Isaiah 49:13-23 — Hope in Captivity

Sermon at Raysville Friends Meeting

Reading: Isaiah 49:13-23

Isaiah 49 is amazing in that it tells the people of Judah that there is good news for them. The first 39 chapters were pretty negative to say the least. Isaiah made it clear that there would no longer be a kingdom left, and that their land would become desolate. It is no wonder that “Zion said: `The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.'” Clearly, if God remembered, things would be different.

The Hebrew people’s holy history was one where God was always involved. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were promised that his descendants would be a great nation, and a blessing to all other nations. Moses brought the descendants of Jacob (later named Israel) into the land that God promised them. God promised David that his throne would be established forever. After several centuries, these promises seem to have ended. God promised, but, the promises seem to have failed.

One thing that you notice when you read the Old Testament story of Israel is that God is far more faithful to the children of Israel than they are to God. We very often remember that Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, but we might not remember that according to 1 Kings 11, Solomon was a great builder of temples to other gods as well. He married hundreds of foreign wives, and built temples for all their gods.

The kings who followed Solomon followed his polytheistic example. Just as Solomon built temples to many different God’s, the kings of Judah worshiped many different gods. One way of understanding the system that developed is that Jehovah God was the highest of a pantheon. In a very real way, the kings hedged their bets. Eventually, they turned away from God altogether. While Isaiah was prophet, the temple to God was even re-purposed as a temple to Ba’al and Asherah. Perhaps people might say that God abandoned them — but, clearly they symbolically put other gods in God’s place.

In spite of all of this, God finds ways of blessing his people. They disobey Torah, they pick and choose which gods of their neighbors to serve, and yet God promises them salvation — yet, this salvation is a rather strange one: The salvation that the people of Israel need is captivity — the promised land and the God-sanctioned government didn’t work out. One might say that the children of Israel suffered from living in an abusive household — God needed to put them into foster care.

Thus, God remembers by making kings into foster fathers. This is a strangely optimistic way of looking at the Babylonian captivity! Nebuchadnezzar was not a Godly man, nor were those who followed him. Babylon had no real desire to give the Hebrews any special privileges — they were concerned with their own empire. It is remarkable that Isaiah calls on them to regard these kings as foster parents — though, the relationship was also remarkable.

Daniel rose in power to the point that he was the chief adviser to the Babylonian king — and then, when the Persian empire replaced the Babylonian empire, he served Darius the Mede. Neither the Babylonians nor the Persians killed off the royal family, nor did they absorb the Jews, so that they were no longer a people. If anything, the people of Israel came out of captivity with a stronger identity than they had going in.

Abraham was promised that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations of the world — and, this time was a time when they lived up to the promise. Children of Israel served in the royal court, having the ears of emperors in both the Babylonian and the Persian empire.

When we think of Jews — we think of customs, a deep knowledge and respect for Torah, synagogues, and a people who remain set apart, no matter what culture they are in. We think of Jews as being so connected with their scriptures that part of becoming an adult is learning to read Hebrew so that one can read Torah in the language it was written in. When we think of Jews, we think of the development of the Talmud, and a system of which requires “half a lifetime of study” to become a Rabbi. We also think of theologians who can apply the most obscure phrases in scripture to just about any situation.

The funny thing is that we never see a Rabbi nor a synagogue mentioned in the Old Testament — while they are common enough in the New Testament. Rabbis came out of a need to reinterpret Torah as something other than the legal basis of their kingdom. Rabbis came out of a need to move the religion behind a theocracy into the faith that binds a people in a strange land together. The Rabbis are not priests, and most often did not come from the tribe of Levi. They are simply people devoted to studying Torah, and asking “How do we best live out God’s law now?” They are Bible-lawyer and teachers. From captivity onward, people outside the tribe of Levi have taken on the responsibility of figuring out how best to follow God.

When the Persian empire came, they had Hebrew’s among the household-staff. Esther takes place during the time of the Persian rule — so, not only would there be Hebrews as staff-members, but even in the royal household itself. These were people who were in positions where they could ask favors, and when they asked favors — these favors were granted; and these favors both saved the people from genocide, and it allowed them to return to Judah and rebuild the temple.

The Persian empire appointed the “prince of Judah” to govern the province of Judah, and financed the rebuilding of the temple. One cannot say that Zerubbabel became king of Judah, because they were a very small part of a great empire; nor can we say that the repatriated Jews managed to live up to Torah — but, after 70 years of captivity, there are a couple things that we can say: The no longer sought after the gods of their neighbors — and Torah became something that was on the lips and hearts of the common people. The prince of Judah was merely a servant to the Persians, but the Jews finally knew that no matter who is King, God is God.

What I find truly amazing is that this lesson has endured amazingly well. When reforms were required, because the high priest became corrupt and embezzled the tithes, the faith in God that was built up in Babylon survived the scandal. There was a faith in God that transcended the government when the high-priest was merged with the role of the governor — and for a brief period of independence, priest and king were the same position. (This king, by the way, was not of the line of David.) The faith even endured Roman rule, whether under a Roman governor, or the puppet-king Herod (who was `Jewish’ by faith, but not by blood.) We are looking at a faith that survived being used for power, and it survived the destruction of those who used the faith in such a way.

