On the Plains of Moab Blog
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February 8, 2012, 9:05 AM

Cyrus, My Servant

Here is the sermon text for this Sunday.  As I told you last Sunday, the topic of Isaiah's Servant is a well-debated, much-traveled topic.  However, this Sunday's text is in the same category.  Point being, if Isaiah of Jerusalem -- an eighth century BC prophet -- wrote all of the book that bears his name, then how can he name the name of an historical figure--Cyrus the Persian -- that came on the scene nearly two hundred years after his own demise?  Why, Isaiah would have had to, gulp, here I'm going to say it...he would have had to have been able to foresee the future! (Playing the theme from the Twilight Zone in my head now.)  That doesn't happen in real life!  Then again, guys don't walk on water or successfully command a storm to subside or turn water into wine or rise from the dead either!  Go figure.

(This, by the way, is not one of the "Servant Songs."  We will get to the second song the following week.)

Anyway, here it is.  The title is probably going to be, "The Downpayment."

Isa. 44:24-45:8 (NIV)

"This is what the LORD says-- your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself, 25who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, 26who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, 'It shall be inhabited,' of the towns of Judah, 'They shall be rebuilt,' and of their ruins, 'I will restore them,' 27who says to the watery deep, 'Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,' 28who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid."'

45:1 "This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.  3I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.

5I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, 6so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. 8"You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the LORD, have created it.

February 6, 2012, 10:10 AM

An Illustration in Need of a Sermon Text!

That was a line I heard from a pastor friend:  "Hey, I've got this really great illustration..if only I could find a sermon text to go with it now!"

Hopefully that doesn't happen a whole lot in our pulpits!  But, when I was thinking through the flow of yesterday's message, this illustration just kept coming to the surface.  And, my response was, I really want to use it -- but, it is just too close to crossing the line that I have determined that I will never cross.

Alas, as the sermon got closer to completion, I realized that I was already past my self-determined sermon length boundary.  (I bet you didn't know I had one of those things, did you?!)  There just wasn't enough time to do the illustration.  In fact, I really didn't make any attempt to labor long on application.  I just stated them, and left the rest to you:  1) You are now a part of the Servant's Mission, becuase you have been adopted into the people of God and THE Servant of the Lord has paved the way; and 2) Patience now.  Shine where you are.  Love, forgive, and put more feet to the "love your neighbor as yourself" thing.  Do what you are gifted and called to do, whatever that vocation might be.  No matter what your calling, you are part of the Mission, as long as you are mindful of who you are supposed to be before the Lord.

Now, having said that, I present what I didn't say yesterday, by way of illustration.

When I was a student at Liberty University back in 1984, I remember the presidential election of that year.  Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory over Walter Mondale.  I'm not sure if the hapless candidate won his own home state of Minnesota.  Perhaps he did -- but nothing else.  Anyway.  I remember the atmosphere on campus that election night.  Giddy!  There were shouts of joy coming from the two TV rooms on campus.  The president's re-election signaled a time of renewal.  Revival!  No more abortion.  No more crooked government.  No more immorality in America.  Our Messiah had come!

How silly is that?  But, that's the way we were back in 1984 on a conservative, Baptist campus where we had the largest College Republicans chapter in the the country and Young Democrats numbered two people on campus.  I think they may have been in the federal witness protection program -- if, that is, they really did exist.  The dominant mindset on campus was that moral change could really come through political action.  We could get it done with the right amount of political muscle.

I couldn't help but see the same "religious" thing playing out when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.  The scene in that Chicago park on election night was eerily reminiscent to me.  The roles were reversed.  Now the Democrats were laying claim to the same silly expectations for their man as did Liberty students for Reagan back in 1984!

I told you -- the illustration was too dang close to the line!  Of course, I would have prefaced the whole thing with, "Now you Republicans here, don't get mad at me; and you Democrats, don't get too giddy."  And then, before talking about election 2008, I would have reversed the advice.  But I chose wisely to leave that stuff on the cutting room floor.

