – is that we should keep God as King. And pray for the third exodus. Amen.