We Christians believe that, in a real way, we are connected to this story. The Church has always, at least in a symbolic way, felt that it is made up of adopted children of Abraham. Christians believe that it is a continuation of the story of God’s people — and in many ways an expansion. We believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God — God with us. There is a bit of a progression: At first, God’s will is a discussion between prophets and leaders. When Jesus came, people who earned (rather than inherited) their position are already discussing the best way to live out God’s law. Finally, God himself comes to teach God’s people, in the person of Jesus Christ — and God invites all of humanity into the new kingdom.

For all of the hope that there would be a messiah to get rid of the occupying forces, Jesus continues a lesson that is already being learned: that God’s people can follow God no matter who is in power. Christianity, from its very beginning, attempted to do what the Jews had to learn to do — to be faithful followers of God in a political environment that cared nothing for our God.

When I identify with Israel, I identify most with the period where they had “kings as foster fathers.” I live in a nation that was built on modern principles of the “enlightenment”. Some of our nations founding fathers were Anglicans, some Baptist, and some Deist — but all were moderns, and none wanted to form a Christian nation in the sense that England was a Christian nation with a Christian king and a state church. They wanted to form a modern secular nation, with ideals built on the ideas of enlightenment philosophers. My nation is a modern secular nation that happens to be pretty friendly to Christians, to the point that faith influences policy — and sometimes politics become confused with faith. I’m thankful for the freedom that my earthly government gives us — but, like Israel in captivity, I have to find ways of honoring the revelation that we received from God while under another kingdom.

Of course, there is one major difference between where I believe I am, and where Israel believed themselves to be in captivity: They looked for restoration of David’s line. They hoped for a time when they would be God’s people under God’s government, under the rule of the dynasty that God’s prophet anointed. The Persians were not overthrown to re-establish David’s throne. When the Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem, a different Dynasty was formed, and the Roman’s puppet-king was yet another dynasty. All three of the synoptic gospels refer to Jesus as the Son of David, and the ruler of an eternal Kingdom — this kingdom was something different than Rome, and something different than Herod’s kingdom. It is something that exists independently of their permission, and something that outlasts every empire it encounters. We believe that we are part of this kingdom — I believe, as Augustine did, that I live in two cities. I live in “New Babylon”, the city of the world — but, I also live in “New Jerusalem”, the city of God. I want to be as good a citizen of both cities as I can — but, I know that in the end, only one will last.

Isaiah 40:12-35 — Salvation through victory

Sermon for Raysville Friends meeting

Reading: Isaiah 40:12-35

When I read Isaiah 40, I am reminded of God’s speech in Job. If you recall, Job suffered, even though he didn’t do or say anything wrong. He had a debate with his friends about whether or not his suffering was related to God’s justice. Job’s friends see suffering as condemnation, while Job protests that he is innocent. Eventually God answers everybody. God condemns Job’s friends, and lets them know that Job spoke righteously. When God speaks to Job, God does not give any answers to the question of: why, but instead points out that God is much bigger than any of us, and beyond our understanding. I guess it is not for us to speculate on the why’s.

Now, Isaiah is very different. In the case of Isaiah, Judah is not righteous — or, at least the leadership is corrupt. There are no shortage of warnings, and it is clear that not only must Judah and Israel be punished, but that God has chosen ungodly nations to deliver this punishment. There is again a picture of a very big God — a God who is able to be in control of the whole Earth.

What is important about this chapter is that it reminds all of us ordinary people that we have hope. The nation was being punished for the sinfulness of the powerful. The sinfulness was such that consequences were suffered not by the guilty, but by the innocent. The reality of the situation was that the wicked were prospering. If you were an ordinary, suffering, person, what comfort do you have other than that God is big enough to bring princes, and oppressors to nothing?

The sad truth is that in many ways, when the Babylonians came, the people of Judah were much better off. While this is looking ahead a couple months, Jeremiah tells the people in captivity: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your good and not your harm, to give you a future with hope.” These words were written in a letter that also told the same people that Babylon was their new home, and they would live there, work there, and die there: “Babylon is your new home now, get used to it. Remember, even in Babylon God still plans good things for you!”

Isaiah is writing in a time when it is becoming increasingly obvious that God’s government is failing, but there is good news: God is much bigger than any government. When kings fail, God does not fail. When the kingdom lacks mercy and justice, God still gives people what they need. God has good plans for God’s people, even in a corrupt government. God even has good plans for God’s people when they are in captivity and under a hostile government. Because God is the highest, there is always hope.

Usually when we think about how God is in power, we think of such examples as that of Daniel: and, Daniel is definitely a great example of somebody who God strengthened. Daniel is a model of courage, and God worked miracles to protect him. The story of Daniel starts with the captivity. Among the best of the young men carried off were Daniel and his friends. As soon as they were carried off and pressed into service, Daniel and his friends insisted on remaining faithful to God. When this meant following dietary law, they followed dietary law. When it meant refusing to worship an idol, Daniel’s friends were willing to face being burned to death, saying: “If our God can deliver us, let Him deliver us” — and, even though the heat of the furnace killed those who threw Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego — those three survived, so that not even their clothing was singed. After this, we read of the story of how Daniel is protected from the lions when he is thrown into the lions den. The book of Daniel provides a model where God is more powerful than those who hold Judah in captivity, and God uses this power to protect His people.

Unfortunately, these are miracles. Anything that we call a miracle is something that we cannot expect to happen. Maybe there are every-day miracles; I personally believe there are, but, I don’t expect to see God saving somebody from execution, nor do I expect God to prevent other bad things from happening to good people. I don’t expect these things, because we have more martyrs than “Daniel’s”. What do we do when God does not save us from the lions?