But, it does illustrate what I wanted to say in application.  Cal Thomas was recently interviewed by Table Talk magazine, and they asked him about religion and politics.  They asked him if he had any regrets about working with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the 80's.  He said this (Priceless):  “…followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, should not think that having the “right” person in office will somehow restore righteousness to a fallen and sin-infested world.  How can a fallen leader repair a fallen society?  He (or she) can’t.  Only God can do that through changed lives.  And lives can be changed only by the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it has always been so.”

Bingo!  This was my point about the Servant of the Lord finishing the Mission!  That was my point about where we are called to go as part of that Mission today.  Be patient!  Be hopeful.  Be encouraged.  Do what you are called to do.  Don't put the "messiahship" label on any one person or institution.  It belongs to the Lord, and the Lord alone!

February 2, 2012, 6:43 PM

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

This week, we finally get to look at one of the actual servant songs. The first one is in chapter 42 as I noted in the last blog entry. I will be covering the four verses of the poem, but, have decided to extend the preaching section to verse 12. It is just too rich not to talk about.

Let me tell you, this week has been glorious as I have been preparing for this message. It is quite incredible that these prophecies -- for that is truly what they are -- find their complete fulfillment in the person and ministry of Jesus, and yet there is still far too much scholarly hemming and hawing about it. Before I came to it afresh for this series, I was willing to walk softly about the matter. But as I look at it even closer, it is a shame that so much unbelief abounds in so-called biblical scholarship.

Let me be clear, there is no good reason for denying the identity of the servant of the Lord as Jesus Christ.  There.  I said it! The reason?  The context is so very telling. Israel was supposed to fulfill the mission -- be the light. They failed.  Oh yes, they did fail. These servant poems then, are taking it to another level altogether.  No way any mere human could fulfill this task now.  It is supernatural.  It is God-only stuff.

So...How in the world could anyone with all seriousness insist that the servant in these poems refers to the people of God collectively? Or, for that matter, any other historical personage put up outside of Jesus? That dog simply won't hunt!

As I was reading ahead to the fourth servant song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, probably the most well-known of the servant songs in our circles (...he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. -Isa 53:5 ESV), I was startled to find out that most Jews today are grossly unfamiliar with this passage. You see, the Jewish "lectionary," the Haftarah, ends at Isaiah 52:12 and doesn't pick up again until chapter 54 -- skipping the offending text.  Or perhaps they believe it too obscure to read publicly?  Whatever the reason, this powerful text doesn't even get a hearing in the synagogue.

Let me tell you, this could be a rich time together in worship!  Please pray for your preacher, that he might speak powerfully -- or should I better say, be USED powerfully!

January 31, 2012, 1:07 PM

Sermon Janus

Okay, I want to look backward and forward today.  Here's the backwards part.  Hopefully, we were able to connect on a vital point Sunday.  Forget active and passive obedience for a moment!  God's people were called to be the light of the world.  To be a kingdom of priests.  They didn't do that!  As we saw on Sunday, they had to be coaxed and wooed into the reality of their privileged call.  God, through Isaiah, tells them, "That's it -- you're out of here, 'cause you just don't get it!  Go into exile!"  That's the forst 39 chapters of Isaiah, by the way.

However, in the very next prophetic breath, God says beginning in Isaiah 40, I'm not going to give up on you.  I will bring you back, and it will be even better than it was before.  The job I gave you will get done.  I'll personally make sure that happens.  (My word never returns void!  Ever.)  And then, to vividly illustrate what he is going to do, God beigns speaking poetically about a special "Servant of the Lord" who will make it happen.  Uh, this is code language for Jesus, friends.

Here's the forward looking part:  In these servant song poems that we will be looking at (see previous blog entry), beginning with the first one in Isaiah 42:1-4 this upcoming Sunday, we will see what the obedient, faithful Israelite should look like.  In other words, what God's people SHOULD have been doing all along.  This is really cool stuff, these poems.  Jesus came to be Israel the right way, without the murmuring; the backbiting, the whoring after other gods and ways.  Minus the wilderness disobedience and on the positive side of the equation -- desiring the law like a honeycomb.  That was Jesus in our place.  That was Jesus for us.

