Monday, February 2, 2015

A New Kingdom - Invasion of Light

Preached on Sunday, February 1, 2015

Scripture readings:  Isaiah 8:21-9:7; Matthew 4:12-25

There are the old football cheers. “Push ‘em back. Push ‘em back, way back.” “Hit ‘em again. Hit ‘em again, harder, harder!”
Photos around Desert Aire and Mattawa WA: 2015
These remind us that football is a glorified, ceremonious fight; a big ritual battle. Sometimes I ask boys on high school football teams what they like most about the game: they almost always say it’s hitting the other team.
God’s people often found themselves involved in a big fight. In the Old Testament, they did it with swords, and arrows, and spears. Sometimes this was because God told them to fight. They lived in a dangerous world, a world of force, and it had to be done. The Bible is full of the language of battle.
Life can be a battle. It can be a battle against pain, illness, disability. It can be a battle to keep going in the face of a negative environment, people you may work with, neighbors, even family. Life can be a battle against an evil in this world: injustice, or corruption, or apathy. Life can be a battle against your self: against anger, bitterness, temptations, addictions, depression, envy, fear, mental illness.
Life can be a battle for something: for truth, for country, for integrity, for faithfulness, for love, for a cause and a calling that come from God.
There are moral, ethical, emotional, and spiritual battles. Here there may be no hitting. There may be no blood shed; but the word of God, in the Bible, still uses the language of battle. There is the armor of God in the New Testament: the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith to ward off the flaming arrows of the evil one, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20)
God’s people, in the days when Jesus walked this earth, wanted a fight. Thanks to Rome, they were a conquered and occupied country. They were ruled by the Herod family who reported to the Roman emperor in return for his support. They were gouged by tax collectors from their own people who betrayed them to the Romans for the money.
God’s people generally wanted to fight all of this. They wanted a revolution and they wanted a hero (called the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one) to lead it. God promised to make a new world that would be his kingdom. The hero would be the king of this kingdom.
The predictions about this, in the Bible, use a lot of the language of battle. God’s people understood this battle language to mean that the hero would be a leader of their armies fighting to the death to win a kingdom.  God’s people would shed blood, and win their independence, and then they would go on to win the whole world for God and for themselves.
This is what they thought John the Baptist had meant, when he preached the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2) Now John was in prison. John seemed to fail.
Suddenly, as soon as John the Baptist was gone, someone new started going from town to town using his words. Jesus was saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) God’s people began to look for the evidence that Jesus would hit hard for them.
Matthew, writing his gospel, was inspired to take words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to describe the revolution of Jesus. Matthew and Isaiah said that it would be like the invasion of light into darkness. “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1-2) Light is not battle language.
John the Baptist had used the language of battle. He had said that “the axe is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
It’s historically true that a fire was coming. God’s people would start the battle they longed for, and their country would be destroyed as a result of it. This would come about thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus. It would come soon enough.
They had a lust for battle in their hearts, even while they listened to Jesus. They felt trapped by a dark world of power and force, and they saw no reason why they shouldn’t fight the darkness of power and force by dishing out more of the same on their enemies. Their ambition was to give their enemies darkness in order to win the light.
Jesus became a disappointment to them, because he insisted on giving them just the opposite of what they were looking for. He even insisted that they must completely turn around and change what they were looking for.
This helps us understand what repentance is about. We think being repentant means hating ourselves, but that isn’t repentance at all. God loves us and if we hate ourselves then we are disobeying God and saddening God.
The Old Testament Hebrew word for repentance means doing an “about face”. It means making a u-turn.
Repentance can be a much tighter situation than a u-turn. It can be more like backing up. When I was fourteen, in order to get a certificate for doing farm work, I took a weekend class at school where you learned, among other things, how to back up a tractor with a trailer hitched to it.
That was never easy. If you ever see me trying to do it, please stop me. Still I have this picture of repentance. If you are pulling a load of stuff, repentance is very hard.