Part of the gospel is that Jesus himself came to answer that very question. Jesus was not the savior that anybody expected. People wanted a savior who would defeat the Romans; they got somebody who lived and died under Roman rule. When God lives a human life, God suffers all that is unfair, and even is executed as a political prisoner. Jesus was not the savior that anybody was looking for: People wanted a conquering, not a suffering messiah.

Even more difficult is that Jesus didn’t hide how hard things would be from his disciples. He spoke to them about his upcoming death, and he even warned them that they would receive the same treatment as he did; almost every one of the disciples died a martyrs death. As much as we want the good news that we too can experience a miracle like Daniel and his friends experienced, we were given a different model.

The good news that Christians have to offer, however, is tied up in our suffering savior. There are several reasons that this is good news: First, it is because our God is a sympathetic God. The literal meaning of “sympathy” is to suffer with. Jesus came down to earth as an ordinary person, in an occupied land. The first years of Jesus’ life were those of a refugee in Egypt. At the end of his life, he was a political prisoner, abandoned by his friends.

Christ suffered more than everything that a person can be expected to suffer. God chose to sympathize with humanity through Jesus — and when God judges us, it the judgment of someone who has sympathy for us. I might also add, the gospels pretty clearly tell us Christ’s standards of judgment: Jesus is always merciful to those in need of mercy.

This is also good news, because Christ suffered everything, and yet was victorious. Jesus suffered temptation, yet was victorious over sin. When the Romans put Jesus on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day — Jesus was victorious over death. The disciples wanted Jesus to defeat the government of the Romans — but, He did much more than that! He defeated the only power that the Romans, and every power that might follow has over the disciples. Once the fear of death is taken away, there really are no longer any threats that the Romans could hold over the Disciples. In Luke chapter 12, Jesus says: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (NET). The way Jesus defeated the Romans was far more complete than if he removed them from power, he removed their power so that as far as the Kingdom of Heaven is concerned, Rome was no longer relevant.

The most amazing thing is that the miracles that brought Jesus victory are not like the miracles we read about in Daniel. In Daniel, only Daniel and his friends were saved. Few other prophets were saved as Daniel was saved. Jesus’ disciples were not saved as Shadrack, Mishack and Abednego were saved. Jesus on the other hand invites his followers to share in other miracles. Whenever people speak of “sanctification”, they speak of being made holy so that sin loses the power to destroy our lives. Personally, I think ‘how’ this happens is not nearly as important as that it happens. What is important to me is that I need saved from my sin, and Jesus came to save me from my sinfulness.

What is more amazing is how Christians have said for as long as our memory: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the word to come.” Jesus somehow invites us to participate with the resurrection. Those of us who walk with Jesus can expect to end up in the same destination with Jesus. Somehow, we hold on to the hope offered with Jesus said: “I go to prepare a place for you.” We expect the miracle of resurrection so that we can go to that place that is waiting for us.

Our good news is what God is doing with and for us ordinary people. Those miracles that happen once in a generation are exciting, but they are only good news for a few. What was prophesied, and what we believe we have experienced is good news for everybody, even the poor and the oppressed. We believe that Christ conquered, leaving everything that stands against his kingdom powerless. Christians look at Jesus as the one who, in the words of Isaiah: “brings princes to naught and makes rulers of the earth as nothing.” Our good news is: We believe Christ invited us into His eternal kingdom.

Isaiah 5:8-26 — Merciless Greed

Sermon for Raysville Friends Meeting

Reading:  Isaiah 5:8-26
I’ve read some of Krista Burdine’s sermons on her blog, and I have read her lessons in the Sunday School quarterly. I liked all of her messages on Isaiah in this quarterly, except for today’s. We might not come at the text with the same background and experiences, but, this is the only passage where I feel like offering a rebuttal… (though, to be perfectly fair to her, I contacted her to ask a clarifying question, and learned that she was assigned the title.)

It might seem a rather silly thing, but, I don’t like seeing this passage as written in opposition to “Materialism and Secularism.” Any time you have an “ism”, it represents a philosophical system, or a belief system. My big problem is that I cannot apply these much more recent ‘ism’s’ to ancient Judah: How can a Theocracy, with a King who feels he rules by divine right, and where the government and the temple system are so closely related it is hard to discern where one ends and the other begins be influenced by “secularism?”

Materialism is even more challenging to me, because the word means different things in different contexts. Philosophers such as Confucius are considered ‘materialists’, because they don’t talk about anything outside of the realm of human observation. Science is also a materialistic approach to understanding the universe, for the same reason. From the context of her writing, I can guess that materialism is “Economic Materialism”, which assumes that our value as people is tied to the our wealth. It is a world-view that assumes that a person’s life-goal will be to acquire wealth, and that success and happiness can be measured by personal wealth. This word view has been summed up in the 1987 movie: “Wall street” with the following quote:

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A

Again, this really does not seem to apply to ancient Israel. There was a real problem with Greed, and the people in power did not want to follow Torah in those places where it meant that they had to give up their wealth — but, I’m not really aware of anybody suggesting that greed is good. There is a difference between claiming one standard, but not doing it because it is too difficult or too expensive; and claiming an entirely different standard. I don’t think that Isaiah was speaking to secular economic materialists. I think he was speaking to a theocracy, made up of people who’s standards of justice were relational, and who valued even the poor — yet due to personal greed, and personal faithlessness all the way up to members of the priesthood, they failed to live up to the very standards and worldview they believed in. If they were secularists and materialists, they would not have been hypocrites.