I do want you to understand that even though Jesus has fulfilled the mission given to God's people, that doesn't mean that we are at the place where we can pack it up and go home.  Now, we have been invited into the job, riding on the coat-tails of the Servant of the Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The mission is the same -- and the results are STILL guaranteed, so to speak.  So when you read New Testament ethical exhortations, you may read them as an Israelite read Deuteronomy.  They are your light instructions!

We will keep hammering away at these little tidbits as we progress!  Here below is the text for this Sunday's sermon.  Please do drink it in, thinking as you go, how do I fit into this picture?  How can I reflect this light?

Isaiah 42:1-4  1 "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.  2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.  3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope." (NIV)



January 28, 2012, 11:25 AM

A Technical Note

I am so happy to have this blog to be able to unload stuff that would most likely go over like a lead baloon in the pulpit!

Tomorrow, I will be asking the question:  Why did Jesus have to come?  In answering the question, I introduce a concept that many will likely have never heard of -- or maybe never will care to hear again!

Most of the time, we think of Jesus coming solely in terms of his passive obedience: He came to die for our sins on the cross.  In dying, he passively let his life be given up for us, though he could have called down the whole heavenly host and spanked the Roman soldiers who treated him with contempt.

However, the often overlooked aspect of Christ's obedience is the active part.  Active in keeping God's plans for his chosen people:  Being the faithful servant who embodied God's ways for the world.  Part of Isaiah's purpose in his prophecies is to make Israel understand that they were called to this very mission to be God's light to the world.  The world was supposed to know God by the way that they carried themselves.  (Heavy stuff!)  They were to be God's special servants.  But since they had failed so miserably at the task, God would have to send his own servant to do what they would not (or could not) do.  He would send his one and only Son to show the way.

This message tomorrow will introduce the concept of the servant songs in Isaiah.  Isaiah has four of these majestic poems that describe what Jesus will accomplish (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).  Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies.  Jesus is THE Servant of the Lord.  Again, these were the things that Israel was called to do -- but didn't.

Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City had a interesting way of describing the active and passive obedience of Chirst in a quick, clever way:  "Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died!"

I want to draw to your attention as well to the way one of our confessional documents puts it.  Highlights added, of course.

The Book of Confessions:  The Confession of 1967 (9.08)

In Jesus of Nazareth, true humanity was realized once for all. Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, lived among his own people and shared their needs, temptations, joys, and sorrows.  [active:] He expressed the love of God in word and deed and became a brother to all kinds of sinful men.  But his complete obedience led him into conflict with his people.  His life and teaching judged their goodness, religious aspirations, and national hopes. Many rejected him and demanded his death.  [passive:] In giving himself freely for them, he took upon himself the judgment under which all men stand convicted.  God raised him from the dead, vindicating him as Messiah and Lord.  The victim of sin became victor, and won the victory over sin and death for all men.

January 23, 2012, 9:16 AM

Like An Alley Cat

As those words left my mouth yesterday in the pulpit, I was thinking, "uh, oh."  "Without Christ, people are like alley cats rumaging through the garbage cans looking for something, completely unaware of the stink around 'em."  Or something to that effect, anyway.  I know what I meant, but I'm sure a sensitive person could get offended.  I haven't heard from anybody yet, so maybe this one passed through unnoticed.

What I wanted to convey with the crass remark was this:  The world thinks its okay to go with whatever philosophy or way of life that seems to work.  Whatever shoe fits.  God must look on and think, "Dear child, why?"  "I've given you everything in my Son, and you'd rather go rifling through the dung pile?"  From my point of view, the world is full of sorrows and disappointments, but I know there is a better way.  How can we passively hear these incredible biblical witnesses to God's plans for the world and desire death in spite of it?  That's preacher thinking, I suppose.