I took some accounting classes, and I hated making mistakes because it meant being ready and willing to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Repentance can mean having to go back and start all over.
After my Baci (my Polish grandma) had her stroke, she was stuck in a wheelchair for the next twenty years. Having a paralyzed arm made using a wheelchair difficult. She solved the difficulty by using her one good leg to push herself backward. For the rest of her life, she went forward by backing up. Repentance can mean having to go forward by backing up, all the time.
In the New Testament Greek language repentance becomes tighter yet. It means to be new. Get a new mind, new from the inside, new inside and out. Get recreated. Repentance is a miracle of conversion.
In the end, repentance is something so radical that it requires a power that is greater than your own. It comes like a light to the darkness.
God’s people believed that they had to be ready for a fight. They believed that their Messiah, their conquering hero, would come with an axe in his hand and get the fruitless trees out of the orchard. They watched Jesus to see how he handled his axe on those who were fruitless in the people of God.
When Jesus called for God’s people to repent, he took the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. The Bible tells us that Jesus made a whip when he drove the money changers (the currency exchange) from the Temple, but the Bible never tells us that he hit anyone with it. The only people he raised his voice against were the people who didn’t believe in grace and forgiveness.
Jesus didn’t hit. He healed. Jesus didn’t denounce. He taught. Or, when he denounced someone, he still taught them. He prayed for them.
Jesus served his own people. He also served anyone who came to him, whether they were his people or not. The crowds who came to him included everyone. Actually Jesus was ready to accept anyone as one of his people. This made God’s people mad.
The axe of Jesus came like light in the darkness. It wasn’t a laser or a light saber. It cut nobody. It reached out to people who were hassled by devils, or in pain, or paralyzed, or sick. The light taught the truth.
The light proclaimed the good news of the kingdom. In the culture of the ancient Mediterranean, proclaiming good news was a special sort of proclamation. It was a message of triumph. In the ancient world proclaiming good news was a formal thing that was done after a battle or a war was won. An official messenger was sent to the towns and cities of a kingdom to say that the kingdom had won the battle.
In Isaiah, in the section about the light, we are shown people celebrating the victory and burning the weapons of the armies of darkness. But we don’t see the battle. We only see the victory. And then we see the victor.
We see the baby who was to be born. The birth of the baby was the victory. The baby (and the man who the baby grew up to be) are the victory and the victor. The baby and the man are the good news.
When Jesus said the kingdom was near, it was because he was near. The kingdom was the presence of the king doing his work where it was needed. The king was standing right in front of them.
Jesus was the victory of God at his very birth. The victory of the cross and the resurrection were near. The kingdom was near because King Jesus was doing his work all the way to the cross.
Darkness vanished and light appeared when Jesus met you, when Jesus touched you, when Jesus called you. In Jesus you met the light that shines in the darkness.
In a way, Jesus is the axe that cuts you down by loving you, revealing his victory to you, teaching you, healing you. When I was a kid, I loved Jesus and his cross, but I loved other things too, and Jesus had to separate me from my other loves.
I had to lose before I could gain. I had to surrender before I could accept. I found that his suffering and death on the cross, for me and for my sins, was the axe that cut everything false away. Jesus is my axe of light, my axe of love.
Often my life is a battle, but Jesus is like the dawn in the darkness. No one understands this until the dawn reaches them. It makes all the difference in the world to see the dawn.
Jesus was a disappointment to many, many of God’s own people. It didn’t look like he was doing the hard hitting and the fighting that was needed to prepare them for battle and revolution.
What Jesus did was harder and much more revolutionary than they wanted, only they didn’t see it. Jesus was, and is, the revolution. He came into our lost humanness as a new baby. He came into our battles as a voice, and a light, and a healing touch. He came into our battles by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for each one of us, and to call us to follow him and spread his light in the world.
Then we will be like him. We will be like light: the light of the world that shines in darkness. We will bring good news. We will be teachers. We will be healers. We will not hit. We will love.

Jesus doesn’t make us new by making the world around us better. He changes the world by changing us, one person at a time. His weapon is intimacy and grace. Jesus’ weapon is his very self living in us and changing us with an invasion of light.

1 comment:

  1. The light caught the truth, an invasion of light. Beautiful imagery in a well expressed sermon written not with the language of battle but with the language of God's love!