I also don’t like it, because there is a real shift from how the Hebrews in a theocracy applied their faith as a people, and how later Jews and us Christians have to apply our faith. We live in a secular, and secularized society. Materialism is a widespread philosophy, not only in “capitalistic” nations like our own, but even in nominally communist nations like China. We really are facing world views that are radically different than what our faith teaches us.

When early Christians lived in a religious society, it was a pagan society. They worshiped a large number of gods, and the Emperor was also worshiped as a son of god. Jesus called the disciples to be Salt and Light. We are called to change the very flavor of the world, even though it is a world that we cannot control.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know the dangers of secularism and materialism. I used to live in China; China is very secular, and has largely adopted a harsh materialistic world-view that I can best describe as sociopathic. When I was there, breathing sometimes felt like choking, because the air was so full of soot. If you drank the water, you took a real risk with your life, because industrial waste is dumped directly into the rivers. While there were regulations, business owners did not care about the life and health of their neighbors.

In a couple of extreme cases, one food company mixed powdered milk with fertilizer, to make it look like it had more protein than it really did. That adulterated milk was sold to a company that made baby formula, and Chinese babies died in 2008. Another similar case had a Chinese company flour mixed with fertilizer, sold as gluten (because gluten has a higher protein content than flour, and fetches a higher price.) Nestle bought this adulterated flour, and in 2007, owners who bought Alpo dog food watched their pets get sick, and sometimes die.

These extreme cases show the folly of a materialism that is so focused that it values other human beings only as a way to acquire more personal wealth. I could give similar examples of extreme secularism through people such as Stalin — but this won’t really be necessary. It is enough to point out that no matter what we think about secularism, it is part of the society we live in. We can believe that no matter who is president, or governor, Jesus is still Lord — and I do believe this. We can elect a president who believes that Jesus is Lord, and most of the time, we do; but, no matter what we do, our society and government is secular. We cannot change the isims in society — but, we can ask Christ to change us, and heal us from the sins of greed and pride.

This is where I have a real problem with the approach. I feel like there are three important ways of approaching scripture: First, we figure out what it meant to the original audience, (In this case, the failing kingdom of Judah), then it is important to understand how the passage has been traditionally understood. Our Bible is a collection of writings that are not only considered God inspired, but considered to be relevant beyond the original context. There is a long history of application that we can consider. Finally, and in many ways most importantly, we have to consider how the passage applies to us.

The way this applies to the leaders in the Kingdom of Judah is pretty obvious. Torah called on those administrating the government to base their decisions on empathy. They were guided to govern in a way that would end generational poverty, and to do so because of a shared history that included being enslaved. This is a people who’s sense of justice includes the words: “Never again.” What we see, however, is that a few people tried to own everything, leaving others living in poverty without hope. The year of Jubilee was, at this point, several centuries overdue.

When I read ancient sermons, one that stands out is an Easter Sermon by Gregory Nazianzen in the 4th century where he compares “law” to “gospel”, and he finds that the calling of the Christian is somewhat more difficult than following the letter of the old law. He notices that, in the case of Isaiah 5, the “law” spoke against collecting wealth and property to the point of pushing out everybody else, and again exploiting the poor — but the Gospel calls us to give generously and willingly, and completely so we can take up our cross without any other burden and follow Christ.

My personal take way, informed our rich history of reading scripture, is that we really have no choice but to live in a world where there are all kinds of ‘isms’. There will always be people who judge others based on the contents of their bank accounts and stock portfolios. I don’t expect my government to seek advice from religious experts to make sure that it is a just government. I don’t expect this — and yet I still find these scriptures valuable.

This is why I started these messages with Torah law: This passage speaks of the goal to end generational poverty and servitude. The hope is that the people of Israel will make a place for others, not, as this verse says: “join house to house and add field to field.” When poverty takes away the very hope of livelihood, and in an farm dominated economy, that is land and fields, there is nothing that can be done. We cannot expect a jubilee, nor even a Sabbath year — so Christ called his disciples to do the things they could not expect the Romans to do. The goal remains the same, but a different community takes on the work of carrying out these goals.

The trick is to somehow create justice in a society filled with injustice. The law that Moses brought to the Hebrews assumed that they would create a just society. Gospel assumes Christians will live in an unjust society. Nazianzen observed that the life Jesus called us to live is more difficult — and it is more difficult, because we are counter-cultural — yet, we are also changing culture by living in this world.
If you look at the names of Hospitals, it is very likely that the hospital will be named for a Christian leader. Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and rehab houses are, more often than not Christian missions. People believe that we have a higher standard, because they can see how faith can lead individuals to do good things, and groups to do great things. When they know the great things that Christians do — they expect it. I am personally amazed at how much faith many non-churched people have.

As far as something our community has a personal connection with; I am impressed with our sister meeting, Muncie Friends Memorial. This Saturday, just like every 3rd Saturday of the month, the meeting will have a couple hundred needy families from the area picking up food. Members of Muncie Friends memorial work to bring donated food into the meetinghouse, and set up a system to distribute it in an efficient and orderly fashion. If anybody wants to volunteer for something, I strongly recommend this as a service opportunity. It is a little thing, but it is an opportunity to be part of something good, and at the same time to remind ourselves, and our sister church that we are part of a larger community, with a shared mission and calling to live as Christ taught us to live in the world.