January 19, 2012, 3:27 PM

The Gospel According to Isaiah

Things are still taking shape for the upcoming sermon series.  There will be ten sermons located in what some scholars have called "2nd Isaiah" -- chapters 40-55.  However, since I am a pastor who loses no perspiration in seeing the book as a cohesive unit when measured with the entirety of scripture, I will probably expand the sermon text limits to chapter 61:1-3 to be a righteous rebel!

What I will try to do in this series is to help you gain a better understanding of what Easter is all about.  What is the OT understanding of the coming of Jesus the Christ?  How does Easter help us to better understand the heart and purposes of God?  Why did Jesus have to die?  This last question is one in which we have all been taught to answer with a very simple answer:  To die for our sins?  Preaches well to the home team!  Well, why, someone might reasonably ask, did he have to die?  Couldn't God have been big enough to just declare forgiveness and let it stand at that?  I mean, demanding the death of his (one and only) son?

I hope that I will be able to tackle that question with a clear and compelling presentation.  Fortunately, I don't have to tackle that question until we get a little further into the series!

This Sunday, the text is Isaiah 40:1-5.  An introduction to the series, so to speak.  We have to consider some pretty bad news, but then we get to see the good news, shining brightly through, as God sets the stage for what he's about to do through his "servant."  This "servant" will begin to take center stage as we consider the so-called four "servant songs" of Isaiah.  These poems are found in Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12 (and 61:1-3 for the fifth!).

January 13, 2012, 10:30 AM

From the Planning Zone

Hello from somewhat warmer Florida! I am in the process of planning the preaching layout for the next ten weeks. What's in store? Well, Isaiah. Specifically, the Servant Songs towards the middle of the book. These are incredible poems describing God's plans for his people. God's plan of providing a savior who is not quite like a savior that you might imagine for a typical book. Anyway, we will break the mold of seven sermons and stretch it to ten. This will take us up to Palm Sunday. What a way to prepare for Resurrection Sunday! I will be leaking out my plans for the series as I get grip on where I want to go with this thing. Until then, I will be happily buried deep in the recesses of the RTS library!

January 6, 2012, 8:19 PM

Quote to Digest

Wanted to get this quote up ahead of time.  I will be using it on Sunday to remind our newly elected leaders of the essence of Christian leadership.  But, it is also good for all of us to chew on.  By the way, the book, Simply Jesus, is rich.  Consider its inclusion here on this blog to be a hearty, unqualified endorsement!

“The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing a great work.  It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’s kingdom in every way that they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task.  The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that—the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals—that is the moment when we are in gravest danger.”  [NT Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, (HarperOne, 2011) p.221.]

January 6, 2012, 10:20 AM

Scripture Overload

Inevitably, when you are trying to preach a sermon, there is far too much stuff to fit into a short period of time.  20 minutes, give or take a few strokes on either side of the divide, goes very fast!  And so, I realize that I will not be able to include all of the Scripture I want this Sunday.  The primary text is from Philippians 4:13.

In context, here is the full rendering:  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phi 4:12-13 ESV)

Here is the question that will be addressed Sunday:  What does it mean to say that you can do ALL THINGS through Christ?  Does this mean that I have hope afterall of playing in the NFL?  Does this mean that I can leave this job and take a more financially lucrative job of CEO of some big company?  How about taking up some musical instrument and becoming the best at it?  I mean, it says that I can do all things, doesn't it?

Take a look at these other passages that have some relationship to this thought:

  • See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. (Ex. 31:2-5 ESV)
  • Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.  Only be strong and very courageous….Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." (Josh. 1:6-9 ESV)
  • Because of your little faith.  For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matt. 17:20 ESV)
  • And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. (Matt. 21:22 ESV)
  • All things are possible for one who believes. (Mark 9:23 ESV)
  • As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5 ESV)
  • Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:24 ESV)
  • Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:4-7 ESV)
  • “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Cor. 12:9 ESV)
  • I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, (1 Tim. 1:12 ESV)
  • If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5-6 ESV) 

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