Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Holy Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

We’ve spent this Advent in historic Advent fashion, looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming instead looking back at his first. With only 13 shopping days left until Christmas, you may wonder whether we’re ever going to get on to the reason for the season. I’m glad to report that there’s a way to do both. Star-Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin ran a piece this week about a apocalypse-minded jeweler in Superior, Wisconsin who is holding a “Second Coming Sale” with all jewelry 50% off. “With fire about to rain down on the earth and salvation at hand, now is not the time to deprive yourself of a little bling. Life may indeed be brutally short, but diamonds are forever.” Explaining the sale in a local commercial, the Wisconsin jeweler says, “The Bible predicts the day of the Lord, followed by the return of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem. As I read the daily news and look around the world, I believe we're really close to that day. Nevertheless, if you want jewelry here and now, I have diamonds and gemstones, gold, silver, watches and clocks, and I’m selling everything at 50 percent off.”

What I want to know is if Jesus is coming back so soon, why not just give the jewelry away? I’m guessing that the jeweler will stick with 50% off, just in case.

Smart move—especially since not even Jesus knew when he’d be back. However he did know what his coming back would look like. Jesus described it as “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”—glory having nothing to do with bling. This description and its accompanying apocalyptic imagery draws from the prophet Daniel and Isaiah too. It’s likely related in part to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as well as to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 AD (which is how Jesus could also say in Mark’s gospel, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”) At the same time, Jesus’ ascension was more about the Son of Man leaving in clouds with power and great glory. Still, as his disciples stood and gaped at Jesus’ exit into the sky, angels told them that, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way as you saw him go.” It’s significant that Jesus ascended with his redeemed humanity still intact. As on Christmas Day, God comes in human flesh on Judgment Day too: in a manger as we are, in clouds of glory as we shall be.

Still, not a lot of churches do Second Coming Pageants during Advent. Given all the associated doom and destruction, I’m sure the concern is with not scaring the kids. This is why the Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, which does put on a Second Coming Pageant, schedules it for Halloween night.

On the other hand, Christmas pageants are plentiful and chances are good if you grew up in church that at some point you donned a bathrobe and draped your head in a towel to take part in the annual nativity scene. At my childhood church, the holy family, shepherds and angels surrounded a makeshift stable while the choir sang Away in a Manger—followed by a visit from Santa. I always thought it weird for Santa to visit the manger scene since Jesus, being God, probably had (or could get) everything he wanted. Even weirder was how the star of the show, the baby Jesus, was annually played by a baby doll. Why make such a big deal about Christ the Savior being born in human flesh only to have him show up in plastic?

Thankfully here at Colonial Church you don’t have to worry about that. This Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus will be played by none other than the newly baptized Andrew Jonathan Hobbs. I take for granted a live baby Jesus has been the practice for some years now. At my childhood church, bothered by the word made plastic, we installed a live baby Jesus played by Mary’s 3-month-old baby brother, Trevor. That year, as if on cue, as the choir sang no crying he makes, baby Jesus, the sharp hay stabbing holes in his backside, let loose a full blooded scream. The embarrassed Mary (who’d had enough of Trevor’s wailing at home), instinctively wheeled around and shouted at Trevor to shut up—which of course didn’t go over well since you’re not supposed to yell at Jesus. Our church went back to baby dolls the next year. I actually preferred the screaming Jesus better. If Jesus could get upset then I could too without worrying whether Santa would still bring me what I wanted for Christmas.

That’s the good news about Jesus’ second coming: you’re guaranteed to get everything you could ever want. Isaiah 35 describes it as so good that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

Of course that the desert would ever come close to singing is momentous in and of itself. As you might remember from our study of John the Baptist, the desert stood for Israel’s barren, wintry wasteland of unbelief. It was in the desert that the chosen people lost faith in God, despite their dramatic rescue by God’s grace from the brutal oppression of Egypt. But now, in Isaiah’s Advent preview, God’s grace blossoms anew. The desert bursts into springtime blooms of joy and song. Water surges onto the dustscape transforming wastelands into wetlands. Those whose lives had collapsed and who sat head in hands; fearful, anxious, guilty, despairing—now their loads are lifted, their fears expunged, their despair overtaken by hope. Isaiah proclaims sight for the blind and sound to deaf ears. The lame will not merely walk; they will leap and the mute will sing. What makes the difference? The Messiah makes the difference. He comes to his people—with a vengeance! Lasting joy and peace are fruits of righteousness; but the roots of righteousness are justice and retribution for sin. “Here is your God,” Isaiah portends, “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Only when God has judged the enemies of his people can salvation in all its fullness be theirs.