Isaiah 6 — Isaiah’s call to failure

Reading:  Isaiah 6

When I read the Sunday School curriculum, this was one of the passages that I looked at closely. Growing up, I head many sermons out of Isaiah 6. I heard sermons given by evangelists, seeking people to announce that they were called to ministry. When I attended Quaker Haven (in Kansas), this passage was quoted after getting us excited about the various work of missionaries. The call of Isaiah was used again and again as a recruitment passage.

When I went to Barclay, we read books about church growth that implied that if we were not increasing in numbers, we were failing to meet the great commission. There was a real message that God called people, equipped them, and brought success. The message we received was very optimistic. It seemed obvious that God called people into ministry to make them and their ministries successful.

When I graduated, I quickly learned that life isn’t as easy as it seemed from the sermons and books. Some of my friends went out to plant churches, and for the most part they had to leave church planting, and find secular jobs as the new churches they put so much work into failed.

For the most part, people didn’t see God blessing them with wild success; it was far more likely for them to question if God ever called them in the first place. These days, even people who felt successful are often second guessing themselves. Too many of these people who were absolutely excited to serve God found themselves disillusioned. Many of the deeply devoted Christians who were clearly called into ministry are no longer involved in any church. Eventually we all have to learn the lesson that we were too optimistic — even though it is a painful lesson to learn.

It is even more difficult in that even though almost everybody I know who feels called to a ministry is frustrated and struggling, we too often forget that we are all in this together. Too many of us don’t remember to encourage one another. We too often end up borrowing the standards of the culture we live in, and we compete with one another and forget to encourage one another. We too often feel discouraged, and alone — it is no surprise that many people who were called and devoted hit a point where they were ready to give up.

In all those sermons I heard as a kid, nobody really got into the part of the passage that said that the people Isaiah preached to would never listen, and never change. We never really talked about how one can be a faithful failure. We never asked ourselves what it means that a person can be called to a ministry that will be unsuccessful. What happens is that we apply the same standards that “the world” uses to the church. I desperately needed to ask this question. I wish I would have been wise enough to notice that God was up front with Isaiah, and told him nobody would listen.

Jewish commentators tell us that Isaiah was King Uzziah’s first cousin. He was, according to tradition part of the royal family, which explains why he was able to approach them and speak to them harshly. Three more generations of kings, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah put up with his messages of God’s judgment against their rule. Eventually, tradition tells us that Manasseh condemned Isaiah to death for claiming to see God, and speak for God, and he was sawed in half. The fact that he survived so many decades of unwanted prophesies addressed to royalty makes it very likely he was part of the royal family.

Whoever Isaiah was, he was somebody who really sacrificed for the ministry that he was called into. It is a true sign of obedience that he not only knew what he was getting into, but that he lived through 60 years of fruitless ministry. It is almost as if he suffered punishment for his obedience, even though we expect God to bless and reward us for our faithfulness.

One reason that I love the Bible so much is it challenges our assumptions. God often does not work the way that we expect. Isaiah, for example ministered for a long time, likely over 60 years. No matter how much he warned, people never changed. I am impressed with the tenacity to continue to prophecy for a whole lifetime, without success. Tradition tells us that he died by being sawed in half — and likely, this means that he was mentioned in Hebrews 11‘s list of faithful people.

I needed my assumptions challenged. If I did not have my challenges challenged, I would look down on the ministry of every pastor who is not ‘growing the church’ enough. We have always needed our assumptions challenged: For example, we all know the story of Job. He was righteous and just person, a person who God spoke well of. When he suffered, all his friends assumed that his suffering was a punishment for his sinfulness. They assumed that if a person was right with God, that person would enjoy God’s blessings in a material way. Actually, its perfectly natural to expect God to bless us — Job teaches us that God does not work that way, and that we cannot judge somebody’s relationship with God based on health or wealth.

When I read the prophets, I find that most of them are like Isaiah. Sometimes there is a King such as David who will hear a prophet such as Nathan, and repent of his bad behavior, but for the most part, the prophets were ignored and eventually killed. Prophets were so often killed by those in power that Jesus asked whether a prophet could die outside of Jerusalem. Here is what has truly challenged my assumptions: The one time that a prophet was truly successful, his name was Jonah, and he wanted nothing more than to see God wipe out the people he prophesied to — people who were enemies of Israel. They repented, and God forgave them — God further corrected Jonah, showing that God cared for everybody, even those God’s worshipers considered enemies. Again, the Bible challenges our assumptions.

Even the New Testament repeats this: Jesus promises the disciples that their ministry will be very difficult. The last weeks before the crucifixion are a time when the crowds start to leave, and even the disciples start to distance themselves from Jesus. While Jesus was alive, the disciples continued to place their own political ideologies onto Jesus’ ministry, failing to understand what Jesus really stood for. Our assumptions cannot be right, when our assumptions make the greatest figures, and even the author of our faith look like failures.

What does it mean that God called Isaiah called Isaiah and others to a ministry where they would never succeed? To me, it means that God does not ask so much for results, as God asks that we be faithful. We are asked to have faith that God knows what God is doing. Sometimes, its easy, these days it is often hard, but our lot is to do the work we are given faithfully, even when it seems fruitless. It also means that we are very short sighted. We don’t see as clearly as God does, and thus our judgement is as flawed as our perception is limited.

Everything we observe and assume is very short term. God is able to see in long term to the point that Isaiah’s 60 years were short term. Today, Isiah is one of the most quoted parts of the Old Testament. Whenever we read New Testament, we see Isaiah quoted. Isaiah’s vision of restoration is so tied to our idea of Jesus Christ that Isaiah has been called by early Christian commentators: “The fifth gospel.” God turned 60 years of failure into success. How long was it until people listened? “Until the cities lie waste without inhabitant, houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate,” but, when Israel was restored and the 2nd temple was built, Isaiah seems to have been the most popular prophet. Isaiah is now more wildly successful that anyone could have imagined — 60 years of failure, followed by 2500 years of unspeakable success.

When we are discouraged, let us continue to walk with Jesus, and trust that God knows what God is doing. We don’t see everything, God does. When we see somebody struggle, we need to be careful to remember that ultimately, God is their judge, not us. We cannot see the heart, God does. For me, my biggest false perception was that it was my responsibility to do great things for God. Isaiah and the prophets taught me that it is my responsibility to walk with Jesus, and have faith that as long as I do, Jesus will take care of the destination.

Torah Justice and Ancient Israel — Deuteronomy 15:1-15

Reading:  Deuteronomy 15:1-15

Next Sunday, your Sunday school class will start discussing the book of Isaiah. The Illuminate ‘quarterly’ has a group of lessons that cover the high points of Isaiah and Jeremiah — and, I am excited about the opportunity to go through a part of the Bible that is so important to my own faith-journey. I love the prophets, and have loved them as long as I remember.

The Old Testament, in its most literal reading, is not that difficult to understand. In it’s most literal reading, the Torah, the first five books are the laws and rules of the nation, mixed with some historical and religious justification for these laws The holy history of God’s people and the great lawgiver Moses are a part of the narrative, but the core of Torah is the law of a nation. The books often called “Historical” books tells the continuing history of God’s people after they were given the law. The Prophets, in general, condemn Israel and Judah for failing to live up to the law, but instead having a corrupt government.

What is hard for us is if we follow the most literal reading, then the Old Testament is made up of obsolete legal code, the history of a failed experiment in Theocracy, some religious poetry, and Wisdom literature. If we follow the most literal reading, only the Psalms and Wisdom literature remain relevant. The law itself, in its most literal reading would become obsolete at the time of the Babylonian captivity. The history would be relevant, in the most literal reading, as primarily interesting to historians.

What happened, however was something nearly miraculous: People learned to look beyond what the law literally was. They realized that they lived in a society that cared nothing for justice, and that they had no control over the laws of the nation that they lived in. Recognizing this, they searched the Torah, studied everything they could study, asking the question: How can I become a just person in an unjust society? They also asked the question: “How can we still be a people of God, when we no longer are a Godly nation?” The way people read Torah changed to meet the new reality, and Torah took on a new meaning beyond the literal. Torah, as they started learning to interpret it in Babylon, became the standard that Jesus called people to is His preaching.

Interpreting in ways beyond what is literal does not only apply to the Jews, but also to Christians. The United States is not Israel. The Church also is not Israel, nor do those in positions of religious leadership stand in the place of Hebrew priests. God does not have the same covenant with us that God made with Israel at the time of Moses. In spite of this, we often connect with the holy stories of the Old Testament, and make them our own. We make connections between ancient Israel and ourselves, because we find that the positions are in some ways similar. Israel, at times, is a metaphor for the Church — as both are God’s people. Israel is at times a metaphor for the state, because sometimes we fail to live up to our standards of justice. Allegory and metaphor are good, because it allows us to apply an application beyond the literal facts. Unfortunately, for many, we have no understanding of the literal meaning. Today is for education. If we are going to study and discuss the prophets, we need to know a little bit about what their message meant to people of ancient Israel. Our methods of interpretation might be good methods — but, one really should not get into a discussion of metaphor and allegory without at least a little understanding of the passage meant to the first readers.

I chose this reading, because it is an example of the law that the prophets were always talking about. This section of the law is cited many times by many of the prophets: Whenever there was a prophecy against the people of Judah or Israel for not observing the Sabbath years, this was the section that was cited. This is a law saying that debts are forgiven, and indentured servants (people enslaved because of their debts) are to be freed — and paid generously at a specific time that happens every 7 years. The idea is that nobody should be destroyed, irreparably, by debt. instead there should be mercy and second chances. The United States actually feels the same way to the point that we have personal bankruptcy laws, and laws preventing becoming indentured. This is an example of how Israelites were called to be compassionate, remembering that they were once slaves in Egypt. Because they remembered what it was like to be slaves, they were to systematically forgive debts and release slaves, allowing people crushed by poverty another chance.

As this was a legal system, there was a tax code. The bulk of the taxes are called “tithes” in our Bible. Sometimes we are confused, because we think tithing is giving voluntarily to the church — and we think that it is a suggested amount of 10%. Now, ancient Israel is just like any other government. Taxes are not a suggested donation, and if you are suspected of underpaying a government official will come, audit you, and take what he thinks is right. A tithe is 10%, but, this was not the whole tax burden. There were multiple tithes to fund multiple programs: There was a tithe to fund the public celebrations and festivals that happened pretty much every month. There was another tithe to take care of the needs of the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. There was another tithe to take care of all of the government workers, and a ‘tithe of a tithe’ (1%) went to the temple. There is some debate about what the total tax burden was, but without getting into that, we can understand why, when kings added even more taxes, people were ready to revolt.