Despite Isaiah’s beautiful poetry of salvation, that it comes with vengeance sounds a terribly discordant note. For some, divine wrath stirs up unnecessary fear, as well as unwarranted shame and guilt. For others, God’s wrath represents just another example of religion’s vindictive and poisonous capacity for validating human violence. Critics at both extremes attribute to God’s anger an evil which in effect cancels out his goodness. Admittedly, as Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel reminds us, anger is something that does come dangerously close to evil. Yet it would be wrong to identify anger as evil. Anger can be evil by association, but anger is never evil in essence. It may be reprehensible when associated with malice, but it remains morally necessary as resistance to malice. Heschel asks, “Could it ever be cruel that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, or when widows and orphans are oppressed?”

Any view of God’s wrath that seeks to parallel the psychology of human passion rather than to root itself in the theology of divine pathos is bound to misunderstand it. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never consider God’s anger as unaccountable, unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong, provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s anger that consumes and afflicts never does so without moral justification.

Nevertheless, for many, moral justification is no excuse. That God would get angry at all is offensive. Yet to have a God who never gets mad for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never gets mad at the offender no matter how vile their offense. To divest God of his anger is ultimately to render him so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is always too late to save—a Santa Claus God instead of the God of Scripture; a Jesus who suffered the little children to come unto him, but not the Christ who said their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks.

Isaiah declares that justice will be done and evil done with, paving a highway in the desert where not even fools can get lost. The highway runs straight back to God, a “way of holiness” on which the redeemed and the ransomed freely travel. Redeemed and ransomed are those people purchased by God—like felons set free on eternal bail. God put up not cash for their crimes, but his own self on a cross. The redeemed are made righteous not because they’ve behaved well (they haven’t); but because God has a thing for sinners. Redemption is a move of pure mercy. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…” God’s redemption of people redeems the earth too. “The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Just in time for the holidays, Isaiah’s buoyant vision of a blooming wasteland has been captured afresh in all of its CGI and 3D glory by the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. If you’ve only managed to read the books, then you still know how Lewis picks up on Isaiah’s prophecy as he describes the loosening of the icy white witch’s evil grip on creation. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lewis wrote, “The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered the drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travelers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travelers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path. ‘This is no thaw,’ said the Dwarf [to the witch]… ‘This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”

For those unfamiliar with either the books or the movies, Aslan is a lion, the Christ figure whose own pure mercy in dying and coming back from the dead begets new life and a new world. However, inasmuch as this is Christmas, Lewis’ allegory of Christ initially coming as a lion can misrepresent. As New Yorker film critic Adam Gopnik observed, “a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory.”

That would be the Christmas story. And it would be the Advent story too. Turn to Revelation 5, and a mighty of angel of God announces the grand entrance of the Lion of Judah and the Root of David as the only one worthy to break open the seal to the Book of Life. The “Root of David” language comes from Isaiah where God’s anointed is portrayed in warrior-king like fashion; one about whom we read last Sunday who “will give justice to the poor and decide with equity for the meek. One who will smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked.” As for the Lion of Judah, that image derives from Jacob’s blessing to Judah, his lionized son, from whom “the scepter shall not depart, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendents until tribute comes to whom it belongs; and with it the obedience of all peoples.”

Normally such vivid imagery draws to mind a magnificent scene, soaring expectations of a ferocious and foreboding Savior, righteous and victorious. Yet what we see in Revelation is not that sort of picture at all. What we see is not a ferocious Aslan, King of the Beasts, but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been slaughtered. Of course, Isaiah had predicted this too. The victorious root and heir of David was forecast as one to be “oppressed and afflicted, led like a lamb to the slaughter.” But didn’t that only apply to his treatment on earth? What’s the Root of David doing showing up all bloodied in heaven? But then again, when the risen Jesus showed up to his disciples on Easter, he did tell them to look at his hands and his feet. Despite his triumph over the grave, Jesus still wore his scars.

This has always been the irony of the gospel: The Great High Priest is the sacrifice. The Good Shepherd is the slaughtered sheep. The Lion is the Lamb. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. And though the triumphant Lamb stands tall, he still wears the telltale scars of his slaughter. Crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the eternal identity of God. The Root of David rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties.

Jesus arrived at Christmas with neither a plastic smile nor a majestic roar. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah wrote, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” “Being in very nature God,” the apostle Paul later added, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The defeat of the cross is the Victory of God and the Way to Life—the Holy Way. It is the Way of Jesus for all who by faith are redeemed into his likeness. It’s all you could ever want.

C.S. Lewis wrote how “most people, when they really look into their own hearts, know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel no learning can really satisfy. …There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.” And yet, the reality in which our longing fades need not be the reality of disappointment and despair. In Christ, our longing gives way to the reality of fulfillment. Isaiah promises. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

1 comment:

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