Another theme we find in the prophets is that of the tithes. Often, we think of this in terms of “we should tithe” meaning, we should give, generously and systematically. It is true, we should give generously and systematically. Old Testament tithing, however, was not talking about systematic donations to a worthy cause — it was talking about a rather heavy tax burden. The people who did things like stole the tithes were people in political power. Do you know people who refuse to pay their taxes? If I don’t pay my taxes, the IRS will have a freeze put on my bank account, I will be audited, and I will not only pay the taxes I owe, but penalties for making the collection inconvenient. Do we really believe that ancient Israel had no recourse when people refused to pay? Wherever there are governments, there will always be tax collectors.

One Biblical example of a leader stealing the tithes is found in Nehemiah 13. Eliashib stole the tithes that would have been used to support the government workers; in order to survive the whole bureaucracy became corrupt, because the Levites had no sustenance beyond their positions in the State In this corrupt system, those who depended upon government services and aid for their needs were left to starve. I am convinced when Malachi asks: “Can a man rob God”? He is thinking of a specific man, and likely that man’s name is Eliashib.
Starting next week, we will study Isaiah and Jeremiah. The adult Sunday school Bible study will go through select passages, offer some written reflections on the passages, and ask discussion questions based on the reading. I love the prophets, I loved the prophets from my youth, and I look forward to this study.

The prophets lived in a time when the law that was written, and what was actually done was different. There was corruption, and many of the people in power exploited their positions for their own gain. The prophets are also familiar to us, because they hold the hope and promise of restoration. Even in the times without justice, when the nation seemed to be falling and enemies were ready to conquer, the people had hope that God would send a Deliverer. In the Christian understanding — the prophets anticipated Christ’s coming.

I’m excited about this this opportunity to read together, to explore, and to learn both from each other and from the written thoughts of several other people. I know, many times people expect some sort of a practical application, but, I’m not going to tell you. I’m sure nobody is going to try to figure out when the Sabbath Year will next fall — nor do I think anybody really wants to live in Ancient Israel. What seems important right now is that we know the context of the as we enter the study.

For me, the point of telling you this is to remind you that there are many ways that people understand what they read. The Sabbath year is important, because, according to Daniel, the 70 years of captivity are the same as the 70 times the Sabbath year passed, and debts remained unforgiven. This law that seems so obscure to us today is central in the understanding for the reason of the captivity. We remember God promised David his line would be unbroken — but, David’s line didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. David’s line ignored the standards of Justice written into the Law. The literal meaning of the prophets is tied up in Torah, and a unbroken line of Kings who ignored Torah’s ideals of an understanding of justice built on empathy, mercy, and compassion.

The wonderful thing is, the New Testament invites us to reflect on this Holy History. We see Jesus establishing a New Kingdom. We see Jesus inviting us to live in that New Kingdom. We no longer need a Theocracy to be a Holy People, instead we are invited to live lives of mercy, compassion, and justice even as we are in a world that sometimes treats mercy as a vice. Though corrupt people failed to establish God’s kingdom on the Earth, God came to establish a kingdom in the hearts and minds of people — and as God changes us, we become a force that changes the world.

Recommendation for policy on having food delivered to meetings and events

Until yesterday, I’ve not only been a preacher (officially pulpit supply) and volunteer coordinator at a small church, but also a pizza delivery driver for one of the big 3 delivery chains.  As a delivery worker, I’ve been able to observe how businesses and churches behave, how the store operates, and how long those who work in the industry remember the behavior of customers.  If you are a church, or have a business that serves customers (especially car sales — drivers are always in the market for another car for obvious reasons), it is best to behave in a way that does not wreck your reputation.  As somebody involved in Church ministry I will offer my advice to churches, but please modify it for your group.

  1. Make sure you have your tax exempt number and information ready.
  2. Order, in advance, between 2:00 and 4:00 PM.  (In person, if convenient.)
  3. Ask for a discount
  4. Tip generously — when you tip a driver at 1/2%, the whole store will know about it.
  5. Make sure somebody is ready to meet and pay the delivery driver.
  6. Be polite

The first two rules should be fairly obvious.  Customers with large orders, especially those who are tax exempt, often require a little more time than somebody who is just ordering for dinner at home.  A large order can dominate the kitchen, noticeably delaying delivery times for other customers.  Advance orders allow the kitchen to better plan and better meet the needs of their customers (including you.)  2:00 to 4:00 PM are somewhat dead periods of time, when the staff will have time to handle the order.

Rule 3 is somewhat less obvious until you realize that if you don’t ask for a discount, you will not get it.  Most chains have discounts for businesses and non-profits.  Remembering to ask for this discount will save a significant amount.

To explain rules #4 and #5, first, you have to realize that delivery drivers are tipped workers, and thus, their minimum wage is that of a tipped worker.  In my case, my base pay, as a driver, was $4.25 an hour.  I also was compensated for mileage, but with a maximum amount that assumed that the average delivery was about 3/4 miles away.  Some of my deliveries were 5 1/2 miles away, and the average was a little under 3 miles away.  I recorded my mileage, and found that after subtracting the uncompensated expenses (using standard IRS mileage), my base pay averaged to slightly less than tips only.  It does not matter that there is a delivery charge, delivery drivers are still expected to absorb part of the company’s operating expenses, to the point of being essentially unpaid by their employer.

When figuring the tip — tipping at 15% of the amount *before* the discount is a good place to start.  The driver should not be punished, because you remembered to ask for the discount.  It would also be generous to consider adding mileage from the store and back to that 15%, but, no matter what, remember if you do not tip the driver worked without pay; nobody likes to work without pay. It is also important for the driver to finish his delivery quickly. Driver productivity is measured in number of deliveries, and the pay is effectively only tips.  Drivers literally cannot afford to wait.

These are just my recommendations, based on my experience as a driver.  If your non-profit, or business follows these, it will be good for your reputation; but, quite honestly, following any policy that respects the facts that driver pay is primarily tips, and that their time is valuable will create a lot of good will.  If you remember to ask for the discount, such a policy costs nothing.

An unshakable Kingdom — Hebrews 12:14-29

Reading: Hebrews 12:14-29

One thing that always inspires me is how Jesus talks about His Kingdom. He says that the Kingdom is at hand, and he talks about people entering God’s Kingdom. There is a real sense that God’s kingdom is so close that it can touch and change the Earth. Though earth and sky might be shaken, God’s kingdom is never shaken. God’s kingdom was here before our nation was founded, and will be here when it falls.

The fact that things fall is hard for us. We always hope that the things we do and build will last forever. Many of us hope to have some sort of legacy that will never be buried — and, yes, it is good to have a legacy, but never is far too long. Earth and Sky will be shaken, it will be removed. Any legacy we make here will be shaken. All that endures is God’s kingdom — and as the writer of Hebrews says: “We are receiving this kingdom.”

Like many times in scripture, bad news is tempered by good news. Those of us who worked hard to do good in the world, or to build a legacy cannot help but be a little sad when we realize that everything we do is going to be shaken. Sometimes we are shaken first, sometimes we see everything falling apart around us — but no matter what, it is sobering. There is so much that we can mourn.

The good news is, as we already said, “We are receiving this kingdom” that cannot be shaken. Even as we watch our legacy fall away, and even as we know that everything we knew and loved on this earth will someday fall away — we have faith that there is Something that is lasting. We have faith that there is Someone who is eternal. We believe that if we make a place for Jesus in our life in this world, Jesus will make a place for us in the next.

The writer of Hebrews gives some advice to us, because we are receiving the unshakable kingdom. When we are promised something Good, it tends to come with advice and sometimes even warnings. Before we get to the writer’s advice, I’ll offer one piece of my own: Don’t forget what is lasting. Yes, mourn those things that are important, but temporary, but remember that we are being given something greater than what we have lost — something greater than what we will lose.

First thing that the writer recomends is that we pursue peace with everybody. It is hard to pursue peace, because it is so easy to think in terms of a contest. We look at our coworkers, our neighbors, and sometimes our family as opponents — we see a need to fight for our rights, and our share, forgetting that if the world is being unfair to anybody, it isn’t us.

Another reason that it is so hard to pursue peace gets into the very definition of the next piece of advice: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble”. If we are ungracious and become bitter then that will cause trouble. Bitterness disrupts peace. We cannot very well pursue peace with others if we live in a state where we cannot have peace within ourselves.

Peace with others, and ourselves really does come from embracing Grace. By ourselves, we often don’t seem to get grace right. Last night, Gerry sent me an email which included quite a few things, but one striking thing that it included was a list of reasons that people don’t go to church. Some of these reasons were superficial things that don’t really seem to apply to us such as the productions that are put on every Sunday Morning are nothing but white noise, or falling into church jargon that nobody really understands. What really shows as failing in grace is the observations that many Churches seem to lack a vision outside of the church property. Grace sees others, it is ungracious to be blind to the world. Another thing that shows a lack of grace is the battles that the church has chosen to fight. The final reason is that for all the talk about love, the church very often sounds hateful. For all the talk about forgiveness, the church sounds judgmental — this is not grace, this is not making peace with our neighbors, it is polemic — it is taking on the attitude that we must win.

Grace is found in recognizing that God created humanity in God’s own image. Grace looks and sees God’s image. Grace knows that you cannot rightfully claim to love God, while hating those made in God’s image. A grace filled person also sees herself clearly. She know that she has been forgiven, and thus it is right to forgive others.
We must not be like Esau who sold his birthright for a single meal. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, psychologists at Stanford ran a rather simple experiment, they left a child alone in a room with a cookie or a marshmallow, and offered a second just like it if the child could resist eating the first for 15 minutes. This experiment was repeated several times throughout the children’s development — and they found that the ability to wait was an important life skill.

Esau failed this test in a big way. He had something of great value, and he sold it to have a simple bowl of soup. Hunger might be a huge motivator, but it is hard to believe that a grown man, in a family that had flocks, servants, and a farmer would not have food available. It takes time to cook, but is the time spent cooking truly worth the birthright?

We who are adopted into the name Christian have a place in the unshakable Kingdom. Our birthright is that we can assemble in the city of the Living God. The writer of Hebrews was reminding everybody that only one thing lasts forever — and what lasts forever is their birthright. In the end this is a big secret be being gracious: recognizing that there are more important things than winning. Winning purely for the sake of winning is taking the smaller reward. Even in the short term, before the unshakable kingdom, if we cheat, or ungracious, the bad behaviors will be remembered longer by those around us than our victories. May we never think so much about winning that we forget our birthright.